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Whole new ball game

Stamford Bridge opens its doors for Soccer Aid this Sunday, but this is far from the only non-Chelsea event to take place at our west London home over the years.

Indeed, long before football arrived at the Stamford Bridge in 1905 the land had been used for various sports and pursuits, including ballooning and Highland Games, but most importantly athletics: it had been home to the London Athletics Club (LAC) since opening in 1877.

Considering the running track which surrounded the pitch in those days, it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. The same certainly cannot be said about the cricket matches which took place in the early Eighties, with the shape of a football pitch hardly lending itself to even boundaries!

The great West Indies side were touring England in the summer of 1980, winning a rain-affected Test series 1-0, and they finished their trip with a game against Essex at the Bridge. Typically, the weather ensured that a full game could not be played, but not before the great Viv Richards and Graham Gooch had smashed the ball around the ground.

The following year, Ian Botham captured the nation's imagination with some of the greatest cricket ever seen on these shores as he helped England defeat Australia to claim the Ashes. A matter of weeks later, Beefy was striding out to bat for Somerset at Stamford Bridge in a trial competition called the Lambert & Butler Floodlit Trophy. Botham, a Blues supporter, didn’t enjoy a fairytale ending at the ground where his boyhood heroes had plied their trade, as Somerset were beaten by Lancashire.

Two of the most talked about non-football events at Stamford Bridge were another bat and ball sport, however, as our stadium hosted baseball games in 1914 and 1918, organised with the patronage of King George V, who was a Chelsea supporter.

The 1914 ball game was actually between the same teams who are taking part in a match this summer at West Ham’s London Stadium – the Yankees and Red Sox – and was the conclusion of a world tour.

The 1918 Independence Day game was played between the US Navy and US Army, with the King and Liberal Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill among the estimated 50,000 enthusiasts present.

Another American sport would come into the picture at the other end of the century, as NFL Europe team the London Monarchs briefly chose the Bridge as their home in the summer 1997. Even better, Clive Allen, once a centre-forward for the Blues, switched sports to act as the team’s kicker!

However, the most popular sport, other than football, at our home stadium was greyhound racing. After the athletics meetings were taken just up the road to White City, canines replaced humans on the running track and for more than three decades, from the early 1930s, it was a major attraction at the Bridge.

Improvements made to our stadium in that period were often to improve the greyhound enthusiast’s experience and even training sessions for the Blues at the Bridge often had to be curtailed as the players made way for time trials.

Not that they minded too much about that, as our 1955 title-winning winger Frank Blunstone revealed in the new book Chelsea Uncut, which delves into the history of our stadium.

‘It got us out of training on a Monday morning – the whistle would block at 11 o’clock for us to come off,’ he recalled.

‘We weren’t supposed to watch the greyhound races, but the lads used to nick on every now and again. I can’t remember any good wins, but there was a maximum wage in those days so we didn’t have much to bet with!’

Moving back to the beautiful game, did you know that Stamford Bridge hosted FA Cup finals during the 1920s?

Aston Villa and Huddersfield Town met in 1920 at our west London home, with the Villans emerging victorious, and there were two further finals held before Wembley Stadium opened to become the home of English football.

We’ve also hosted internationals over the years, dating back to England matches midway through the last century through to more recent times, when Brazil and Russia met a year before the 2014 World Cup which was being hosted by the South American country.

David Luiz and Oscar were two Blues selected in the starting XI and a future Chelsea Premier League title winner, Diego Costa also made a substitute appearance, the second for the country of his birth. He would later switch allegiance to Spain ahead of the World Cup.

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