Chelsea in crisis: How a tense week in Blackpool ended the Blues' title hopes

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Sports journalist Martin Claytor looks back on a season which unraveled for Chelsea

A title-chasing team; player unrest; headline controversy and a manager determined not to back down. Not another 2012 Chelsea saga - this was the finale to Chelsea’s dramatic 1964-65 season.

Roberto Di Matteo may have been forced to tread a diplomatic path around the controversies that dogged his eight-month tenure as Chelsea manager, but he should be grateful to have not been confronted with the type of problem faced by one of his illustrious predecessors. A situation that killed off any chance of bringing the first league title to Stamford Bridge in ten lean years. 

In 1965, Chelsea were nearing the end of their second season back in the old First Division. Nicknamed ‘Docherty’s diamonds’, after their charismatic manager, the team was on course for an unprecedented ‘treble’. Tommy Docherty had assembled a young squad built around players from the youth system, such as Terry Venables, and astute buys, like George Graham and Eddie McCreadie.

The Chelsea squad pose at the start of the 1964/65 season

Playing attractive football, the team first secured the League Cup – beating Leicester City 3-2, over two legs. However, despite this success and the fact that they had led the league table for much of the season, the pressure was starting to tell on the players as March and April came around. Despite being favourites, a semi-final defeat to Liverpool put an end to FA Cup hopes and a slump in league form saw the team drop to third in the table with three games to go.

As the tension rose, Docherty’s volatile temperament clashed with the views of some of the more outspoken members of the side. Hints of dressing room unrest and of players ignoring the manager’s tactics on the field were beginning to undermine Docherty’s position.

With three matches to go, Chelsea lay two points behind the leaders, Manchester United, with Leeds in second place. Two points for a win at the time meant that there was still every chance that the title race was in the balance – despite Chelsea’s last three fixtures all being away  and having to be played in one week.

As all three matches were to be played in the north-west, at Liverpool; Burnley and Blackpool, Docherty decided to base the team in the area for the whole week – setting up a training camp in Blackpool. It seemed a good idea, but the side was heading for meltdown. Pictures in the press showed an apparently relaxed group of players, in their distinctive training kit of hooped tops and striped shorts, enjoying the break - the reality was very different.

The week started badly, with a 2-0 defeat at Liverpool on the Monday further damaging their title hopes. With five days to go before the next game, frustration started to set in – the players began to get bored with the surroundings and resented the restrictions being placed upon them.

Docherty's strict managerial style may have back-fired

In the middle of the week, the dam burst. Desperate for a night’s entertainment, eight of the squad sneaked out of the team’s hotel – leaving a fire door open for their eventual return beyond the late evening curfew time. Unfortunately for them, they hadn’t bargained on a sharp-eyed night porter spotting the door and informing Docherty of his suspicions that the players were missing.

Like a cartoon wife waiting behind the door for her husband to return from a late session at the pub, the manager stayed up until the culprits arrived back in the early hours of the following morning. Fearing that his authority was in danger of being destroyed, Docherty decided upon drastic action.

His decision was stunning. All eight players, including seven key first team members – Venables, Graham, McCreadie, John Hollins, Marvin Hinton, Barry Bridges and Bert Murray were sent home for breaking the curfew. Reserve team player, Joe Fascione joined the seven.

From headlining title hopes during the previous few days, the London evening papers were torn between commending or questioning Docherty’s stance. Nevertheless, the damage was done. With a team made up of remaining first teamers, reserves and virtual unknowns – including two players who only ever played for the club in this one match, the side was thrashed 6-2 at Burnley on the Saturday. Their championship hopes were over.  

Restored to the team and apparently forgiven, six of the eight returned for the final match two days later. With nothing to play for and unrest still simmering below the surface, the season ended with a 3-2 defeat at Blackpool and confirmation of third place in the table.

A miffed Venables arrives at Euston station, having been sent home

Could such an event on a similar scale happen again today? The chances are slim to non-existent – and even that’s being generous. While Sir Alex Ferguson and other managers have disciplined individuals for curfew breaches in recent years, there has been nothing like Docherty’s actions since.

A top four Premier League finish today, let alone the top spot, brings the promise of huge potential financial rewards. To run the clubs and to stay at this level, the money is vital. Fans expect success; the wage bills are large and the owners demand results. As with other aspects of the job, this has meant a subtle change in the delicate relationship between managers and players. It is almost impossible to imagine a manager willing to take such a risk today – particularly during the run-in to possible honours. Discipline may be there, but is usually dealt with internally – although unrest may remain.  

In 1965, Docherty survived as manager because of influential support for his actions. Chelsea’s chairman backed him completely, while other managers spoke out in support. At a time when society was becoming more liberal, football club chairmen were fighting to retain complete control over their players and welcomed this disciplinary approach. Burnley’s autocratic chairman, Bob Lord, was particularly outspoken in his praise of Docherty – not too difficult to do when your team has thumped six goals past title contenders. Docherty also did not have to face the type of media interest so evident today – although he might have relished the weekly press conference had it been around then.

While his job was never in danger, Docherty’s relationship with various players deteriorated after Blackpool and discontent continued to rumble in the dressing room. Within a fairly short time, Venables and Graham had left the club – along with a number of other players. Docherty started to rebuild the team – a task he was unable to see through to completion. Two years later, he resigned – having been suspended by the FA for 28 days. Ironically, for disciplinary reasons following a club tour to Bermuda during the summer.    

Venables went on to manage England; Graham became a manager renowned for strong discipline while McCreadie and Hollins would both later manage Chelsea. Would they have had a little bit of sympathy with any of their players occasionally stepping out of line? Perhaps they might have allowed themselves a wry smile before reading the riot act.