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John Dempsey: The King’s Road, Steve McQueen, and Chelsea and Ireland in the 1970s

Born in London to Irish parents, Dempsey was a member of the first Chelsea team to win the FA Cup, but found success harder to come by with Ireland.

Chelsea's John Dempsey tries to squeeze a shot past Stoke goalkeeper Gordon Banks in 1972
Chelsea's John Dempsey tries to squeeze a shot past Stoke goalkeeper Gordon Banks in 1972
Image: Peter Robinson

JOHN DEMPSEY DIDN’T really know what he had signed up for.

Born and raised in London, he claims the decision to play for Ireland instead of England was an easy one. Yet he could be forgiven a few doubts as he boarded a plane for Dublin, not sure who would be there to greet him when he turned up for his first Ireland training session. The squashed dressing rooms he found in Phibsboro were a world away from the glitz and glamour of playing for Chelsea, but a love for Irish football soon blossomed.  

More of that later, but first there is a major milestone to address. It is fast approaching 50 years since John Dempsey achieved his boyhood dream.  

Old Trafford, April 1970. Chelsea 2 Leeds United 1.  

Chelsea’s first FA Cup win is one of the most iconic in the competition’s storied history. The first game resulted in a bruising 2-2 draw in front of 100,000 spectators at Wembley. A record TV audience of 28 million tuned in to watch an equally physical replay which was eventually decided by a David Webb winner in extra-time. 

“I’ve got old videos of the replay and sometimes I do look at it or see certain things on YouTube which bring back all those memories, and then it feels like only yesterday,” Dempsey says in a thick yet gentle London accent.  

“The FA Cup was a big thing for me as a young boy. My Dad used to take me to watch football from the age of six. We used to go and watch Chelsea one week and then the following week we’d go watch Fulham because they were local. That was kind of the done thing. Football was in me from day one as such.

“When I seven or eight and playing with my mates in the park, your dream was to play just once in an FA Cup final. The fact of actually being involved in an FA Cup final with of those teams, which was the biggest thing at that time, meant a lot. It wasn’t about winning the league back then; it was getting to the cup final for the big day out.” 

There were household names dotted all over the Chelsea team. The London club had Peter Bonetti in goal, John Hollins and Charlie Cooke in midfield, and Peter Osgood – who achieved the rare feat of scoring in every round of Chelsea’s cup win – up front. While remembered for their stylish approach to the game, Chelsea’s defence was as mean as it got, and even alongside a granite character like Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, Dempsey, who signed for Chelsea from Fulham in 1969, stood out as a tough, hard-hitting defender.

He remembers facing a Leeds team who, while not shy of a tackle themselves, were equally comfortable in possession.  

“Johnny Giles was in midfield for Leeds with Billy Bremner, and they were such an outstanding pair. Both were tough little individuals who put their foot in, and it didn’t matter if they went over the top of the ball or not. They were strong players. But Johnny Giles was also very skillful, a very good passer of the ball, and he could read the game so well and intercept balls. He was non-stop for 90 minutes and covered so much ground. A very difficult player to contend with. And then Bremner alongside him as well? You can imagine it. They had such a good team.” 

soccer-fa-cup-final-replay-chelsea-v-leeds-united Dempsey (second left), Peter Osgood (third r) and Peter Houseman (r) celebrate Chelsea's winning goal against Leeds as Jack Charlton (second right) looks on Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The launch of Match of the Day in 1964 and England’s World Cup win in 1966 heralded the emergence of the English’s game’s first real superstars. By the time Dempsey was cementing his place in that great Chelsea side of the early 1970s, Kevin Keegan was starting to make his name at Liverpool, Francis Lee was leading the line for Manchester City and Jimmy Greaves was still banging goals in for Tottenham Hotspur. 

Yet one man was a cut above the best. 

“George Best was only about 5’8″, but the thing is he could use both feet,” Dempsey explains.

“That made him very difficult to mark. If he had his back to you, you stood a chance, but once you let him turn and run at you, you had a major problem because you never knew which way he was going to go, left or right. 

“He was without a doubt the best I came up against. Manchester United had all these outstanding players like Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law, but George Best still stood out head and shoulders above everyone else in a team that was probably the best, most skillful footballing side around. There were times where you would think he was out of the game, and then suddenly he produces a bit of skill that would win the game. That was the difference with him. He had an ability to change a game in a split second.” 

Chelsea had their own share of superstars, and winning the FA Cup only added to the aura of glamour that had attached itself to the club. The swinging ’60s had just pulled down the blinds on a decade of decadence and debauchery, but being a stone’s throw from the vibrant scene found along the King’s Road helped the West London club retain a certain level of chic. 

“You had teams at the opposite end of the county, like Leeds for example, where it was more, ‘Have a cigarette and go to the pub.’ Completely different to what the King’s Road scene would have been like. You had all the fashion there, so it was all flared trousers and God knows what else.  

soccer-fa-cup-final-replay-chelsea-v-leeds-united Dempsey tracks Leeds United's Mick Jones in 1970 FA Cup final replay Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

“For us it was about playing football… but yeah, we had lots of famous people who used to come and watch Chelsea play because of where we were in London. Michael Caine would come, Steve McQueen came over from America, Michael Crawford was a big Chelsea supporter. Richard Attenborough was a director at the club. Eric Sykes, the comedian, Arthur Askey was in loads of films around the ’60s. Different people like that. That gave us a connection to the whole showbiz side.” 

Dempsey’s international career could hardly have been further removed.  

His first cap came during his time with Fulham. While expecting a call-up to the England U23s, an approach came from the across the Irish Sea, and Dempsey would soon become one of the first players to line out for Ireland under the ‘Granny Rule’. While the green jersey brought nowhere near the level of success he enjoyed at Chelsea, Dempsey says he never had any regrets about his decision to play for Ireland.  

“My mother was from Kildare and my father from Waterford, but I was born in Hampstead in London. So that was the connection, and in those days it was probably a strange thing (to be born in England but play for Ireland), but it did start to become a thing around then. I was happy with the decision.” 

His loyalty would soon be tested. With extremely limited resources, the Ireland set-up was a very different environment to what Dempsey knew from Fulham and Chelsea. 

“We had professional players coming over from England, players like Jimmy Conway, Eamonn Dunphy, Don Givens, Shay Brennan, Johnny Giles, Tony Dunne, myself, but the thing was you weren’t sure who was going to turn up because people might be injured or whatever. Then we also had League of Ireland players, at the time it was Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, Limerick and a few others.  

“You didn’t know those players at all really until you joined up with Ireland. It wasn’t a wholly professionally team, it was a mixture of League of Ireland and players based in England. Then when there were injured players, they had to build up by getting more League of Ireland players in. It wasn’t very professionally run.” 

The trips became easier when Dempsey’s Chelsea team-mate Paddy Mulligan, himself a graduate of the League of Ireland, also joined the Ireland team.  

“Paddy was such a nice fella. An outstanding full-back, always getting forward and a good crosser of the ball. Being Irish himself he knew much more about the League of Ireland players and that side of things. We became room-mates and were quite close. He still comes over to Chelsea occasionally and I’ll see him there. ” 

who-megiles Paddy Mulligan and Johnny Giles during an Ireland training session Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Given the make-up of the team, expectations were low throughout Dempsey’s international career. Ireland picked up just one point from six games in their 1970 World Cup qualifying campaign, and a 2-1 win against Iran at the Brazil Independence Cup – a tournament to mark the 150th anniversary of Brazilian independence – in June 1972, represented a first win since November 1967. In the middle of that 19-game winless run, Dempsey became the first Ireland player to receive a red card after he threw the ball at the referee during the first-half of a 4-0 loss away to Hungary. Fifty years later, he still protests his innocence.  

Despite the lack of results on the pitch, Dempsey’s memories mainly focus on the raucous atmosphere’s that greeted the team at Dalymount Park. 

“You noticed the difference because it wasn’t the biggest crowds like Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford or wherever, it was completely different, but the atmosphere was always really, really good. I enjoyed playing there and playing for Ireland. 

“I played under Johnny Carey, then Noel Cantwell, Liam Tuohy, Mick Meegan. They were all different in their own way. Noel Cantwell was a tough sort of person, obviously an ex-Ireland player as well. They were all really nice men, but it was tough for them because of the situation. 

“It became difficult for us in games because we were playing against a lot of international teams who were really well-drilled and well-coached. Not many teams we played against had a bunch of semi-professionals like us. 

“We had League of Ireland players who were only training twice a week, and so they obviously would get tired quicker. That did come into it at times, where we would look drained of energy and that allowed teams to put pressure on us.  

“Even though those League of Ireland players would never stop running, coming up against teams that were just so quick and had players with these great skills, it was completely different to what we had as a team. But everyone gave 100%, and I think we all found it an exciting time, whether you were based in England or were a League of Ireland player. 

“There were loads of good League of Ireland players, they gave 100% and so did we, and in the end we became a team. We didn’t think about it as us and the League of Ireland players, even though results weren’t great and to win a match was a big thing really. If we lost, we lost as a team.

soccer-football-league-division-one-chelsea-photocall Dempsey's Chelsea club photo from 1970 Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“It was hard. But the other thing was the association probably didn’t have the money to give us the best training facilities or improve the ground or whatever. We just accepted it.” 

Dempsey admits that despite their semi-professional status, he was struck by the quality of the squad’s League of Ireland contingent. 

“You’re thinking that some of these guys only train twice a week, whereas we obviously trained every day over with our clubs in England. I remember thinking ‘God, if they were training every day they could hold their own over in England.’ The likes of Johnny Giles were clearly our technically gifted players, but if those League of Ireland players could have trained every day they would have improved too. But I was surprised with how good they were despite how little they trained.” 

It made a lasting impression. Dempsey’s Chelsea career ended in 1978, and following a two-year spell with Philadelphia Fury, he trickled down the leagues in England. 

Then, in 1983, the phone rang.  

“I was at Maidenhead, then I was player/manager at Egham, and someone in Dundalk found out I was with them and they gave me a call,” he explains. 

“They asked if I would be interested in coming over to be player/manager.” 

Dempsey was in the mood for a fresh challenge. 

“The League of Ireland was another world completely. We were only training a couple of nights a week, and that was difficult because we had some players living in Dublin too. That was a bit of a headache. Teams like Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians had everybody all together for training, but two-thirds of our team were in Dundalk and the rest were down in Dublin training on their own.  

“They were really nice people in Dundalk, all the supporters I met were nice people. It would be wrong to say it wasn’t 100% professionally run because you could see everyone was doing their best for the club, but it was just so difficult. We would train on the pitch and then it might be cut up for the games as a result. But that was the way it was for most teams, so we all got on with it. We never thought negatively about things. It was just a case of getting on with it and doing your best, and just look at them now. Dundalk have grown into a top team, playing in Europe and doing really well. It’s great to see.  

“But like any team at that time, it was tough for them financially. Their facilities were not too bad actually, particularly when you think of some the grounds we went to in the 1980s. Tiny dressing rooms where the team would barely fit inside, but clubs didn’t have the money to improve things.” 

His stay in Dundalk was brief but eventful. Following some run-ins with referees and a dip in results which saw Dundalk slip from third to eighth, his two-year contract was ended early by mutual consent. Fans would later pass a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the board following the decision.  

It proved to be Dempsey’s last job in football, as he decided to dedicate his time to working with people with special needs at a care centre in London. 

Now retired, the 73-year-old continues to cast a critical eye over Chelsea and Ireland, mainly from the comfort of his couch.  

Yet every now and then he steps back into the limelight. His status as a Chelsea legend was rubber-stamped thanks to a fine goal in a 2-1 win over Real Madrid in the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup final – Chelsea’s first European trophy – and he is regularly invited back to Stamford Bridge as a guest of the club.

“We drew the first game against Real 1-1 and the replay had to be two days later,” he recalls.

“A lot of the fans weren’t prepared for that, so they had to go back to London because they couldn’t afford to stay on.  

“It was unbelievable really. Charlie Cooke took the corner and the ball just dropped right to me around 18 yards out. Ninety times out of 100 that ball could go anywhere, but luckily it went into the roof of the net. As a defender, to score a goal like that in a European final against Real Madrid, I knew I’d remember that for the rest of my life. Real Madrid were the team at the time. 

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-chelsea-centenary-event-london-hilton Dempsey is regularly invited back to Stamford Bridge as a guest of the club Source: EMPICS Sport

“We came back the next day, a bus picked us up at Heathrow and brought us back. It was the same when we had won the FA Cup the year before. That time a bus brought us from Euston Station all through the streets of London up to Kensington, into Fulham and back to Chelsea. Both times there were thousands of people out in the streets and that’s when you realise what you’ve achieved, you know?  

“Gosh, great memories…”  

For the first time in our long conversation, Dempsey pauses.  

Recent events have ensured some of the emotions of that time remain close to the surface. Earlier this month he was introduced at half-time during Chelsea’s defeat of Nottingham Forest at Stamford Bridge, as the club marked 50 years since the start of that milestone FA Cup winning campaign. Dempsey was joined on the pitch by old team-mates John Hollins, ‘Chopper’ Harris, Tommy Baldwin and Marvin Hinton, and while he enjoyed catching up with some old friends, those absent loomed just as largely in his thoughts.  

“Peter Osgood’s ashes are in an urn under the penalty spot in front of the Shed End,” he continues.  

“When we went out on the pitch for the Forest game, it all comes back flooding back. It becomes quite sad in some ways, but in other ways you’re happy. It’s a hard feeling to explain. The emotions all hit home when you step out there. 

“Like I said, I started going to Chelsea with my father when I was six, and the biggest crowd I saw there was over 75,000. A few years later I was playing on that pitch in front of crowds of 60,000. When I go there now, it still feels like the same place despite the smaller capacity and how modern it is. And they still play ‘Blue is the Colour’, which we recorded in 1972. It’s amazing really. That always brings back memories. 

“Sometimes I look down and think to myself, ‘Wow, I played on that pitch.’” 

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