The Story of Chelsea FC

CHAPTER 5: The Fulham Road Rollercoaster

'That giant construction of steel and concrete was already bleeding one of the country’s great clubs to death, although the signs were not widely apparent at the time. As the team dawdled, despite the influx of gifted young players like Ray Wilkins, Gary Locke, lan Britton and John Sparrow, manager [Dave] Sexton became the first victim of Chelsea panic.’

- John Moynihan - The Chelsea Story

As the 1960s rolled into the 1970s, Chelsea had ridden the crest of the wave like no time before in the club’s history. In terms of sustained success, star players, national news interest, and colour and fervour from our supporters, this was unprecedented.

No wonder chairman Brian Mears and the directors were electrified with the same ambition that had enthused his own ancestors who had formed the club at the start of the century. They had constructed what was then described as a ‘stadium to stagger humanity’. Now the board decided on a complete reconstruction to make Stamford Bridge ‘a stadium in keeping with the magnificent potential of our team’.

Fully covered, close to the pitch instead of the wide-open spaces of the original oval-shaped ground, and even with the potential for warm-air to be piped under the seats to keep winter at bay when the fans were inside, it was certainly a grand design.

In front of the old grandstand in September 1971, Chelsea beat Luxembourg club Jeunesse Hautcharage 13-0 (21-0 on aggregate) in the Cup Winners' Cup, a club-record victory

First was to be the overdue demolition of the old, original wooden grandstand and its replacement with a huge concrete-and-steel cantilever East Stand that would be, on opening, the largest single grandstand in Britain.

Financial margins were tight however and what the board could ill afford, and had not budgeted for, was any decline in the team’s performance or wider problems in the UK economy. They were hit hard by both.

Unravelling on and off the pitch

Appointing architects with no previous experience of stadium design was leading to delays anyway but Britain’s worsening industrial relations in the early 1970s led to a three-day working week for the country’s workforce in general, plus building strikes, and there was a shortage of construction materials.

On the pitch, from the high of a third-place league finish the year we won the FA Cup, we were dropping down the table and although a third cup final in three years was reached, the League Cup final at Wembley in 1972, hot favourites Chelsea lost out to Stoke City. The following season the Blues finished below halfway in the First Division, in 12th, and then the following year in 17th. The optimism of 1971 looked like hubris by 1973.

A new East Stand and a new burden on the club

Manager Dave Sexton had been wrestling with a deteriorating relationship with at least two of his stars, both key players in the trophy years: Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson. With financial turmoil brewing, the board held special meetings with the manager and backed him while hoping to retain the stars as attendances and therefore gate receipts suffered. After four straight defeats those two players plus Peter Bonetti and Tommy Baldwin were dropped for a New Year’s Day game in 1974.

There were suspensions, transfer requests and apologies, but eventually Osgood and Hudson were both sold. Others from the great side followed out the door too and Sexton’s days were numbered.

The Dave Sexton story

The atmosphere at the Bridge was hit anyway by having a massive building site on one side of the pitch, and there were dwindling crowds, too. The East Stand was eventually opened a year behind schedule and significantly over budget. The seeds of problems for a generation to come had been sown as the club asked the bank to extend an overdraft. Symbolically, in the first game played in front of the new stand, Chelsea lost to top-flight newcomers Carlisle United. At the end of the season the two clubs were united again – in relegation. Any aspirations for the other three sides of the ground to be redeveloped to match the East Stand were quietly shelved.

The club was on the verge of bankruptcy and fighting for our very existence but this being helter-skelter Chelsea, there were dramatic ups as well as the big slide down.

An informal take on the traditional team photo by the squad of 1974/75

Buying new players was pretty much out of the question financially so the team management turned once again to the youth scheme. Ray Wilkins was a new, young jewel already beginning to glisten and was handed the captaincy at just 18 by one of the stalwarts of the Docherty/Sexton era, full-back Eddie McCreadie, now the young manager in charge.

‘People like John Hollins, Marvin Hinton, Peter Houseman; I realised that these fine, wonderful players – and my friends – were not going to put the club back where it wanted to go,’ McCreadie said later.

Eddie's Blues rekindle hope

A few of McCreadie’s old team-mates remained to provide experience – Bonetti, Ron Harris and Charlie Cooke, but the mid-1970s team was almost entirely youthful homegrowns and as they began to achieve unexpectedly in a time of adversity, a bond was formed with supporters that marks them down as one of the most enduringly popular Chelsea teams.

Gary Locke, Steve Wicks and the giant Micky Droy were players at the back. Ray Lewington was Wilkins’ foil in midfield, with the dynamic Garry Stanley and bustling Ian Britton out wide. Kenny Swain was a stylish forward and Steve ‘Jock’ Finnieston provided plenty of goals. And straight out of the Shed End was teenage striker Tommy Langley, a boyhood Blues fan.

Chelsea on the up again - a big win in 1977

Within two seasons McCreadie’s team had won promotion back to the top division, a vital lifeline for club being crushed by debt that had soared to £3.4 million. Remarkably, collections were being held at games as fans were asked to dip into pockets for loose change to help secure their club’s future.

The rollercoaster continued when only two months after he had led the team to promotion, McCreadie resigned following a contract dispute with the board. To those outside, it seemed the club always had a gun loaded and pointed at its own foot.

Manager McCreadie surveys the scene during a Stamford Bridge pitch invasion

On top of that, a proportion of those attending our games were causing other damaging problems. Hooliganism at football matches, violence against opposition fans and vandalism in stadiums, pubs and on transport dated back to the 1960s, but it had become ingrained and endemic during the 1970s. This was a sub-culture and social phenomenon with its own rituals, territories and hierarchies, and Chelsea’s reputation for bad fan behaviour was up there with the worst.

While bands of young supporters travelled to away games in numbers never seen before, the reality was many other fans were repulsed by what the matchday experience had become and stayed away. Football was losing its broader appeal and attendances across the country declined. It was the last thing needed at Chelsea, already impacted by the team’s struggles and the cash-flow crisis.

The government stepped in, attempting to ban Chelsea fans from away games and, as the problem spiralled into the 1980s, there was talk of national ID schemes. Electric fencing to contain supporters was even installed at Stamford Bridge, but never switched on – ironically for safety reasons.

Steadily, football, society and authorities put a lid on the hooligan problem. Many factors played their part, from CCTV, the impact of dreadful disasters, all-seater stadiums, football becoming fashionable again with a new demographic boosting crowds. Chelsea would benefit from those developments, but back in the mid-1970s match-related violence added to the cloud over Stamford Bridge.

Again Chelsea was chiming with wider fashion and the times. From a mod and skinhead culture in the 1960s that turned into something uglier in the 70s, the King’s Road Chelsea was also the epicentre of punk rock and its thirst for anarchy and the new. Across Britain it felt a more fractious time too, with youth sub-cultures in conflict, random violence at all sorts of social gatherings and in the early 1980s, inner-city riots and social unrest. As Chelsea struggled financially, the country’s economy hit relegation form too.

Despite McCreadie’s departure from the dugout, there was a moment of magic when European champions Liverpool were smashed 4-2 in the FA Cup with speedy young attacker Clive Walker to the fore, but our return to the top division did not last long as the rollercoaster went into one of its big dips again.

We're the boys in blue in Division Two...

Managers, including England’s 1966 World Cup hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst, came and went with startling frequency, and there was talk once more of glamorous signings like Netherlands legend Johan Cruyff – but those days were some way off. 

Although Liverpool were once again dumped out the cup by the now second division Blues in 1982, optimism for a quick return to the top flight evaporated. And although the debt had been brought down to £1.3 million (helped partly by the sale of generational star player Wilkins to Man United), the wolf of bankruptcy never felt far from the door. Crowds of under 10,000 at Stamford Bridge were not unknown.

The below video was made after Ray Wilkins' passsing in 2018...

Ray Wilkins - a Chelsea legend

For other clubs, this might have meant disappearing from the national consciousness – but not the King’s Road club. Our struggles were widely followed and, at one point, the team’s failure to score barely any goals for half-a-season became worthy of a Saturday evening update on the television news. That run cost Hurst his job as manager.

The 1982/83 season ranks as the worst in Chelsea history in terms of performance. As the team travelled up to Bolton for our penultimate game we were in such a predicament that whichever side lost that match was surely destined for the third division. For the Blues, an unprecedented relegation to the third tier carried the existential threat of collapse under the weight of debt and no return.

Bolton '83 - celebrating one of the most crucial goals in Chelsea history

It was Walker who saved that day in the pouring Lancashire rain with a late goal of indescribable value and most players threw their shirts into the jubilant massed ranks of travelling supporters. Typically for the time, the cost of replacement jerseys was docked from their wages. The following weekend, a 0-0 draw at home in the final game completed the escape, but despite the relief Chelsea Football Club was still in a real mess.

On this occasion, however, that famous saying proved true: the darkest hour really was just before dawn.