Found: The Only Chelsea Player Who Knows What It Takes to Beat Arsenal in the Cup; (but Sorry Claudio, You Can't Pick Him . . . He's 78 and Lives in Switzerland)

By Hughes, Matt | The Evening Standard (London, England), March 7, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Found: The Only Chelsea Player Who Knows What It Takes to Beat Arsenal in the Cup; (but Sorry Claudio, You Can't Pick Him . . . He's 78 and Lives in Switzerland)


Hughes, Matt, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: MATT HUGHES

IF CLAUDIO RANIERI wants a few last-minute tips on how to knock Arsenal out of the FA Cup tomorrow, he could do worse than make a quick phone call to Switzerland. Chelsea have not beaten their London rivals in the grand old competition for 56 years, but need not despair. An elderly grocer from Bern knows it can be done.

Willi Steffen is believed to be the last survivor from the Chelsea side that beat Arsenal over the course of three epic cup-ties in January 1947. After two 1-1 draws, Chelsea won 2-0 in the second replay, before being knocked out by Derby County in the fourth round. Since then, there have been eight meetings - and Chelsea have failed to win any of them.

Back in 1947, Steffen was the Chelsea leftback in all three games, played in the space of 10 days, and remembers the contests as if they were yesterday.

The former Swiss international could give Gianfranco Zola a lesson on longevity. At the age of 78 he works from 6:30am until midday in the week, contenting himself with an hour or two on Saturday, running a family firm that distributes fruit and vegetables all over Europe.

Speaking in his nineteenth-century cottage in the picturesque village of Utzenstorf, 25km from Bern, Steffen talks with great fondness about his days at Chelsea and shows off his mementos of a happy time.

He said: "Playing at Chelsea was the best time of my career and the highlight was the games against Arsenal. Those three games were watched by 180,000! It was the biggest 10 days of my career. Can you see this crowd at Highbury? The noise was incredible! Because of the noise of the rattles, we could hardly speak to each other.

"I had to mark Ian MacPherson on the right wing which was very, very hard.

It was harder than when I marked Stanley Matthews against Blackpool. I was very tired by the time of the third game, but Tommy Lawton scored two goals in the first half and we held on. After that experience, it was very disappointing to lose to Derby."

Steffen's arrival at Stamford Bridge was a wonderful accident. After beginning his career as an amateur with Swiss First Division club "In the first two games, Arsenal were better. We were under pressure all the time and had a lot to do.

Cantonal Neachatel, he came to London as a 21-year-old in November 1946 with the intention of learning English. Fate intervened.

Steffen's English teacher was the wife of William Birrell, the Chelsea secretary, and after hearing of her new pupil's footballing background, a trial was promptly arranged. After playing for the reserves against Bournemouth, Steffen never looked back.

He said: " My father didn't want me to play football and preferred me to work in the family business. I could speak French, German and Italian but no English and I wanted to learn the language.

"I met Mr Birrell at Victoria Station and the next day I was playing at Bournemouth. I did not know the system, but managed to work out that I was the left-back.

"After 10 minutes it was 0-0 and I connected with their right-winger and he broke his nose.

My team-mates said: 'Willi, Willi, don't worry!

It was not your fault.' "There was no replacement so, for the rest of the game, I was free. I didn't play badly, we won 4-0 and after that I was in the first team."

Steffen played only 20 games for Chelsea but made quite an impact. As the first Swiss footballer to play in England, he was the subject of great curiosity and warmly welcomed by players and fans alike.

Lawton was a vocal admirer. The Chelsea and England striker first encountered Steffen in a victory international between Switzerland and England in Bern in 1945 and described him in his autobiography as "one of the best backs I have ever seen".

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Found: The Only Chelsea Player Who Knows What It Takes to Beat Arsenal in the Cup; (but Sorry Claudio, You Can't Pick Him . . . He's 78 and Lives in Switzerland)
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