Holborn, London. 6 January , 1978. Four Liverpool supporters, one sheepish Chelsea fan. The venue, the Princess Louise pub. “Sorry, mate, but you’ve got no chance. Chelsea are a toy town club with toy town players. We’re talking Liverpool football club, champions of Europe. And what have you got? Butch Wilkins and 10 others. Bonetti’s a good keeper, but he’s 105. Toy town, pal. And I hope that lanky bastard Bill Garner’s playing, ‘cos Joey Jones will have him for breakfast.”

There was no persuading them, no chance of reasonable debate about the outcome of the following day’s FA Cup third round tie between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. As far as they were concerned, London clubs were soft, their team was almost invincible and, in any case, it was Europe that really mattered. Liverpool, they insisted, were going to beat Chelsea with their eyes closed. Liverpool could field a second eleven and still win. Well, that was the script, but it was a narrative written on the streets of Merseyside rather than London SW6. 

At the halfway stage of the 1977-78 season, FA Cup success was all Chelsea could really hope for – that, and steering clear of relegation. Promotion from the second division in 1977 with a young team of hopefuls was the very least the club needed in order to keep banks, accountants and assorted creditors at bay. These were grim times for a club that only five years earlier had been among the top names in the Football League. 

Under Dave Sexton, Chelsea had enjoyed the most consistent period in their history, two trophies and three consecutive cup finals – no other manager had achieved that when in charge of an under-achieving club with huge potential support. 

Sexton’s career at Stamford Bridge tailed off, largely because of an over-ambitious rebuilding project that had been unfortunately timed. As Chelsea struggled to play in front of a three-sided ground notable for the skeletal shadow of a monumental new stand, the 1970s recession hampered the project’s costly completion. The departure of Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, both of whom had fallen out with Sexton, ripped the heart out of the team, and despite receiving half a million pounds from their sale, Chelsea struggled to replace them, on and off the pitch. 

Sexton left just seven months after the chairman Brian Mears sanctioned the departure of Osgood and Hudson, and the club limped on in 1974-75, appointing the loyal clubman Ron Suart as caretaker until eventually giving the job to Eddie McCreadie. Suart was last in charge against Manchester City on April 12, a game that had, according to the media, “the stench of despair” about it. In some ways, making a change at that stage of the season – just three games to go – hinted that Mears and his board had more or less accepted relegation was inevitable. 

Mears tried to spin the situation by claiming the club had some of the best youngsters around waiting to step up: Ray Wilkins, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston, Ray Lewington and Clive Walker.

McCreadie, with his dark glasses, slimline cigar and well-groomed appearance, looked a little like a Caledonian Malcolm Allison or perhaps the half-brother of 70s detective Jason King. He spoke confidently, provided Tommy Docherty-type soundbites and growled his commitment to the Chelsea youngsters, who would form the backbone of the team for the future. The fans loved him.

To emphasise his faith in players he had worked with in the reserves, McCreadie made a bold, forward-thinking appointment in making 18 year-old Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins captain. He also named an 18-year-old striker, Teddy Maybank, as his main frontman. Controversially, he dropped John Hollins and Steve Kember, his former teammates. Both players, along with Peter Houseman, would leave the club in the summer.

Chelsea lost the de facto relegation play-off against Tottenham and failed to win their last two home games against Sheffield United and Everton, two stale and cheerless 1-1 draws. Chelsea went down swigging champagne with McCreadie declaring that first-time promotion back would be “no sweat”. 

In 1975-76, Chelsea struggled to find their feet in the second division. They were big guns that smaller clubs, like Oldham Athletic, York City, Bristol Rovers and Orient loved to take points off. McCreadie’s young team eventually settled into a pattern, but this first year in unfamiliar surroundings was very much preparation for 1976-77. 

But the summer of 1976 was dire for Chelsea. The club’s relegation in 1975 coupled with disappointing attendances averaging under 19,000 meant Chelsea’s financial position had become even more precarious. When the news broke that one of London’s top clubs was close to bankruptcy, there was a sense of shock among the fans. 

This made the 1976-77 season vital for the club’s survival, although Steve Finnieston, a member of the squad whose career straddled the Osgood-Hudson era and the crisis, remains sceptical about the supposed talk of the club going under. “There’s no denying the club had major financial problems, but I have always felt that there was no way Chelsea would have been allowed to fold. Somebody, I am sure, would have come in and bailed us out.”

Clive Walker, recalling that period, remembers the feeling among the players when the details of the financial position became public. “We all knew the type of people that were on the board at the time and wondered how it was allowed to deteriorate so badly. Increasingly, the Chairman became less visible to us and was uncomfortable when people like Ron Harris, who was always a forthright character, would ask questions about the finances of the club.”

The players took a pay cut and promotion was won, thanks to some bright, inventive football, inspired by the midfield virtuosity of Wilkins, the 24 goals of Finnieston and stout defending by the likes of the towering blond centre-back Steve Wicks. But, as often happened with Chelsea, the self-destruct button was pressed in the summer of 1977. McCreadie, the architect of promotion, resigned over his personal terms of employment. 

Ray Lewington, who had been given his chance by McCreadie and was introduced to the first team in February 1976, saw his departure as a body blow to the club. “We were a very young team and we were going into the first division without the man who had done very well in getting us together as a proper team.”

Walker believes the situation was handled “dreadfully” but, to many people, the full story was never revealed and McCreadie has resisted the temptation to air the dirty laundry in public, and this happened in the days before mandatory non-disclosure agreements became commonplace. Some say it was over a pay rise, others believe it was linked to demands over a company car. McCreadie’s bluff was called and he left the club with some reluctance, apparently making a last-ditch bid to withdraw his resignation. It was too late, however, as Mears had already lined up a new manager.

Tommy Langley, like most of the squad, was on holiday when it happened and only found out long after the event. “We never even got to say goodbye to Eddie, someone to whom we owed a lot. It was a big blow, but we should have been able to handle it because the club appointed Ken Shellito as his successor, someone we all knew so well.”

Shellito had helped nurture many members of the squad, but he was a different proposition from McCreadie. “Ken was a quiet, laid-back fellow, whereas Eddie was a motivator who could make you feel like the best player in the world,” recalls Langley. 

While Langley wonders whether the team was too comfortable with Shellito, an avuncular figure who had been a mentor to many of the young players, and perhaps over-familiar to some of them, Walker believes the squad was totally aligned with the former youth coach. “He taught us all a lot and we had great respect for him.”

Chelsea returned to the first division, but found the transition difficult. Finnieston was injured early in the season and goals were hard to come by. Shellito raided the club’s young talent pool, a decision that yielded some results and brought some temporary relief. Trevor Aylott, described by Shellito as a player who “moves like Peter Osgood and is as brave as Ian Hutchinson,” scored two winning goals in a fortnight, against Bristol City and Nottingham Forest, but then struggled to find the net again in his brief Chelsea career. Then, in December, Shellito started the 19-year-old Clive Walker for the first time.

Walker was a player whose reputation had been spread by rumour over the course of the previous year. He had been scoring goals for fun in the reserves in 1976-77 and the handful of people who watched Football Combination games had been muttering about “a young lad who scores spectacular goals, is tricky and runs like an Olympic sprinter”. Devotees of the reserve team believed it was only a matter of time before McCreadie introduced Walker to the first team. In 1976-77, he was only used once, as a substitute at Oldham, as Chelsea closed in on promotion, but his time was fast approaching.

Walker inspired a mid-season flourish for Chelsea in 1977-78. Starting with a 3-1 win at Wolves, in which he scored twice, the introduction of this fleet-footed wide-man changed the dynamic in the first team.  As well as finding the net – four in six games – Walker also created chances for his teammates. Chelsea ended the year well with wins against West Ham and Birmingham and a draw against West Bromwich Albion. They were coming into some stable form just in time for the FA Cup. 

There was a snag, though. A lengthy FA Cup run would provide some financial relief, especially as home crowds had failed to maintain the 30,000 average enjoyed in 1976-77. But the third-round draw had paired the Blues with Liverpool, the Football League and European champions. Even in their current mood, one defeat in six, the task was onerous for Shellito’s youngsters. “We knew Liverpool were very good at the time, but when you look back on that period, you were talking about one of the best teams in the world. Household names in every position,” said Finnieston.

Although Liverpool were third in the table and five points behind leaders – and eventual champions – Nottingham Forest, they were formidable in every sense of the word. They were already in the semi-final of the League Cup and the last eight of the European Cup. This was Liverpool’s first post-Keegan campaign and they were still bedding in Kenny Dalglish, a very different player from his predecessor. Dalglish had made a good start to his Anfield career, scoring 13 goals before arriving at Stamford Bridge for the FA Cup tie.

“We were never in awe of them,” said Finnieston. “We respected them – you had to – but we didn’t fear them. There was a feeling that we were starting to find our feet and we were really up for the game. We couldn’t wait to get going and we truly believed that on our day we could beat anyone.”

But Chelsea would have to go into the game without their prized asset, the England international Wilkins. Ironically, his absence had coincided with Chelsea’s best spell of the season; he had last played on Boxing Day at Arsenal. He was not fit enough to face Liverpool, so Shellito brought in the veteran Charlie Cooke for what would prove to be his last game for the club.

Cooke was 35 years old and had barely featured in 1976-77 and 1977-78. As in the promotion campaign, when a mature head was needed to steady things, the old wizard of the dribble was recalled to play alongside Ray Lewington in the centre of midfield. Liverpool were without Terry McDermott and Jimmy Case, but their middle line comprised Ray Kennedy, Steve Heighway and Ian Callaghan. 

Lewington remembers that Shellito made a significant tactical change. “We adjusted our game plan. We normally played a diamond formation, but we went slightly more defensive with a 4-4-2 line-up. But we had Clive [Walker] and he proved to be the match winner on the day. Although any team misses its best players, the absence of Ray Wilkins didn’t affect us too much.”

There were very few obvious signs of nerves. “It was something of a David v Goliath clash and although we hadn’t been playing consistently, we were at home and we knew our support would give us an advantage. We were under no illusions, this was a huge game for us,” added Walker. 

On the terraces and in the stands, there was an air of tension. Usually, the role of people like Lewington was to win the ball and give it to the skipper to spray his passes around for the runners. Without their talismanic leader, how would Chelsea cope?

Langley underlines the close-knit nature of the squad as a key element in getting through any nerves and pre-match tension. “We grew up together. Nine of the team that faced Liverpool were home grown. Admittedly, Catty [Peter Bonetti] and Chopper[ Ron Harris] were youth team players long before the rest of us, but only Charlie [Cooke] and Bill [Garner] had been bought by the club. We always played for each other. We came out of the dressing room saying, ‘let’s do this’.”

Liverpool took the field, with Joey Jones, all long limbs, dashing out to greet the Liverpool fans, shaking his fist. As vaguely comical as this looked, there was a certain elegance to the way they ran onto the pitch. Liverpool had already played Chelsea twice that season, beating them 2-0 in both the league and the League Cup at Anfield. Chelsea’s team from the last meeting on October 9 had included John Phillips, Micky Droy, Ray Wilkins, Kenny Swain and Garry Stanley. All were missing from the team sheet for the FA Cup tie.

Given Walker had received good press in his early games, Bob Paisley decided that Jones would be switched from the left to the right to deal with Chelsea’s new find. It was a decision they would regret, and the game was to be Jones’s last in a Liverpool shirt.

Liverpool kicked off and looked as assured as European champions could possibly be playing against a struggling young team just up from the second division. An early chance went to David Fairclough, but Peter Bonetti, one of the last survivors from an era in which Chelsea revelled in the cut-and-thrust of major cup runs, pushed his shot aside, allowing Graham Wilkins to clear the ball.

Chelsea lacked nothing in energy and Tommy Langley went close when Hughes and Neal allowed him the space to run into the area and shoot high of Clemence’s goal. It was, in some respects, a foretaste of what was to follow with Langley’s pace irritating the Liverpool defence.

In the 16th minute, Walker threw the ball to Bill Garner, who controlled it and returned it to the number 11. He went past Jones and forced Thompson to flinch and get out of his way – “He really does look lively, Walker,” said ITV’s Brian Moore in his commentary. Walker then unleashed a left-foot drive that completely caught Clemence out. “I am sure Ray misjudged it,” recalls Walker. “The shot had a slight swerve – it was something I did, I almost always hit my shots across the ball and this time, the timing and power were absolutely right.”

Clemence’s reaction on the day was to put his head in his hands, and years after the game, whenever Walker and Clemence bumped into each other, Walker was sure that the former Liverpool keeper “struggled to look [him] in the eye”. Clemence redeemed himself just after the goal when he came out to meet Walker after Garner’s long ball had caught Liverpool out. At the opposite end, Bonetti was tested again with two trademark left-foot hammerings from Ray Kennedy. 

Chelsea were still a goal ahead at the interval, but most of the 44,000 crowd anticipated a second half onslaught from Liverpool. Five minutes into the restart, though, Chelsea extended their lead, Walker deftly chipping a free-kick into the penalty area, Phil Neal only partially clearing and the substitute Jock Finnieston, who had replaced Cooke, shooting low past Clemence. “Jock was brilliant at finishing in the box, always hungry and sharp,” said Walker. “That loose ball was made for him and he hit it so well.”

Finnieston had come on in the first half and was playing in an unfamiliar role – he had always previously been deployed as an old-fashioned centre-forward. “I’d never played in midfield before, but it was relatively easy to sit in that position, especially as we were on top for most of the game,” he remembers.

Within two minutes of that second goal, the game became even more unbelievable with Chelsea’s third. Ian Britton, scurrying down the flank in characteristic style, slipped past Emlyn Hughes but Neal robbed him via a back pass aimed at Clemence. The pass lacked power, though, and the eager Langley nipped in and clipped the ball into the net, over the goalkeeper’s sprawling body. “Phil played it back blind and was made to pay for it. But we knew it wasn’t all over – this was Liverpool, after all,” said Langley.

He believes Liverpool “woke up” after that third goal. David Johnson walked the ball into the net after 60 minutes to make it 3-1, but then Walker added a fourth five minutes later.

Britton sent over a high cross that evaded the Liverpool defenders and it fell onto the chest of Bill Garner. He could have tried a shot himself, but he unselfishly slipped the ball to his left, finding Walker who shot home from close range with his left boot. “I knew that was it, then. There were 25 minutes to go and we were 4-1 ahead. They were not coming back,” said Walker. They did score again, though, an 81st minute header from Dalglish after Heighway’s corner had been nodded on by Thompson. 

Right at the end, Emlyn Hughes got a little over-theatrical when Garner gave him a polite shove. He fell to the ground, as if shot by a sniper from the roof of the East Stand. Garner was never an angel and was prone to clumsy excess at times, but some Chelsea fans had never forgiven Hughes for his part in breaking Peter Osgood’s leg at Blackpool some 12 years earlier. 

The cheap acting didn’t matter, though: Chelsea had won against one of the pre-eminent names in European football. Had Paisley’s side underestimated Chelsea? Lewington: “Absolutely not. Liverpool were professional enough to know that any game can be difficult. I think they had a good go at it, but on the day it just fell for us.”

Langley remembers the dressing room being packed with “all sorts of people” as the team enjoyed its unexpected success. The players later retreated to the pub across the road from Stamford Bridge, the Rising Sun, now the Butcher’s Hook. “We were a bunch of young lads who had grown up together. We were mates. Basically, Clive was truly fearless that day – he was always a confident player but he tore Liverpool apart and broke Joey Jones’s heart. A truly great day,” he said.

Sadly, that Chelsea team didn’t have many great days, the game with Liverpool, effectively, the zenith of its achievement. In some ways, it was the final flickering of the 70s flame that refused to reignite until the late 1990s. Chelsea fans endured some desperate times in the five years that followed their triumph over Liverpool, although in 1982 they beat the Reds again in the Cup.

In the next round of the FA Cup in 1978, Chelsea disposed of Burnley 6-2 with Walker again on form. The fifth-round draw was relatively kind, an away tie at Orient, but after a 0-0 draw, they slipped up at home, losing 2-1. “We probably underestimated Orient as we started to think we could go all the way to Wembley,” reflects Walker. “But we came up against Peter Kitchen in the replay, who scored twice to knock us out – it was one of those FA Cup stories of somebody coming good in the competition.”

Ensuring the team stayed in the first division was important and a few weeks later Chelsea beat Liverpool again, this time 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. Finnieston scored twice. “It’s incredible but I scored four times against Liverpool and Ray Clemence in my career. People forget the first of the four at Anfield, a long-range chip [in 1974-75] that ranks among the best I ever scored, but they remember those games at the Bridge.”

Finnieston, who had to work hard to convince both Dave Sexton and Eddie McCreadie of his worth, would leave Chelsea at the end of 1977-78. “I had a bad season due to injury and was called in to see Ken [Shellito] who told me some clubs had been in for me, including Sheffield United and Queens Park Rangers. I thought it was a little strange, as I had never been the subject of any interest, but I just wanted to play and I didn’t want to be on the sidelines, so I went to meet [the United manager] Harry Haslam. Eventually, I agreed to go – the club got £90,000 and I had a fresh start to look forward to. Sheffield United were trying to build something at the time and it could have been exciting.”

The new challenge didn’t last long as injury struck again. He was still young when he had to call it a day. Even now, he is an unassuming man who remains popular with the fans. “I always considered it was a privilege to have played football, a game I loved, and get paid for doing so,” he said.

Tommy Langley had been a season ticket holder at Chelsea from the age of five. He loved the club, but he fell out of contract in 1980 and made the decision to sign for neighbouring QPR. “The worst decision of my life,” he now admits. Langley was top scorer at Chelsea in 1977-78 and 1978-79 and his non-stop running made him highly respected on the terraces and in the stands. 

Lewington has enjoyed a managerial career that has included stints with Fulham, Watford, Brentford, Crystal Palace and as assistant manager of England. Often under-rated, but always appreciated by teammates, his Chelsea career ended in 1978.

Walker, meanwhile, remained at Stamford Bridge until 1984 when he moved to Sunderland. He later played for QPR, Fulham and Brighton, before turning out in non-league football with Woking and Cheltenham, where he performed with style and distinction.

In Chelsea’s darkest time, he represented one of the few remaining links with the past and also provided some hope for the future. In a more successful period, Clive Walker may have gone on to true greatness. As it was, he played at a time when money was scarce and talent diminished as fast as the size of Stamford Bridge attendances.

Chelsea went through a succession of managers, with Shellito being replaced by Danny Blanchflower in December 1978, just a few months before another even more dire relegation season. Then came Geoff Hurst and John Neal, with the latter being given the licence to build a new team, thanks to the investment made by Ken Bates, who arrived at Stamford Bridge in 1982 as the Mears era came to an end. Players like Walker were deemed to be part of “old Chelsea” rather than the brave new future being constructed by the new chairman and his manager.

“I didn’t really click with John and after getting injured at the start of 1983-84, it had become obvious the time was right to move. I have some great memories of my Chelsea career, but obviously 7 January 1978 stands out.”

On the short walk back to Fulham Broadway tube station, shuffling through the papier-mâché of discarded newspapers and police horse dung, the Liverpool fans from the Princess Louise were visibly shocked. “No disrespect pal, but shipping four goals to a team like Chelsea is an absolute disgrace. An absolute bloody disgrace.” There was disrespect in his tone and, if only he realised it, theirs was really no disgrace. Chelsea were outstanding for 90 memorable minutes and if it wasn’t for Liverpool’s inept performance, they might not have signed Graeme Souness, as they did a few days later, for a record fee of £325,000. Given what happened in the years that followed with the tigerish Scot in their midfield, Chelsea and Clive Walker may well have helped change football history that bitterly cold January afternoon.