CHAPTER 6: A new broom and a new boom
‘It was done. Seventy-seven years after H.A. Mears had founded Chelsea his grandsons had thrown it away – the Mears dynasty was over and my era was about to begin. I resolved it would be different or I would die in the attempt.’
– Ken Bates
'We have two cheques in today – one for the players’ wages, the other for the FA’s share of proceeds from an FA Cup tie – which one shall we bounce?’
The question, effectively ‘catch 22’ for such an indebted and beleaguered football club, came from Chelsea’s bankers to our then chief executive at the end of March 1982.
Stopping the FA’s cheque would have dropped the final curtain on the Chelsea story, so the players went unpaid to buy a little more time. But the Mears family’s desperate efforts to keep control of the club founded by their forebears were reaching a cul-de-sac.
There had already been discussions over Ken Bates taking over at least part of the Chelsea operation. Bates was a businessman who despite being a Londoner by birth had been on the board at Football League clubs in Lancashire. Now the talks were on again in earnest.
Famously, when the deal was done on 2 April, Bates bought the football club for only £1 but for that, he did not acquire its major asset. Recently, as part of the debt management, the freehold of the Stamford Bridge stadium site had been divided off from the club into a separate company, SB Properties, which owed £1.6m.
‘Chelsea was owned by a holding company, with the ground and the debt belonging to the football club and not the holding company,’ Bates explained. ‘We have transferred the ground and the debt to the holding company and the ground has been leased to the club.
‘The lease is for seven years, or as long as they pay the rent, but it can be extended and there is an agreement that if we redevelop here the club must be included in it or rehoused somewhere agreeable to them.’
Chelsea were again tenants in our own ground, as we had been until the early 1970s. This new separation would come to overshadow, hinder and threaten us for years to come.
But first the new chairman set about turning the business around. Jobs were cut, some players were released and ticket prices were raised. As he pointed out publicly, even the supposed fundraising lottery was losing money. There was much work to be done.
It was not helped initially when in the first full season of Bates in control, 1982/83, Chelsea suffered the worst season in our history. Relegation to the third tier became a distinct and disastrous possibility. Just what would that do to the money crisis and the chances of survival?
Crucially, Bates stuck by the quiet but wise manager he had inherited – John Neal – and when the team narrowly retained its place in the second division, a major overhaul of the playing staff began. Many were shipped out while Bates made enough money available for Neal, and his talent-spotting assistant Ian McNeill, to conduct one of the most astute signing sprees ever.
Neal's new-look Blues soar
In, from the lower divisions of the Football League or smaller clubs in Scotland came big, blond, strapping striker Kerry Dixon, the wisp-like wing wizard Pat Nevin, the non-stop midfield energy and forward drive of Nigel Spackman, the no-nonsense but solid centre-back play of Joe McLaughlin and a goalkeeper of immense promise from Wales, Eddie Niedzwiecki. Blues legend John Hollins also returned home in a player/coach role.
They were added to the pick of those who had come through at Chelsea previously, such as Colin Pates and John Bumstead, plus earlier Neal signings: the combative pair of David Speedie and Joey Jones.
Talk about hitting the ground running. Incredibly, this new mix won its first game in the 1983/84 season by a 5-0 scoreline, with Dixon, one of four debutants, netting twice, and it soon became clear the previous season’s relegation strugglers were transformed into genuine promotion chasers.
Kerry Dixon, Paul Canoville and Pat Nevin remember great times in the 80s
Local rivals Fulham were dismissed 5-3 on their own patch with Nevin beginning to shine, before the young Scot was inspirational in a 4-0 demolition of fellow promotion chasers Newcastle United, and their star player Kevin Keegan.
When there was a slight wobble in midwinter, Neal responded by signing a player he knew well from one of his former clubs Wrexham – livewire wideman Mickey Thomas. In keeping with the season, Thomas scored twice on his home debut as closest challengers Sheffield Wednesday were defeated and he would not be on the losing side that season. The crowds were returning too, with a new ‘football casual’ fashion of designer sportswear and flick hairstyles sweeping the terraces across the country. There was a buzz about the Bridge again.
Old enemies Leeds were beaten 5-0 to win promotion – Dixon with a hat-trick – and Stamford Bridge’s new golden boy scored the only goal in the final game at Grimsby to secure the Division Two title.
‘Chelsea are back!’ was one of the terrace songs of the season, and indeed we were, after five years away from the top flight. To go from so low to so high so quickly, it is no wonder the 1983/84 season is up there with the very favourites for those who witnessed it.
But could the new Chelsea cut it in Division One? There could barely be a greater test than on the opening day of the next season when the Blues travelled across town to Arsenal. Our fans had been starved of such occasions and turned up en masse, able to pay on the gate and take over a large proportion of Highbury Stadium, which erupted in joy when Dixon equalised in a 1-1 draw.
It did not take long to establish that the Dixon-Speedie-Nevin forward line could excel at this level and table-toppers Everton and Liverpool were beaten away and at home respectively.
‘[David Speedie] was good at all the things I wasn’t so good at, and the same was true the other way around. We quickly developed a telepathy. I knew if he was going to get to the ball to head it on – for a small man he could jump all right, and he had great ability. You can include Pat Nevin as part of the set-up, as well. He created some great chances for us both with some terrific wing play and trickery.’
- Kerry Dixon, ‘Up Front’
To add to the excitement, the silverware-starved Blues were on a League Cup run that produced an absolute epic in the quarter-final against Sheffield Wednesday.
Replays stretched it to three games in 10 days and in the second of those, Neal’s men were seemingly down and out with a 3-0 deficit at half-time in Yorkshire, before recovering fantastically to lead 4-3 until conceding a late penalty. Back at the Bridge, the tie was won by a last-minute Thomas header from a Paul Canoville corner.
Canoville had been one of the heroes of the 4-4 game, scoring Chelsea’s first seconds after coming on at half-time, and also netting the goal that put us ahead. The Sheffield Wednesday tie would prove to be the pinnacle of a Chelsea career of immense importance in our history.
Signed as a teenager from the London non-leagues, Canoville was a fast and talented winger who was to become a vital pioneer for the club. Although there had been black players at the club since the 1930s, ‘King Canners’ was the first to be handed a first team debut.
That was in April 1982 at Crystal Palace and it resulted in shameful scenes. Introduced as a substitute, Canoville was subjected to appalling racist abuse from a significant proportion of those who were there to support Chelsea.
Naturally, it shocked him to his core and persisted at every match. Manager Neal tried his best to be supportive and after Nevin joined and the scenes were repeated in another game at Palace two years later, the Scot used his media interviews as the scorer of the winning goal to tell those responsible for the reprehensible behaviour that they had to change their ways.
Such words from a fan favourite and good performances from Canoville (he played his part in the promotion success) seemed to have an effect and by the Sheffield spectacular, his name was regularly sung.
Though he left Chelsea a year later and soon retired from the professional game due to injury, he was a trailblazer. His resilience paved the way for other black players who steadily became more accepted and then idolised by the vast majority of Chelsea fans – leading to the diverse club of today.
Paul Canoville discusses skin colour and experiences with Callum Hudson-Odoi
Too good to go down?
Unfortunately, Chelsea’s dream of making a cup final in 1985 evaporated unexpectedly at the semi-final stage against Sunderland, and though hopes of qualifying for Europe through our league position were washed out on a waterlogged pitch in the final game (the Heysel Disaster and a subsequent ban for English clubs would have cancelled that achievement anyway), a sixth-place finish in the First Division was a great return – the club’s highest since 1970/71.
It was a sixth position repeated the following season too, and Chelsea, now under the management of John Hollins following ill-health for Neal, were genuine title-chasers until two bad defeats over Easter which had not been helped by an ultimately career-ending injury for the outstanding Niedzwiecki.
The loss of the goalkeeper was just one of several cracks that were beginning to appear. Weaknesses at full-back were strengthened with the signing of quality players Steve Clarke and Tony Dorigo but it was now going wrong elsewhere. Other new arrivals failed to spark, a more rudimentary style of play was adopted, dressing room morale fractured, and Neal’s team began to break up.
Before the end of the 1987/88 season, the inexperienced Hollins was replaced at the helm by Bobby Campbell, but relegation could not be avoided. The final blow was dealt in a play-off with Middlesbrough who came up from the division below. Chelsea remain the only top-flight team ever to be relegated through the play-offs.
All the good work from just a few years earlier had seemingly unravelled but this Chelsea showed they should have been the proverbial team ‘too good to go down’ by cruising back to the top division at the first time of asking. The Blues became Division Two champions with a record 99 points, then finished fifth in Division One the following season – a peak not seen for 20 years.
Dixon had rediscovered his scoring touch in the promotion season, alongside other forwards Gordon Durie and Kevin Wilson, and steel had been added to defence and midfield in the form of Graham Roberts and Peter Nicholas. Dave Beasant, one of the heroes of Wimbledon’s famous FA Cup final triumph over Liverpool, was now in goal.
Dixon was even closing in on the then all-time Chelsea goalscoring record of 202 by Bobby Tambling. Ultimately he would fall short when his nine seasons came to an end with a still brilliant 193 goals.
While his time at Chelsea was drawing to a close, other Stamford Bridge careers were beginning as the club, re-established in the top flight, made our first signings over £1 million in the shape of midfielder Andy Townsend and winger Dennis Wise, one of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ who had won the FA Cup in 1988.
While that showed ambition to a degree, the Blues were still challenging rival clubs with the equivalent of one arm tied behind our back.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge fought in 1066 is a famous part of medieval English history but that was in Yorkshire. Nearly one thousand years later and over 200 miles further south, in west London, a very different re-enactment was taking place. Instead of Saxons and Vikings, those doing battle were Chelsea Football Club and property developers who had gained ownership of our stadium’s land.
SB Properties, the company that retained the freehold when Bates took control of the football operation, had fallen into the developers’ grasp. Former Chelsea directors and shareholders, members of the Mears family among them, sold their shares to speculators Marler Estates.
Importantly, however, one of those past directors, the Oscar-winning film director and actor Richard Attenborough, was not one of them. He remained loyal to the football team he loved and kept his shares while Bates managed to snap up others. The chairman rewarded Attenborough by making him life vice-president of Chelsea, and the club made him life president in 2008.
The property developers had their eye on moving the club out of the Bridge to groundshare elsewhere so the value of one of the most valuable pieces of land in the UK could be exploited for profit, but Bates was up for the fight.
For nearly a decade, legal challenges, delaying manoeuvres and diversionary tactics rumbled on and drained Chelsea of energy and money. While other clubs spent big, the Blues could not match them. While other clubs redeveloped their stadiums in the wake of the Hillsborough and Heysel Disasters, we were unable to make a start on bringing a tired old ground up to modern standards. Fans were even asked to contribute to a ‘Save The Bridge’ fighting fund.
But our developer foes were being drained too, not least by a collapse in the UK property market as the 1980s became the 1990s. They eventually went bust in 1992 and the Battle of the Bridge had been won. Chelsea struck a favourable deal to map out the purchase of the freehold with the bank that had picked up the pieces.
To guard against any future threat of homelessness, the Chelsea Pitch Owners scheme which divides the ownership of the land the stadium sits on among many thousands was started.
With those shackles off, the potential was there for Chelsea to rise and grow and reach the heights of former glories, yet cup upsets against lower division sides rather than cup finals were proving the order of the day and in 1991/92, the last season of the old First Division before the Premier League began, we finished well below halfway in 14th. Despite renewed optimism off the field, it seemed the ‘consistently inconsistent Chelsea’ of old was back playing on it.
Bobby Campbell had been replaced as manager by his former coach Ian Porterfield but the Scot’s step up to the number one role proved short. During our maiden Premier League campaign, we exited both cup competitions in the space of one grim January week and our league form threatened relegation.
A self-described ‘Red Adair manager’ (in reference to the famous emergency fire-fighter of the day), David Webb had scored the winning goal in our 1970 FA Cup triumph over Leeds. Now he was handed the reins with the brief to assess the squad and steer us away from the drop zone. Those targets were met, but the crowds were desperate for the style and ambition of the era in which Webb had played, rather than the pragmatic fare he had turned to as short-term steward.
Freed from the exhausting battle of the Bridge, sleeping giant Chelsea was ripe for big change and it was on its way. The unlikely catalyst for revolution was the icon of a London rival who made his way to west London via the West Country and the lower leagues.