It’s strange that it is rarely mentioned that players, past and present, are never asked to talk about their favourite and least favourite stadiums. Or you might say, grounds where you had no luck or couldn’t do anything right, however you go about it. For instance, I never put a foot right on Merseyside as hard as I tried and in the end, I think I tried too hard – if that makes any sense.
This made even less sense in my last match in this special city as our Arsenal team were going about our business very well, containing a very good Liverpool side in the semi-final of the 1978 League Cup. We were in control on the left side of the pitch attacking the Anfield Road end, and I had the ball just inside their half and Sammy Nelson came on my outside. I rolled it to him and I can only think he took his eye off the ball. With Sammy having a very long stride, it clipped his heel and went astray. Phil Neal then hoisted the rebound forward and Ray Kennedy got the undeserved winner against his old club.
We travelled back to London that night and this went through my head a thousand times, almost hauntingly. We should have won the second leg when Supermac went through only to lob Ray Clemence and watch the ball go sailing inches past of the post. That year, had we got our just rewards in the tie we would have gone to Wembley twice, as we reached there in the FA Cup against Ipswich Town, again like with Malcolm, as Karen Carpenter sang “so close and yet so far.”
Anyhow, going back, I was a Fulham supporter as a kid and always wanted to play with Johnny Haynes (who actually presented our Chelsea Boys Club Under-14s with the cup and medals at Craven Cottage in 1964). I was twelve and played for my father in that team, and that stood me in good stead in the years to come. His understanding of inside-forwards was the reason that the Number 10 shirt was so very prominent in my football life, as all the ‘greats’ wore it. From Pele (although a striker), Haynes, Puskas and Suarez abroad, right onto George Eastham, whose shirt I wore at Stoke City. Even going back to Len Shackleton, who my father told me about, the man who was seen playing a one-two off the corner flag at Stamford Bridge – now that’s a maverick.
So, it was Chelsea Boys Club where I learned my trade, playing in the backstreets of Chelsea close to the Chelsea power station. My father didn’t coach me as such, more like explained the game and took me to watch others like Eastham at Arsenal and John White at Spurs. Then it was Tommy Tranter at Kingsley Secondary Modern, a great PE master who lived for football and coached the West London Schoolboy team that I captained. The highlight of those days was when our Under-14 team were drawn against Islington in the London Schoolboys Cup at Highbury. It was something of a different world as us boys walked in on a freezing North London night to find underfloor heating, wow!
On this particular evening, they had a kid named Charlie George, and it was easy to see he was going to be a player as he was so big and strong. Funny how five years later we were both going to make an impact in the big time, although Charlie’s was far more dramatic, scoring that famous thunderous right-footer past Ray Clemence in the FA Cup final, which put Arsenal on the way to their first League and FA Cup Double. It was also ironic that both Charlie and I made such an impact going north of Watford, he to Derby County while I was ‘strutting my stuff’ at Stoke City, as was Tony Currie at Sheffield United. We were the only three Londoners to go north and make a great impact because it was, in those days, the other way round, as you’ll go on to read.
But it was the Chelsea Boys Club that was my stepping stone to glory, although in those days no Chelsea boy had ever made it to the top. It took Billy Hudson to take me through those big gates at the Bridge after Fulham turned me away for being undersized (too small). I found that rather bizarre as that year I had watched Alan Ball score a hat-trick at the Cottage for Blackpool, and we were the same size. That was not long before the 1966 World Cup as I was closing in on my 15th birthday, and from then on AB became my number one player, so to play alongside him was such a treat. When the roof blew off at Stoke City I joined Arsenal and, although I never wanted to leave Stoke, the consolation was teaming up with Ball and Brady, or so I thought. It turned out I was bough to replace the brilliant Ball.
My first game was on 1st February 1969 against Southampton in a 5-0 defeat, where a hero and great friend of mine from his Fulham days (I was a Fulham supporter back then) John Dempsey also made his debut. Strangely in this game, my later boss for the Seattle Sounders in the NASL, Jimmy Gabriel, that great Everton and Scotland wing-half, went ‘over the top’ with a vicious tackle. But that wasn’t a big deal as I was a young, naive inside-forward. The game was a total disaster and I only played because Osgood, Cooke, Baldwin and Boyle were caught ‘drunk’ in a restaurant next to the Bridge on the Friday before the match.
Moving on six months (September) when Chelsea began the season indifferently and I was thrown in at the deep end at my all-time favourite stadium, White Hart Lane.
This was to become ‘my ground’. I played well that night, stayed in the team and was outstanding in that FA Cup semi-final in the demolition of Watford, which took us to Wembley in 1970. John Dempsey and I had made great strides looking back to the other demolition, Southampton. I scored the winner at the Lane in the second leg of the League Cup in the very last minute in 1972, which took us back to Wembley, and scored again in Stoke City’s first-ever win on the ground in 1975, in a match where afterwards Tony Waddington said, “Alan Hudson will play for the World XI before he does this country” and somebody in Fleet Street listened. It hit the headlines and I got selected against the Germans.
I often wonder if I should have been a Spurs player, such did I feel at home there, and to have lined-up alongside the likes of Greaves, Gilzean and captain Dave Mackay, which would have been something of a dream. Instead, it was Osgood, Cooke and McCreadie at the Bridge. These were the days when those great Scots were looked on as a ‘Johnny Foreigner’. The likes of Cooke and Gilzean on this night, Denis Law and Paddy Crerand at Manchester United, Bremner, Lorimer and Gray at Leeds, Graham and McLintock at Arsenal and then the ongoing Shankly effect at Liverpool from Souness to Dalglish.
But it was at White Hart Lane on the September of 1969 where it all started, when I ran out to see Jimmy Greaves, a bigger hero whose number eight shirt I was proud to wear. We drew this match after David Webb scored from the exact same spot that he did in the FA Cup semi-final, another six months on against Watford, in a 5-1 thrashing of Elton John’s team. He scored from a corner that I’d clipped in, and it was flicked on by none other than John Dempsey at the near post. These corner kicks were my forte, as I used to practice hitting the runner at the near post (I scored from a couple of corners). Hitting the first man, (in this case, Dempsey), a flick on and Webby came in like a runaway train – 1-0 after three minutes – as I say, in that exact same spot. The reason I mention ‘hitting the first man’ is that we don’t see that in the modern game, most players hit the first man but it’s a defender. It really amazes me coaches or managers don’t see this.
As a young boy, my father took me and my elder brother John, also a Chelsea apprentice, to Spurs whenever he could on a Wednesday night. So this particular Wednesday was nothing new to me, as I ran out and felt at home, considering it was my ‘real’ debut after my only other match, a five-goal thrashing which put me under the most intense pressure. My previous experiences here was watching the Spurs Double-winning team as a 10-year-old. Apart from my outstanding performances there, it was Spurs 13-2 thrashing of Crewe in an FA Cup replay that really made this place so special for me, having said that I never saw a single one of the 15 goals from my vantage point on my father’s shoulders. If only I was a young Peter Crouch.