From an 11-goal thriller in 1954 to the Peacock triptych of 1994, here are a few iconic memories from United v Chelsea games
Since taking over as Chelsea manager in 1952, Ted Drake had desperately tried to instill a winning mentality into a club yet to bother the engravers. The small things first. With the club a hardy perennial of the music-hall comics, the nickname the Pensioners had to go. In its stead came the moniker the Blues. And out went the club crest, a cartoon of a grinning septuagenarian, to be replaced first by a Rangers-style CFC logo, then the rampant lion still in use today.
Drake then turned his attention to the relegation-haunted team, which he soon changed into a hard-battling mid-table side, built around defenders Peter Sillett (brother of Coventry's FA Cup winning boss John) and future England manager Ron Greenwood, and the striker Roy Bentley. By the time the 1954-55 season came round, fans hoped for another comfortable finish, after a few hairy seasons in the early 50s, but nothing more.
The favourites for the title were reigning champions Wolverhampton Wanderers and Matt Busby's upcoming Manchester United side. Few would have guessed Chelsea would eventually prevail when the latter visited Stamford Bridge in October. United handed Chelsea an awful thrashing, goals from Dennis Viollet (three), Tommy Taylor (two) and Jackie Blanchflower putting the away side 6-3 up, before Seamus O'Connell scored twice late on to complete his hat-trick and put an unjustified gloss on the scoreline for Chelsea. "With a roar of Hampden proportions urging them on, Chelsea strained every nerve to share the points," reported the Guardian, "but somehow a rather shaky United defence held out to give their brilliant attack the reward they had so thoroughly earned". United went top of the table as a result.
It was one of the first displays of the Busby Babes' budding excellence, yet their emergence wasn't the story that day. Chelsea's hat-trick hero O'Connell, making his debut, was one of two amateurs on the home side's team. By trade, he was a cattle farmer. One of Chelsea's other goals was scored by Jim Lewis, another debutant, who in his day job travelled the country hawking Thermos flasks.
Chelsea lost their next two games – completing a run of four defeats on the spin – to end October in 12th place, Wolves having taken over from United at the top. But then form flew out of the window. Chelsea lost only four more games all season as they stormed up the table and, beating Wolves twice en route, shocked the nation to win the title. Their last defeat of the season was at Old Trafford – but by then, the title had been won.
The Busby Babes would have to wait to make their mark on English football's roll of honour. Chelsea, meanwhile, could finally tell the engraver to get his burin out.
Tommy Docherty's side had gone the first 10 games of the season unbeaten, and topped the table amid much talk of Chelsea landing their second league title. But it was not to be. United had youthful talent of their own – specifically an 18-year-old George Best – and on his team's visit to Stamford Bridge, he would make the first telling impact of his career, scoring one and making one for Denis Law as, in the words of our very own Albert Barham, the Doc's "ebullient young team were toppled gracefully by the sophisticated maturity of Manchester United".
Chelsea – and Eddie McCreadie – hadn't learned their lesson come March. They were still league leaders, but Best served notice that the title was United's. After three minutes, he "induced an attack of vertigo on McCreadie and drove the ball over Peter Bonetti's head from a narrow angle 20 yards out, a brilliant effort". Best went on to set up two more. "Roget's Thesaurus itself stands in danger of being denuded of adequate adjectives with which to describe this United side," wrote Eric Todd in the Guardian. "United can make fools of everyone, except themselves."
United went on to take the title on goal average from Leeds United. Chelsea ended up in third, five points back, wondering what might have been were it not for Best taking a wrecking ball to their momentum not once, but twice.
United were newly crowned champions of Europe – finally – and the world appeared to be their oyster. But of course they wouldn't pick up another trophy until winning the Second Division championship in 1975. This was the first sign that a mild complacency had set in at Old Trafford. "Chelsea surely will never gain two points so easily again," reported the Guardian, "and at the same time it is difficult to visualise United being so abysmally poor."
The visitors employed a power game – Ron Harris, Eddie McCreadie and David Webb crunching in with hard tackles, winning almost every ball, and shipping it forward quickly. Tommy Baldwin put Chelsea in front within 40 seconds. Bobby Tambling snaffled a ridiculous clearance by Tony Dunne to make it 2-0 on 13 minutes. Baldwin made it three seven minutes before half-time. United made a few "desultory raids" which were easily mopped up before Alan Birchenall added a fourth.
The man from the Guardian bemoaned United's "fragile" defending, but stopped short of offering a solution. "For people to tell Sir Matt Busby what he should do in United's hour of extremity is, to put it in somewhat plebeian language, tantamount to telling your grandmother how to suck eggs." Perhaps someone should have had a word, though. They had already been beaten at West Bromwich Albion. A week later United lost 5-4 at Sheffield Wednesday. By the middle of October, they had been beaten at Burnley and Liverpool, and lost at home to Southampton. They were four points off the bottom in 16th place.
United would recover. They ended the season in ninth place – they lost the return fixture against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge 3-2, in a match described by John Arlott as "of splendid flair by the standards of any age or area" – and were unlucky not to make their second European Cup final. But Busby had announced his retirement in January 1969, and the downward trend had been set.
A League Cup meeting on New Year's Day, instantly forgettable were it not for one of football's greatest-ever juxtapositions of beauty and the beast. Ron Harris had many qualities, but subtlety was not one of them.
Here he is heaving into view from way out, belabouring George Best's ankles with a proper old-school reducer. It's a textbook piece of uberviolence – a vicious sliding tackle perfectly timed and executed, as graceful as brutality can ever get – but it was all for naught. Best ignored Chopper's galoot-isms, somehow retained his balance – despite being kicked almost horizontal in mid-air – and continued his run.
Beauty and the beast. As the willowy, long-haired Best sashays round the keeper and calmly slots home, as androgynous as you like, Harris, bloated with testosterone, picks himself heavily off the turf.
For such a domineering football club, United's home league record against Chelsea is nothing short of appalling. In the modern Premier League era, United have won six, drawn seven and lost five against the Blues. Now your super soaraway Joy of Six doesn't usually make the distinction between the top division pre and post 1992, but this time we make an exception because Chelsea's good record at Old Trafford is seen as something of a modern phenomenon. But look at what happened between the two clubs there before the Premier League, all the way back a quarter of a century to the 1966-67 season: United wins: one. Draws: eight. Chelsea wins: eight.
Fans of both clubs are disqualified, but hats off to any neutral who'd have called that. Perhaps the most painful for United of those eight defeats – and remember we've already mentioned the 4-0 in 1968 – was Chelsea's 2-1 win in April 1986. Both clubs were in the title race, though they were struggling to keep hold of Everton and Liverpool's coat-tails. Neither team were in good nick. Depression was setting in with United, who had let their early-season lead slip and their form totally dissolve, while Chelsea were frittering away the games they had in hand on the leaders, having just been skittled 4-0 at home by West Ham, and 6-0 at QPR.
This was make or break for both clubs. With the early emphasis on break. In the opening exchanges, Mike Duxbury nearly broke Colin Pates's leg, then Doug Rougvie dispatched Mark Hughes into the stands, before flattening his old Aberdeen colleague Gordon Strachan. After a goalless first half, Kerry Dixon beat a high offside trap to score his first goal for four months. United equalised through a Jesper Olsen penalty, Rougvie this time sending Hughes crashing to the floor in the area, but Dixon had the last laugh in the dying moments to knock United out of the title race. Chelsea would subsequently win only one of their last seven games, but for a moment the future looked bright.
The Peacock triptych. In the first league fixture between the teams in the 1993-94 season, Chelsea became the first team to beat Manchester United since they had become champions, Gavin Peacock's goal consigning them to their first defeat since early March, a 17-game stretch. In the return fixture, Peacock would scupper an even longer unbeaten record of United's, 34 games this time, Glenn Hoddle having infused his side with positivity. "We have this strong feeling we can win the FA Cup," said Peacock after the win at Old Trafford as Chelsea looked to land their first meaningful trophy since the 1971 Cup Winners' Cup.
But Chelsea would have to wait another three seasons, as United won their first double. In the final, Peacock produced, according to David Lacey in the Guardian, "the best piece of individual skill in the game". He chested down a dreadful Gary Pallister clearance, and sent a lob whipping over a stranded Peter Schmeichel. Unfortunately for the striker, and for Chelsea, the ball twanged off the crossbar. In the second half, two penalties awarded by David Elleray – one a no-brainer after Eddie Newton's idiotic lunge on Denis Irwin, the other a no-brainer of a different sort, the referee punishing Frank Sinclair for coming together with Andrei Kanchelskis outside the area – did for Chelsea, who ended up on the wrong side of an undeserved 4-0 thrashing.
Thanks to Rob Smyth