Former Player Remembers: Alan Birchenall

On Sunday, Club Ambassador Alan Birchenall, (MBE, Honorary Doctor of Law and Freeman of the City of Leicester) will embark on his 35th Annual Charity Run before the match against Queens Park Rangers.
A fixture at Leicester City for the last 44 years, ‘The Birch’ recently talked to Club Historian John Hutchinson about life before Leicester City, in particular his time at Chelsea. 

Birch signed for the Foxes in 1971 with a formidable reputation forged at the highest level with Sheffield United, Chelsea and Crystal Palace. An England Under-23 international, he was one of the first players to command a £100,000 fee when he was Dave Sexton’s first signing at Chelsea in 1967. In his three years at Stamford Bridge, he played nearly 100 games. 

Birch began by explaining how he came to sign for Chelsea. 

“Don Revie, (the Leeds manager) wanted to sign me and Mick Jones, my strike partner at Sheffield United, for a combined fee of £200,000, but John Harris (Sheffield United’s manager) wouldn’t let us both go. Mick went and I stayed but about six weeks later, John, who had played for Chelsea, told me to go to the Secretary’s office at Bramall Lane. He locked me in alone and disconnected the phone. Half an hour later Chelsea’s new manager Dave Sexton walked in and told me he wanted me to be his first signing. A car took us to lunch at Hallam Towers in Sheffield. I thought I’d be all athletic, so I just had soup. Dave Sexton asked me how much I thought he was going to pay for me. I started guessing at £20,000. He kept raising his hands so I guessed £30,000 and then £40,000 and so on until I reached £100,000. I was thinking he had got the wrong man! I had goose bumps inside. I was only about the third or fourth player to command a fee like that! I felt overwhelmed! 

"My first training session at Chelsea was on Stamford Bridge’s concrete forecourt in an 8-a-side game. Peter Bonetti pinged the ball to me. I wanted to make a good impression with my first touch but I never touched the ball. The next thing I know I am laying on my back with ‘Chopper’ Harris saying ‘Welcome to Chelsea!’ I didn’t retaliate! I scored at Sunderland on my Chelsea debut. Everything was different from Sheffield United. Even the kit was lighter and less cumbersome. I made the mistake of telling a Woman’s Own reporter that the difference between the two Clubs was like going from Wuthering Heights to the bright lights of Kings Road. I got slaughtered for that comment in Yorkshire! But Kings Road in 1967 was where any young man or woman wanted to be! I was a very lucky guy to be going to Chelsea. All of a sudden I was with all these top players like Osgood, Hollins, Cooke, McCreadie and Bonetti. I was punching above my weight. 

"I was with better players than me, even though I’d gone here for a lot of money and expectations of me were high. I became big friends with Ossie (Peter Osgood). I lived at Ascot and he lived at Windsor and we drove in together. I had a Daimler/Jaguar with wooden veneer inside and leather seats. One day Dave Sexton left Ossie out of the team. On the journey home I was so embarrassed because he had more talent than me in his little finger! I was like a watercarrier or journey man. 

"I played at the highest level for 14 years, but I had to compensate for my lack of extra class by working my nuts off, allied to the skill I had. Dave Sexton was light years ahead of any other coach at the time. Tactically he was brilliant. His innovation was outstanding. Managers like Busby, and Shankly used to be motivators, rather than coaches. Dave Sexton was a pure coach. My three years at Chelsea put thirty years on my life. 

"It was the Swinging Sixties. I was beguiled. In my first week I had an agent who got me contracts for various things. He took me to club called the Bag of Nails and when I walked in, there were a couple of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones there. One day I went to the agent’s office in Grosvenor Square. It was padlocked. He’d run off with my money. He had shafted me and three or four other players. Chelsea was the showbiz side. Every two or three weeks Richard Attenborough, the President, would bring celebrities into the changing room only 30 minutes before kick-off! He brought along the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin, Charlton Heston and Steve McQueen. It used to drive Dave Sexton potty! 

"When he brought Raquel Welch, she asked us to a party after the game at the Grosvenor. Ossie and I decided to pop in for an hour on our way home. When we got there we weren’t let in to start with as we didn’t have an invitation card, but as we were leaving we saw Raquel who took us in. The Beatles and the Stones were there. Ossie and I got home at five o’clock on Sunday afternoon! I was injured for Chelsea’s 1970 FA Cup Final against Leeds. I’ve still got the nasty scar. I went for a ball in a night match at the Bridge. As I looked down I could see my knee cap hanging out and the blood was gushing out, turning my white sock red. I was in St Stephen’s Hospital for 10 days. I wasn’t fit enough for the Final. Alan Hudson and I sat it out, but Dave Sexton involved us in the Cup Final Squad. 

"The Wembley pitch was a huge disappointment. It had been ruined by the Horse of the Year Show the previous week. In the replay at Old Trafford, it has been documented that if the game had been played today there would only have been three players left on the pitch at the end. The game was like the Third World War. Osgood and Jack Charlton had a hate relationship. They had Bremner, Charlton, Hunter had Giles. We had ‘Chopper’ Harris. 

"Leeds used to expose the nails on their studs. In one game at Chelsea, Billy Bremner stood on me leaving four imprints in my forehead. I can still feel it when it’s cold today. After the game, I needed to get to Nottingham for a wedding. Bremner finished up giving me a lift to the station. Smoking a cigarette, he never said a word in the car until I got out, all blooded and bandaged. Then he said, 'Take care of that. It looks a bit nasty!'

"During my injury, Ian Hutchinson established himself in my place. I wanted to play every week, as did (Chelsea legend) Bobby Tambling. Crystal Palace, newly promoted to the top flight, came in for us both and we decided that if one of us signed for Palace we both would. The day before we signed, Bobby Robson at Ipswich wanted to sign me, but I didn’t quite fancy going that far into the country. I had 18 months at Palace. I was top scorer in my first season. 

"When you mention Chelsea to me I smile. I wasn’t a great Chelsea player, but they look after their old players. I left over 40 years ago, but I still get a Christmas hamper each year and an invitation to a private box with a champagne reception and lunch for two games a season. 

"I’ve always think how lucky I’ve been. I have had a lot of misfortune. I lost my sister at 20 and lost my mum and dad, but life balances out. I am also a lucky guy in my Club Ambassador’s role at Leicester City. There have been better and longer serving players than me at the Club, but it’s my dream job. I will never take it for granted. 

"My honours at Leicester mean so much to me, but there are many people who do good work who don’t get the recognition and accolades. As I said, I’ve been lucky. Somebody up there has been good to me.”

To sponsor Birch for his 35th Annual Charity Run, . 

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