On the weekend we would have been playing at home to Norwich City, we recall a visit from the Canaries that coinced with the debut of a Chelsea star in the making...
Before the current pandemic hit football, Chelsea were scheduled to host Norwich this weekend. It has been a welcome but irregular fixture down the years, often remembered less for its importance in the wider scheme of things than for individual moments. That was certainly the case when Ron Saunders’ Canaries came calling on 26 October 1973.
Over the previous months Blues boss Dave Sexton had watched the new East Stand slowly rise, and his team’s success commensurately fall. He had fallen out with star players and in a few months Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood, and Dave Webb would be among the key departures from the Bridge.
The ambitious stand redevelopment had restricted attendances, helping reduce income that was already being sucked up the cost of labour and materials. Going into the visit of the Norfolk club, who were 20th of the 22 Division One clubs, Sexton turned to youth.
This was not the first time: Brian Bason, Gary Locke, Ian Britton, and Graham Wilkins had among a flock of fledglings launched the previous season. Now, though, he turned to Graham’s younger brother, 17-year-old Ray Wilkins, already rumoured to be a star in the making.
‘Although I’ve not made up my mind,’ the coach revealed in his pre-match conference, ‘the chances are that the brothers will both play. I’m confident they can serve Chelsea as well as the club’s other celebrated brothers since the war, Peter and John Sillett, and Ron and Allan Harris.’
This would be Graham’s second game, and handing Ray a debut could have been considered a gamble. Winless in five, Chelsea’s problem was not so much creativity and goals, but keeping the ball out of the net. The previous home game had ended 3-2 to Ipswich – their first ever taste of victory at the Bridge.
Ray, nicknamed ‘Butch’ by his father, former Brentford forward George, was all about craft and finesse rather than resolute defending. He had signed his first professional contract barely a week earlier. Chelsea’s youth team manager Ken Shellito had known Ray since he was 13 and knew the youthful ‘natural’ could deliver.
‘Ray is a midfield marshall in every sense,’ he explained, ‘a ball-winner, and one of the best passers of the ball on our books. He’s also got the knack of getting things organised around him, and making others play well.’ As it was, Sexton consigned his prodigy to the bench until Dave Webb was injured with 15 minutes remaining.
Instead, it was Chelsea’s old guard that knocked the Canaries off their perch. Hudson’s quick-thinking set Peter Houseman loose and the winger found Tommy Baldwin with a cross that was steered wide of Kevin Keelan; it might have been created in 1970 by the vintage Blues.
Hudson and Peter Osgood combined to set up the second, new boys Chris Garland and Steve Kember providing the final touches. And the third and final goal was knocked in by Baldwin after Keelan stopped Hudson’s fierce shot.
Seventeen minutes later the substitution was made and the teenage Wilkins brothers played in royal blue together for the first time in senior football. He played with maturity, sensibly within himself, but still showed signs of the qualities so admired by Shellito as the Blues registered the first victory in six weeks.
As with the other ‘double acts’ Sexton mentioned, one sibling was destined to have a greater impact than the other. Those were the first fifteen minutes of a brilliant 198 appearances for Chelsea by Ray, later followed by a lengthy spell in the coaching ranks. He died in April 2018, and is sorely missed by millions.
Click here to watch highlights of our most recent meeting with Norwich, a 3-2 win at Carrow Road back in August