The Story of Chelsea FC

CHAPTER 2: Aiming for the stars with stars

Boy in audience: ‘Who won the Cup in 1926?
Mr Memory: ‘Cup? Waterloo? Football? Or tea, sir?
Boy in audience: ‘Football, silly.’
Heckler in audience: ‘When did Chelsea win it?
Mr. Memory: ‘63BC in the presence of the Emperor Nero!

- The 39 Steps film (1935)

What a Field of Dreams is Stamford Bridge

‘Build and they will come’, is famously quoted as a line from the movie Field of Dreams, and what a field of dreams is Stamford Bridge. The essence of sport is the quest for glory with the presence of jeopardy and, with that in mind, Chelsea’s early strategy to fill the Bridge was that the public want goals and strikers, not defenders.

It is no coincidence the first true star for the Pensioners (the club’s nickname in the early years), ‘Gatling Gun’ George Hilsdon, became enshrined in a weather vane modelled on his image that stood atop the East Stand for decades. He rattled in five goals on his 9-2 debut against Glossop in September 1906 and his sensational 28 goals fired the club to our first promotion.

For three seasons Hilsdon notched more than 20 goals each time but the quality of team performances failed to match him and finishing 11th was a disappointing high point. The centre-forward then found temptation readily available in vibrant west London and his star faded. For all the adoring newspaper column inches and terrace cheers, there was no glory with which to regale grandchildren around the hearth. His experience would be typical over the next three decades.

The Hilsdon weathervane was for a time on the old West Stand before returning to the East

Chelsea Football Club was popular, ambitious, a remarkable addition to football’s firmament, but in 1908 the Worksop Reporter newspaper sneered on behalf of many when it called Chelsea a great club ‘which has simply forced its way to the front by means of illimitable wealth’.

Other factors encouraged the notion that ‘showbiz’ Chelsea lacked sporting seriousness, that the club’s purpose was entertainment rather than footballing success. Over time those who kept going to the Bridge created, as well-known football writer Don Davies noted, English football’s ‘most indulgent’ crowd. The types were being set.

Centre-forward Andy Wilson was one of the great stylists of the English game in the 1920s, courted and eventually signed from Middlesbrough by the Pensioners at a near-record for English football of £6,000 in 1923.

He stayed eight years, many as skipper, fell in love with Chelsea and watched from the stands until his death in 1973 aged 77. ‘In my day,’ he reminisced in the mid-Sixties, ‘we played artistic football, but results didn’t matter so much then. It wouldn’t “do” nowadays.’

No ‘parking the trolley-bus’ at the Bridge back then, thank you very much.

Wilson was once photographed accepting a pre-match cigarette on the pitch and despite his brilliance as a forward, the Londoners languished in Division Two for the longest time in our history. Yet Chelsea’s magnitude presented a platform for fame if you were good enough.

Striker Andy Wilson was recruited from the North-East for a big fee

The crowds were among the highest and most delighted in the land, even in the second tier, and the club’s high profile meant being chosen by the FA for innovations such as testing numbers on shirts in 1928 and trialling revolutionary new offside laws. When the latter changed for the 1925/26 season, the cleverness of Wilson and his colleagues established what is still the third best unbeaten start to a Chelsea campaign (14 games).

After a masterly 6-0 at Port Vale, the Daily Mail hailed ‘a triumph of tactics. The method of attack which turned out so successful was for [Bob] Turnbull and the two outside men to lie well up the field, with [inside-forwards] Wilson and [Albert] Thain well back and playing principally the role of providers for the advance trio.’

Unfortunately, rivals eventually twigged the offside strategy and that mirror image of the brilliant and innovative Chelsea re-emerged in the spring: a club with a gun always loaded, pointed at its own foot. The side dropped vital points to relegation candidates, and the promotion train left the station with the Pensioner on the platform.

By then the Scottish secretary-manager David Calderhead – nicknamed ‘the Sphinx’ for his taciturn manner – had been 15 seasons at the helm. His 26-year tenure, which ended quietly in 1933, largely defined perceptions of the club to this day.

It is said Calderhead was ‘silent in two languages: Scottish and English’ and it was inferred he would accept dubious input from directors on team selection. The laissez-faire went further. Spectators found it amusing that eccentric goalkeeper Ben Howard Baker, a former high jump champion, would occasionally bounce the ball round his area while a director – not the manager or first team trainer Jack Whitley – barked instructions to outfield players through a loudhailer pitch-side.

Goalkeeper Ben Howard Baker representing Britain as an athlete at the 1920 Olympics

While the luxury liner was on course, though, there was no need to change the captain, and Calderhead steered Chelsea past genuine milestones. Those included becoming London’s highest-placed side in his opening season, promotion in 1912 and a long spell in the top flight including third place in 1919/20 – then the highest ever finish for a club from the capital.

In the only other pursuit of available silverware back then, the FA Cup, the Scot took the club to the semi-final in 1910/11, its sixth season since foundation, and to the long-remembered ‘khaki final’ during wartime in 1914/15 (the third youngest club from the Football League ever to make it that far), with two further appearances in the last four in 1919/20 and 1931/32.

‘Moneybags’ Chelsea

Off the field, Calderhead’s stewardship helped achieved sensational results. Every season from 1907/08 to 1914/15 Chelsea turned a profit, with the £22,826 turnover recorded in the first of those a record for any football club at the time.

Hosting the first ever Charity Shields at Stamford Bridge from 1908 helped increase revenue, and in 1912/13 the west Londoners raised the bar again, to £26,545 when income from the England-Scotland international match at the Bridge was factored in. By 1920, after countless stadium improvements, Stamford Bridge even staged the first of three FA Cup finals.

Shareholders in the club received a five per cent dividend on the profits but generous contributions were handed to local charities too. When the Football League established a Titanic benefit fund after the great ship’s shocking demise in April 1912, no single donation came close to Chelsea’s £500. This was still a young club, but its sense of social responsibility was strong.

Even during World War One, when football was regionalised and takings vastly reduced, Chelsea contributed strongly to a Football League hardship fund for hardest-hit members. Whereas the Pensioners gritted our teeth and made no call on the fund, fellow Londoners Arsenal made regular claims, most of which were rejected as unfair on fellow clubs.

Boys in Khaki, Boys in Blue

Chelsea also waited patiently throughout the war for Manchester United to pay more than £1,500 it owed the Londoners. The Pensioners regularly reminded the Football League about the debt, but were reasonably happy to bide our time in the knowledge we would receive it someday. Again, this was Chelsea determined to do the right thing, even in trying circumstances.

And in 1931, at the Football League’s annual general meeting, the club’s sense of community was exemplified when Chelsea chair Claude Kirby moved that, in the interests of smaller clubs’ gates, no broadcasting of matches be allowed. This was passed. As one of the most glamorous and biggest attractions in the top tier, Chelsea stood to benefit financially more than most, yet recognised that damaging others’ income affected all.

Chelsea’s ‘moneybags’ were filled by the huge crowds spinning turnstiles at Stamford Bridge. The population of Britain increased from 14m in 1831 to 32.5m in 1901 and from the middle of the century wages had increased and working hours slightly reduced for the majority of citizens.

Expanded leisure time brought new working-class spectators, and their disposable income, in their thousands, and travel agent Thomas Cook launched ‘Special Football Trips’ offering cheap train fares to matches. This was the untapped money-spinning opportunity in London that those responsible for the birth of the club, Fred Parker, Gus Mears and co, quite brilliantly foresaw.

All human life came from far and wide to fill a stadium well served by railway, underground and the omnibus. In the club’s second season, as we chased promotion, the average attendance at Stamford Bridge was an astonishing 30,850.

This was vindication of the vision of Fred Parker to start a new club in the capital on a mighty scale. Only one club, Newcastle, had ever broken the 30k barrier before and when the Geordies visited on 27 December 1909, a new Division One record of 66,000 was set. During 1913/14, a new high-water mark was reached with 37,970 – almost three times the average across London at Arsenal.

Between 1907/08 and 1929/30 Chelsea were the most popular club in the land in eight seasons, and in the last of those became the first – possibly in the world – to average more than 40,000 through the gates (42,860). The Pensioners remained one of the biggest draws throughout the 1930s, and would top the attendance table for the last time in 1954/55.

Between the Stage And The Stars

One of the thrills of going to Stamford Bridge was its reputation for being the place to be seen. Artists, actors and royalty were cheek by jowl on the terracing with carmen, costermongers and barmaids.

The first form of celebrity in the 20th century was royalty, and Chelsea’s social connections brought a sprinkle of stardust. The prince who would become King George VI was a Pensioners fan – it was the royal family’s visit to the Bridge that may have prompted the club’s switch from a lighter Eton Blue to royal blue shirts for the 1907/08 season. As reigning monarch, King George would take his daughter, Princess, now Queen Elizabeth, to her first ever club football match in 1945: Chelsea 2 Millwall 0 at Wembley in the wartime League South Cup final.

It was a measure of the club’s familiarity with Buckingham Palace circles that chair Claude Kirby could write to referee A Ward to thank him for the way he had run the Leicester FA Cup game in February 1920 almost as the emissary of King George himself, who had attended it: ‘It was his Majesty’s wish you should be presented to him after the match … but owing to the crush of the people in the passage leading to your room the messenger was unable to get to you, and the King had to leave the ground. His Majesty desired me to inform you he considered you refereed the match in a most able manner, and said he would certainly not like to act in that office himself.’

Always a story, and sometimes a punchline, Chelsea were mentioned on stage at music halls, in Will Hay films, and even the classic thriller ‘The 39 Steps’ in 1935. On a Tuesday afternoon four days after a record 67,000 crowd attended Chelsea versus Manchester United in April 1906, the international friendly visit of Sparta Rotterdam set a tone for the club that would start a different and equally haunting motif down the years.

This is because for some reason space was found in the home starting line-up for the premier comedians of the day, George Robey and Fred Wright. Robey fluffed an open goal early on and the hosts lost 0-2, thus recording perhaps the first joke at Chelsea’s expense, but far from the last.

Commercial interests sometimes appeared the priority over playing field success, with a succession of money-spinners vying for use of the track including the Stamford Bridge speedway team (1928-32), Greyhound Racing Association (1933-68), and midget car racing (1948). Summer lessees the London Athletic Club quit in 1933.

The GRA’s offshoot, Stamford Bridge Greyhounds, became the tail that wagged the dog. In 1935 when the London Transport Board wanted to build a walkway direct to Fulham Broadway underground station, it was the greyhounds that barked ‘no thanks’.

Stamford Bridge record attendance pictured

Like the infamous billboard in the movie ‘Spinal Tap’, when the washed-up rock stars gigged an amusement park – ‘If I told them once, I told them a thousand times: “Put the band’s name first, puppet show after”’ – Chelsea had become second billing to a sideshow on their own front gate.

The Great Inconsistents

Chelsea’s mentionability stemmed from our well-funded ambition and popularity jarring with the lack of success that endured for 50 years. Or, as one 1913 newspaper put it, being ‘regarded as the most expensive as well as the most erratic combination in the whole League.’ In British sport, everyone loves an inglorious failure.

After the Pensioners were relegated in 1910, critics were savage about Calderhead’s attempt to ‘buy the way to safety’ through the acquisition of six new players in March and April. One legacy of this outcry was the FA introducing the first transfer deadline day. Another was the label ‘moneybags club’ which has endured to this day, the anomaly being the years 1974-1995.

The term was applied because from the outset Chelsea had invested in crowd-pleasing talent. For the first 50 years of the club’s history there were only two major pieces of silverware to win and footballers, then as now, aspired to play for successful clubs. Winning meant bonuses, medals, lucrative endorsements.

The Pensioners could not offer a CV of successes but were unequalled on the softer inducements: a huge following, always in the newspapers, wonderfully located, and treated our squad like royalty. That meant, for instance, the best medical care (before the 1948 welfare state), help with a house and car, and lavish off-the-books spending money on summer tours.

There were always new stars willing to join the Pensioners’ constellation.

‘Ever since its foundation in 1905 the Chelsea Football Club has been looked to as the grand variety stage of Association football,’ reflected venerable football scribe Don Davies in 1955, ‘and one whose prime function it has been to present as many as possible of the reigning football stars to the London public.

‘Consider only the list of centre forwards, international players most of them, who have led the Chelsea line during the past 50 years: Hilsdon, who scored five goals in his first match; [Bob] Whittingham, the net-breaker; [Vivian “Jack”] Woodward, winner of 66 [England] caps, and the Claude Duval of amateur footballers; [Jack] Cock, of the perfect build; Wilson, master of the veiled pass; and [Hugh] Gallacher, a “brother Scot” and the subtlest trickster of them all, scorer of five goals on four occasions. And so on down to [Joe] Payne – “ten-goal Payne” – and on to [Tommy] Lawton and [Roy] Bentley, august figures of more recent days.

‘Add to these, in their various roles, [Alec] Jackson, first of the roamers; [Tommy] Walker of Hearts; [Vic] Woodley, handsomest of goalkeepers; and [Len] Goulden and [Johnny] Harris, supreme loyalists and craftsmen of yesteryear, and it will be seen what rich entertainment the Pensioners have spread before their patrons; not, it is true, with the painstaking industry of the drudge, but with the “godlike carelessness of the artist”.’

Like the modern-day reality TV show ‘Made In Chelsea’, it helped if the latest headline-grabbing signing had a back story – proximity to the nightspots and fleshpots of London’s glamorous West End would often write a new one soon enough.

Dazzling individualism thrilled spectators but football is a team game and that ‘godlike carelessness’ too often summed up Calderhead’s cohort which was too uncoordinated to compete for titles. Even in 1930 when freshly promoted Chelsea had nine international stars in the ranks, including the brilliant Gallacher, Jackson and Wilson mentioned by Davies, all that gunpowder failed to spark.

Under Calderhead, whose tenure is the longest in the club’s history, the stadium proved far more successful than the team. Ultimately, though, it is not the silver in the cash bags that fires supporters’ passion and nostalgia, but the beating of a rival or the winning of a trophy – even for the most indulgent crowd in the country.

At the end of the 1932/33 season Calderhead retired, and within two years he and the old guard of directors had died. The mid-1930s marked the end of the beginning for Chelsea FC, and a new energy was about to be unleashed.