Alan Birchenall

Former Player Remembers: Alan Birchenall At Chelsea

Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall (MBE, Honorary Doctor of Law and Freeman of the City of Leicester), speaks to Club Historian John Hutchinson about playing for Chelsea between 1967 and 1970.
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Earlier this month, sitting in his impressive office at the magnificent LCFC Training Ground, Birchenall, who has played such a prominent part in the Club’s history over the last 53 years, spoke about his three-year spell in west London.

‘Birch’ began by describing how his move to Chelsea from Sheffield United came about. He had played as a striker for the Blades in the old First Division since his debut against Stoke City in September 1964 and by the time he moved to Chelsea in November 1967, he had played over 120 games for the club, scoring 37 goals.

“At Sheffield United, I’d played alongside a great player, Mick Jones," he began. "Don Revie, who was putting together a great Leeds side, offered to buy us both for £100,000 each, which was a very big fee in those days. But Sheffield United wouldn’t let us both go and Don Revie picked Mick Jones.

“Two months later, (in November 1967) Chelsea’s new manager Dave Sexton came in for me. I was put in a room at Bramall Lane without a phone and when the door opened John Harris, (the Sheffield United manager) brought in Dave Sexton. We went to a hotel for dinner. There were no agents then.

“Dave Sexton sat opposite me and told me Chelsea had made a substantial bid for me. He then asked me what I thought the bid for me was. I said ‘£20,000? £30.000?’. He kept moving his arms up. I got to about £60,000 and then he told me the bid was for £100,000! The first thing I thought was he’d got the wrong player! I couldn’t believe it! We agreed terms.

“I was offered more or less double what I was earning at Sheffield United. It was a king’s fortune for me! I’d loved it at Sheffield. It’s a great city and Sheffield United were a great club, but I couldn’t not go to Chelsea. It was a great opportunity and Mick (Jones) had gone to Leeds.

“I drove down to Chelsea in my Triumph Spitfire. As I was driving down Kings Road I suddenly thought, ‘Where is Stamford Bridge? Where is it?’ There was a trader, selling veg and stuff like that, so I wound my window down and asked him, ‘Excuse me. Could you tell me where Stamford Bridge is?’  He said, in a cockney accent, ‘Cor blimey mate! You’re that latest signing aren’t you? You’re Birchenstuff from Sheffield!

“Just go over the hump there and it’s on your right. My God! If you can’t find Stamford Bridge, how are you going to find the net!’ That was my introduction to Chelsea. I wound the window up, went over the hump and I was there.

“The training at Chelsea was a step up really. Dave Sexton, who I got on with very well, was more of a coach than a manager. In my first couple of weeks at Chelsea he kept me behind after training. He put a bag of balls by the corner flag. He then put another corner flag on the goal line about a yard from the near post. Then he told me to take some corners. I thought, ‘I play up front. I would never take a corner!’.

“He then told me to bend in my corner kicks between the near post and the flag on the goal line. I was there for about an hour. I got nearer and nearer and then I did it! He then asked what I’d learnt and I said, ‘How to bend a ball from a corner.’ He replied, ‘You’ll never take a corner for me but that was a trial to get you in the mindset that you can do something like that’. I learnt a lot from Dave Sexton."

‘Chopper’ came in heavily and clattered me! I went up in the air. We were playing on concrete and when I came down I was dazed.

Alan 'The Birch' Birchenall on Ron 'Chopper' Harris

In his three years at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea finished sixth, fifth and third in the old First Division and won the FA Cup in 1970. 

Birchenall continued: “When I moved to Chelsea, the great Peter Osgood looked after me. He was known as the King of Chelsea.  He was a god-like figure down there. He sorted a property out for me. He lived in Windsor and I lived in Ascot. We travelled in to training together each day and we became great friends. I admired his skill. He had more skill in his little finger than I had in my whole body.

“Dave Sexton left him out of the side on one occasion and switched me to his No.9 position. It was Ossie’s turn to drive that day. We were mates but on the way home, going down the M4, I sat there and I was so embarrassed because I’d taken his number for the game the next day. I couldn’t hold a candle to his ability.

“There’s a statue of Ossie at Stamford Bridge now. When he passed away (in 2006), the groundsman dug a hole at the penalty spot at the Shed End of the ground and placed the casket containing his ashes there. All the team from his era gathered round. It was a very poignant day. Every time I see a game at Stamford Bridge, Ossie’s there. People don’t know these stories.

“Peter Bonetti, the goalkeeper, was ‘The Cat’. He was so slim and agile. At Sheffield United, our goalkeeper Alan Hodgkinson, an England international, was terrific but ‘The Cat’ was different class. He was brilliant. I’ve been lucky in my career with goalkeepers because later at Leicester we had Peter Shilton and Mark Wallington.

“Chelsea’s left-back was Scotland international Eddie McCreadie. He was as blind as a bat! He couldn’t see. He struggled under the floodlights. He wore glasses, although he wore contact lenses when playing. We also had (centre-back) David Webb, who took no prisoners.

“Then there was Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris of course. He did me in my first training session on the little forecourt at Stamford Bridge on the day before my debut at Sunderland. It was a light session just knocking the ball about. Bonetti pinged the ball to me. ‘Chopper’ came in heavily and clattered me! I went up in the air. We were playing on concrete and when I came down I was dazed.

“As I came round, ‘Chopper’ was leaning over me and said, ‘Welcome to Chelsea!’. I looked at Dave Sexton who said ‘he does it to all the new boys, just to test them’. Ossie said, ‘It’s a good thing you didn’t retaliate. He doesn’t like that. ‘Chopper’ is still at Stamford Bridge today as one of the matchday hosts. A great character. He was a law unto himself.

“And then there was winger Charlie Cooke. If you’re mentioning £100M transfers today, Osgood and Charlie Cooke would be £150M each. ‘Hudders’ (Alan Hudson) was another one who seemed to be a law unto himself.

“That’s what Dave Sexton had to put up with: strong characters and I don’t mean that nastily. After his first couple of games, ‘Hudders’ just exploded into this guy who was taking on people and going past them as if they weren’t there. He was just a joy to watch.”

You couldn’t write the script. I’d just been saved when I’d died for seven minutes after my heart attack on the Thursday and two days later on the Saturday, Leicester played Chelsea at home.

Alan 'The Birch' Birchenall

Birch had a successful three seasons at Chelsea but his biggest disappointment was missing Chelsea’s FA Cup Final victory over Leeds United in 1970 due to injury.

“We were playing against Wolves in a night game,” Birchenall remembered. “I went up for a header to flick on. It wasn’t intentional but I was knocked to the ground and as I got up I noticed that my white sock was red! Blood was pouring out from a big gash on the top of my knee. The scar is still there today.

“There was also mud in the gash because the Stamford Bridge pitch was muddy and heavy. In the dressing room the club doctor tried to clear the mud out. They couldn’t give me pain killers so I had two bits of rolled bandage in my hand that I was squeezing while they put three stitches in to try to keep my skin together because the gash was so big.  

“Then they carted me off to St Stephen’s Hospital. The club doctor went with me. They wheeled me into the operating theatre. By this time it was about 10:30pm. The surgeon asked me if I minded if some students watched. I was laying there under the lights in my Chelsea shirt and shorts, with my socks and boots off, with all these students gathered round.

“As the surgeon was working on me he was explaining to them what he was doing and I was thinking: ‘Oh my God, put the painkillers in!'. After about half an hour they wheeled me back to a ward. Only my wife Heather was allowed to see me at first because I was under light sedation. Later, the lads came in. Ossie and Chopper sneaked in some bottles of beer and put them under my bed. 

“I missed the FA Cup Semi-Final. Alan Hudson and myself also missed the final against Leeds. We were with the team though. I remember walking from the dressing room onto the renowned Wembley pitch but it wasn’t what we expected. It had been ruined the week before by the Horse of the Year Show. We drew and then won the replay at Old Trafford. Webby and Ossie scored.

“In the dressing room everyone was ecstatic and I was too for the boys but deep inside I thought, ‘I missed that. Will it happen again?’. I was on the open top bus parade down the Kings Road to the Town Hall and I was trying to enjoy it all, but if I’m honest I was gutted because I’d missed playing. So was Huddie (Alan Hudson). He was worse than me because he’d only been injured the week before. At least I’d got my head round the fact that I wouldn’t be playing as my injury had been some time before.”

Birchy transferred to Crystal Palace in June 1970, and just over a year later joined Leicester City. He still has links with Chelsea though. Every Christmas he gets a Fortnum and Mason hamper from the club. He can have a seat in a box at Stamford Bridge twice a year.

He was also extremely touched when at Leicester City's home game against Chelsea, two days after his devastating heart attack in January 2017, Chelsea fans joined Leicester City fans in an emotional tribute to him.

“I make no bones about it,” Birch reflected. “You couldn’t write the script. I’d just been saved when I’d died for seven minutes after my heart attack on the Thursday and two days later on the Saturday, Leicester played Chelsea at home.

“I used to wear the number 10 shirt and ten minutes into the game, the whole 32,000 crowd, including the Chelsea fans, held up their phone lights as a gesture of support. I was watching this in hospital on the TV. It was very emotional. I have a picture of this on my desk and also a video of this.”

Birchy concluded by saying: “I still have a connection with Chelsea, but I’ve been adopted by Leicester City. The Club is central to my life. I’ve been here since 1971 and to this day I give 100 per cent to my role as the Club’s Ambassador for Life.”

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