THE Chelsea team of the late 1960s and early 1970s was full of great – and big – characters. Peter Osgood bestrode the Kings Road as ‘The King’, Charlie Cooke was the master of wing-trickery, Bobby Tambling was a great goalscorer, Ron Harris was ‘Chopper’, the hard-man who took no prisoners, Ian Hutchinson was bold and brave, Peter Bonetti a goalkeeping hero, Alan Hudson a wonderfully-gifted player whose achievements never quite matched his skills and David Webb the play-anywhere man.
And then there was Peter Houseman, quiet, and unassuming, a player who was more likely to be the subject of fans’ ire than the recipient of their praise. But ‘Nobby’ as he was known was well-enough respected by his teammates and became a fixture in the team. After his tragic and untimely death, he earned a true place in Stamford Bridge folklore.
Houseman was born in Battersea, South London and attended Spencer Park grammar school, probably better know for cricket activities than football. Spotted by Chelsea at an early age he played for the schoolboy teams, making his way up through the South East Counties and Combination leagues.
The winger signed professional forms in 1963 and made his debut in December of that year, a 3-2 win over Sheffield United but he failed to earn a regular place in the line-up. In the following three seasons he was often left out in favour of the more robust John Boyle and it was as if he never earned then-manager Tommy Docherty’s total trust.
In October 1967 Docherty left Stamford Bridge after a series of arguments with the board. Dave Sexton returned to the club from Arsenal where he had been first-team coach and took over as manager and it quickly became clear that he had much more faith in Houseman than the man he replaced.
Under Sexton, Houseman was given a regular place in the team and he flourished. Early in the 1968-69 campaign he had a breakout game in a 4-0 win for the Blues over then-European champions Manchester United at Old Trafford. By the following season he had become a regular and supplied the crosses that the strike duo of Osgood and Hutchinson thrived on. John Hollins, another member of that exciting team, remembers Houseman as; “Very quiet, it always looked like he was thinking about something, but once he got on the field he was a really forceful person. He was like an explosion”.
Nicknamed ‘Nobby’ -“I never knew why”. says Hollins – his teammate says of him, “Anybody you asked in that team who they wanted as a team-mate, it would be Peter Houseman without a shadow of a doubt”.
He played a major role in their run to the 1970 FA Cup final with 5 goals including a solo run and shot at Burnley that brought the Blues back on level terms and sent the game into extra-time. He then made the second and scored the third. He then scored in the 6th round win over Crystal Palace and added two more in the 5-1 semi-final win over Watford, and then he provided a lifeline at Wembley.
Chelsea fell a goal behind against Leeds United on a boggy almost unplayable pitch and looked like being overrun by their opponents. A few minutes before half time. Houseman latched on to a loose ball and tried a speculative shot which bounced under a sprawling Gary Sprake and into the Leeds goal. Pitch conditions might well have had something to do with the goal but Chelsea were level. They would fall behind again before a late equaliser from Hutchinson earned the Londoners extra-time, and then a replay.
Chelsea went on to win the trophy after falling behind for a third time in the tie at Old Trafford in the replay and Houseman, who had been ever-present all season again played a big role.
Houseman was also a major factor the following season when Chelsea won the European Cup Winners Cup beating Real Madrid, again after a replay, in Athens and by now, he had clearly won over those doubters among the Stamford Bridge faithful.
Sadly after that win in Greece and reaching the League Cup final the following year where they lost to Stoke City, things began to unravel at Stamford Bridge with boss Sexton falling out with some of his star players. The board took Sexton’s side in the arguments and the players – chiefly Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson – were sold.
In total he made an impressive 343 appearances for the Londoners. Awarded a testimonial in 1973 (there were two matches, Chelsea beat Fulham 4-1 at Stamford Bridge and then travelled to Basingstoke, where he was heavily involved in youth team football to beat the local team 4-0) Houseman stayed but was now playing in a much-weakened team and for a club with no real money to spend.
In 1974-75 Chelsea were relegated and the winger was sold for £30,000 to Oxford United that summer and would spend the next two seasons at the Manor Ground and, although the team struggled during his time there he was highly thought of by teammates and fans alike and seemed settled at the club. Then tragedy struck.
In March 1977, Houseman, his wife Sally and friends Alan and Janice Gilham were driving to their homes in Witney after a charity event. Bartholomew Smith, the 22-year-old son of a former conservative MP was driving his Maserati in the opposite direction. Travelling at between 90-100mph, Smith lost control and his car veered into the oncoming lane turned broadside and was struck by the Hillman Avenger the two couples were travelling in killing all four occupants and leaving six children orphaned.
At the subsequent trial a Doctor who examined him at the Radcliffe Infirmary claimed that there was no doubt that Smith was ‘considerably intoxicated’ but the defence insisted that not enough tests had been carried out to prove this conclusively. Smith was found guilty, but given only a ten-year driving ban and a fine of £4,000. On sentencing the judge revealed that the driver had three previous speeding convictions and another for ignoring a road sign and summed up by saying; “In my opinion you must have another driving test before you are safe on the roads again”.
In 1977 a series of matches were played with proceeds going to the Houseman/Gilham dependents fund. First, Chelsea played Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, then there was a match attended by 17,000 between the Chelsea 1970 and Chelsea 1977 teams also at Stamford Bridge, and then Chelsea travelled to the Manor Ground to play Oxford United.
Peter Houseman Youth League
Peter’s name lives on in the form of the Peter Houseman youth league, now in its 50th year, featuring teams in Berkshire which has divisions and cup competitions for a number of age groups between under-9 and under-15. Originally set up by Peter and some friends with six teams the league now features over 230 teams from 40 different clubs.
It is nice to think that the understated player, who despite his low profile played a key part in the successful ‘Kings Road Entertainers’, and whose life came to such a tragic end at just 31 years of age, is remembered in the way he would surely have enjoyed, with kids playing in a Peter Houseman youth league.