The pagan god. John King reflects on "a golden age in English football when money was a bonus not the motivation"

Ossie: king of Stamford Bridge

Peter Osgood, with Martin King and Martin Knight <em>Mainstream Pub

When England beat West Germany 4-2 in the 1966 World Cup final, the style of play, with its lack of wingers and dominant work ethic, set the English game back decades. Success sets patterns, and the effect can be seen today in the excitement surrounding the emergence of Wayne Rooney of Everton, a 17-year-old who has played only a handful of games yet who is being touted as the big new hope of English football. What makes Rooney special is that he can actually run at defenders and beat them with skill rather than a clever pass. He is confident and willing to take people on, a skill beyond most players. The irony is that, in the 1970s, shortly after that World Cup victory, England had a wealth of such talent, but it was ignored. While the national side struggled, the domestic game boomed, with a wide selection of gifted individuals pulling in huge crowds.

Peter Osgood was one such player, perhaps the best. A flamboyant, powerful centre-forward with Chelsea and Southampton, he scored 220 goals in 560 appearances. He helped win the FA Cup twice and the European Cup Winners' Cup once. He was a player who said what he thought and played how he felt, an unpredictable talent whose surname translates as "pagan god" from the original Saxon. Sometimes he was accused of being lazy, but when he set off on a run, dribbling past defenders for fun, anything was possible. Osgood had it all, yet played a mere four times for England, while much more limited players (such as Martin Chivers, Joe Royle and, yes, Geoff Hurst) kept him out of the side.

Written with Martin King and Martin Knight, joint authors of the bestselling terrace classics Hoolifan, The Naughty Nineties and On the Cobbles - a fine biography of the bare-knuckle gypsy fighter Jimmy Stockin - this book reaches beyond the usual ghost-written fare served up by former players and cheque-chasing journalists. It shows a genuine love of the game and the people involved in it.

The 1970s were a golden age for domestic football in Britain, a time when money was a bonus rather than the motivation. Big business hadn't ruined the spectacle or sanitised the players. People hurried to watch club sides packed with characters, a mixture of ball players and hard men. The games were passionate and tough, often won by a touch of flair. Anything could happen out on the football pitch, not to mention the terraces, and no team epitomised this spirit more than Chelsea. Peter Osgood was the leader of that great team. A terrace anthem proclaiming him the king of Stamford Bridge is still sung in the pubs around the ground, nearly four decades since he first ran on to the pitch as a raw teenager from Windsor. Osgood himself is still a fan who can be seen, on match day, in the pubs around Chelsea, drinking with those who used to pay his wages. He understands that football is (or was meant to be) the people's game. Or, as his friend and former team-mate Alan Hudson says, with the title of his own autobiography, it should be the working man's ballet.

Osgood made his debut in Tommy Docherty's young side of the 1960s. Later, as a member of the celebrated Chelsea side of the early 1970s, he became a regular in the clubs and pubs around the King's Road.

There are many stories here to make you laugh. The Chelsea-Leeds rivalry, always a lively subject for football fans, is considered. When Chelsea and Leeds played, both elements of the game faced each other. Leeds were, despite their many Scottish players, portrayed as dour Yorkshiremen with a reputation for playing dirty. Their then manager, Don Revie, created an efficient machine, and many Leeds players represented England. Chelsea, on the other hand, were the wide boys of London, dedicated followers of fashion. While Leeds were drinking tea and playing cards, Chelsea were out boozing and chasing girls. That was the theory, anyway. When it came to games between the two, however, war was declared. Osgood describes how, after the FA Cup final replay in 1970, when Chelsea beat Leeds 2-1, the Leeds and England centre-half Jack Charlton did not even collect his loser's medal, but strode straight out of the ground and into a taxi, such was his hatred of the Londoners.

There is little room for true individuality in the modern game, although the fans long for another Osgood or George Best to emerge. The stars of today are simply technicians. David Beckham and Michael Owen are good players, but where is the true flair? The media, which talk nostalgically of the "maverick" talents of the 1970s, regularly persecute any player caught drinking when they think he should be preparing for a game. If poor old Gazza can be hounded for eating a kebab, imagine what Osgood and Hudson would go through if they were playing today.

Ossie: king of Stamford Bridge is a genuine, personal book. The years following Osgood's eventual retirement from the game are covered as thoroughly as his time in football, which is unusual in this sort of book, and gives an insight into the sense of loss a player who has been at the top must feel when it all comes to an end. A pub venture with his great friend and former striking partner Ian Hutchinson (who died last September) failed, but even that regret is tinged with humour, as if a lesson was learnt. When dealing with the failure of personal relationships, Osgood accepts most of the blame. So there is sadness, at the death of family and friends, over mistakes made along the way, at the passing of the years, but this is more than matched by an easygoing, modest humour and great love of life.

Peter Osgood achieved the dream of millions. He was the spiritual leader of a special club side at a special time in English football, and Ossie captures this perfectly. As such, it is one of the best football autobiographies in recent years.

John King is the author of The Football Factory. His most recent novel is White Trash (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 10 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Stop: wrong PM on the line