This article appeared in the Cambridge Independent's edition of 17-23 January 2018.
Long before the name of Roman Abramovich brought a gleam to Ken Bates’s eye and gave a fillip to his earnings potential, Chelsea were a fairly unremarkable club that popped up occasionally to claim one of English football’s top prizes.
And it may come as a surprise to younger readers that the west London club, now one of the world’s richest, have played Cambridge United no fewer than 17 times over the years.
Admittedly, four of those games pitted the Pensioners’ ‘A’ team against United’s best XI and took place in the early 1950s, in the Eastern Counties League.
Admittedly, three of those games were friendlies. Admittedly, the U’s have a poor record against the Blues, having won just four times and drawn once.
But ten of the 17 matches featured the two clubs competing on equal terms, in League Division Two in the 1980s, and one of the friendlies was one of the most unforgettable contests ever staged at the Abbey Stadium.
The first meeting between the U’s and Chelsea took place at Newmarket Road on 17 November 1951 and resulted in a 2-1 win for the youthful visitors. There were to be three more ECL encounters before Chelsea withdrew from the league in 1953.
Talking of youngsters, United youth teams of the early 1960s earned themselves a couple of tilts against their Chelsea counterparts in the FA Youth Cup.
In 1961/62, having disposed of Luton and Wycombe, they were drawn at home to Chelsea in round four. A crowd of 1,909 watched a Pensioners side featuring John Hollins and Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris claim a 3-0 win.
The following year, United’s young men gained a 2-1 win over Charlton in round two but went down 4-0 in the following round to a Blues team that included winger Peter Houseman.
The next time the clubs’ paths crossed was in a 1968 friendly, which Chelsea won 3-1. But a much bigger, record-breaking occasion was in the offing.
By April 1970, Ian Hutchinson, signed by Chelsea from the U’s two years earlier, had developed into a striker capable of terrorising any defence – with his feet, his head or his phenomenally long, accurate throws.
Hutch was a standout performer in that year’s brutal FA Cup final, scoring Chelsea’s equaliser in the first match at Wembley, then hurling the ball that provided David Webb’s winner in the replay at Old Trafford.
A mere two days later, on May 1, the victorious Blues players paraded their hard-won trophy in front of 14,000 (and probably more) Cambridge people in a match arranged as part of the Hutchinson transfer deal.
The attendance record set that day will never be broken while the Abbey stays in its present form. The place was full to overflowing and desperate spectators were forced to seek, as Jim Laker used to say, all kinds of vantage points. A present-day stadium manager would have had palpitations.
The time came for Hutch to showcase his long throw, and gasps were followed by cheers when it dropped towards the penalty spot.
By that time, the United team had been replaced by Chelsea’s reserves, who ran out 4-3 winners.
The U’s had other things on their minds: the following day’s Southern League title decider at home to Margate.
There were sighs of resignation around Newmarket Road in the early summer of 1968, when Ian Hutchinson departed for Stamford Bridge.
The young man clearly possessed huge potential although, gangly and seemingly uncoordinated at times, he had been singled out for ill-judged barracking by a few spectators.
No one could complain, however, about the compensation United received from Chelsea: £2,500 up front, another £2,500 after ten First Division appearances, the same amount when he played for England Under-23 and the promise of that record-breaking 1970 friendly match.
And no one expected to see Hutchinson playing in amber and black again … except perhaps Hutchinson himself.
In the autumn of 1968, United manager Bill Leivers was startled to hear Hutch’s voice when he picked up his office phone.
‘We were living in a hotel and, as a reserve player, I was earning less than I had been at the Abbey Stadium,’ Hutchinson recalled later.
'So I approached Bill Leivers and asked if he would take me back. He said there would always be a place for me at the Abbey Stadium.’
But his big break in Chelsea’s first team wasn’t far away and, despite an awful succession of injuries that ended his career far too early, he became one of the Shed’s favourite adopted sons.
United and Chelsea fans alike mourned his premature death, at the age of 54, in 2002.