The elusive dream: Chelsea and the European Cup

On the anniversary of a meeting that denied Chelsea the chance to make history in the first flowering of the European Cup competition, now known as the Champions League, and with the Blues once again holders of the title European champions, club historian Rick Glanvill tells the story in this long read of the manoeuvres and committees of 1955 and how the then English title-winners were kept at home…

Just before Kai Havertz slotted the ball over the line against Manchester City in the Champions League final, he glanced up at the empty net for orientation.

In that split second he may have pictured it being the match-winner, and perhaps a flash-memory of Didier Drogba’s penalty dispatch for Chelsea’s only previous final victory in the competition. He may not have been aware that he was fulfilling a destiny denied the club by small-minded bureaucracy and football politics decades earlier.

5 July 2021 is the 66th anniversary of one of the most fateful decisions in Chelsea’s history, when the club was forced to announce its withdrawal from the inaugural 1955/56 European Champion Clubs’ Cup, now the Champions League.

The competition had been born amid cheers from delegates at a small, elite meeting organised by L’Equipe magazine in Paris’s Ambassador Hotel on Saturday 2 April 1955.

While Chelsea club secretary John Battersby was enthusiastically midwifing its birth in France, back in London Ted Drake’s Blues were winning 4-2 at White Hart Lane to stay on course for a first ever title triumph. An incredible moment for the Londoners, and perhaps another unique opportunity in the offing.

Fast forward a year, and in France’s capital 40,000 spectators and the TV cameras of Europe’s broadcasters watched Real Madrid beat Stade de Reims 4-3 in the final. It set Los Merengues on course to becoming the world’s biggest club.

The novel competition instantly looked a brilliant idea and a guaranteed success, with secretary of the Football Association, Sir Stanley Rous, noting it was ‘rather moving to witness the birth of a tradition. A historic moment is an opportunity worth experiencing on the spot.’

Yet founding members Chelsea and the forward-thinking Drake had actually played no part in the competition. What had gone wrong? And what else did the Blues miss out on?

Firstly, it is useful to understand the context for the cup’s creation. A Daily Mail article in late 1954 proclaiming Wolves ‘world champions’ after the Old Gold side successively beat Honved and Spartak was read by 65-year-old L’Equipe magazine editor Gabriel Hanot.

He responded in print on 15 December 1954 in an editorial: ‘Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: Milan and Real Madrid to name but two.

‘The idea of a club world championship, or at least a European one – larger, more meaningful and more prestigious than the Mitropa Cup and more original than a competition for national teams – should be launched. Let us take such a risk.’

The magazine began to formulate its thoughts: ‘It could be based on the following principles: home and away legs on midweek evenings, mostly under floodlights, sponsorship from international television.’

The framework began to take shape in early 1955. The dates for two-leg, home and away rounds were flexible, though round one would be completed by 31 October, quarter-finals between 1 November and January 1956, semis between 1 February and 31 April; even the date of the final was not fixed straight away.

While champions were preferable, L’Equipe felt 16 of the ‘most representative and prestigious clubs’ would generate instant credibility. On 3 February 1955, the clubs’ names were published and letters of invitation to formation talks in Paris were dispatched.

At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea chair Joe Mears had read the letter and asked Battersby for his views. ‘With the advent of flying,’ he replied, ‘it won’t be long before European competition is quite feasible.’ Mears said: ‘Go over.’

All other clubs responded equally positively except Milan, who had internal issues, but most said they would need the agreement of their association first.

War-scarred Essen were among those questioning the capacity to install floodlights in time, but Real president Santiago Bernabeu was more enthusiastic, throwing open the doors of the arena that now bears his name. ‘Spain is ready to welcome to its 100,000-capacity stadiums teams from all European countries,’ he vowed, ‘including those from behind the Iron Curtain’ (referring to countries aligned with the Soviet Union in the ‘Cold War’).

Bernabeu’s reference to crowds hinted at the revenue-generation he spied. Transcontinental football could be an exotic and highly lucrative new attraction. L’Equipe would obviously benefit from midweek sales, but recognised the importance of TV broadcasting to the tournament’s economics.

Interestingly, their timing was excellent on that front: from the ruins of World War Two had come far-reaching cooperative structures that helped set the stage for the new cup.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an alliance of continent-wide public service television broadcasters had come together in 1950. Now, the Eurovision Song Contest would not be the only pan-European project brought to millions of television sets. Equally, technological advances were improving outside broadcasts, cutting journeys and flights, and flooding stadiums with light.

And at a meeting in Basel on 15 June 1954, a year after FIFA had sanctioned the creation of continent-wide bodies in the game, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) entered the scene, bringing authorities across the continent together in joint enterprise.

These new authorities could become major partners in Hanot’s European Cup – if he could convince them. At the UEFA congress of 2 March 1955, L’Equipe made a presentation of their proposals, and it landed like a dull thud on the carpet. ‘It’s a good idea,’ was president Ebbe Schwartz’s careful response, ‘but nobody knows how the associations will react.’

This was crucial because UEFA had just been set with the remit of introducing a cup competition for national teams – the associations’ main priority – but that plan had just been shelved. It would be unseemly now for the fledgling executive committee suddenly to embrace L’Equipe’s club equivalent.

If a timid UEFA was in no mood to take on the planning, the French magazine decided to push the envelope, arranging the get-together with the representatives of the invited clubs, including Chelsea, at Paris’s Ambassador Hotel on Boulevard Haussmann on 2 and 3 April 1955.

The competition regulations were agreed in an atmosphere of ‘joyful excitement,’ L’Equipe’s Jacques Ferran later recalled, ‘as if the delegates from Milan, Belgrade, London and Lisbon were deeply aware of the importance of what they were doing.’

An executive organising committee was created, with Battersby one of its members. They would be responsible for choosing the first ever European Cup match-ups (each tie since has been drawn out of a hat – or bowl).

Purists who scoff that since 1992/93 the competition has featured clubs invited on merit places, not ‘champions’, might like to know that a far more motley crew of participants had passports into this prestigious realm when it was first staged.

Chelsea were among the several title-winners, but Saarbrucken from a post-war state independent of what is now Germany were among three who had finished third, Hibernian were fifth in Scotland, and Servette had been sixth best in Switzerland.

Nevertheless the emerging details generated positive articles right across the continent and drove decision-making as Hanot had hoped.

In May and June, under pressure from UEFA, FIFA ruled that no other body was authorised to run a pan-European football tournament, and that UEFA should take over. It would be called the European Champions Clubs’ Cup, but all other arrangements from April stayed in place. Game on.

Or so we thought. Just as the prize was placed on display and arrangements made, institutional attitudes hardened, and English football authorities were said to be against the concept. The FA had, after all, decided to sit out the first World Cup back in 1930 which one official snortingly derided as ‘magnifying the minnows’.

Assistant secretary Alan Hardaker is often blamed for what happened next, at a meeting of the Football League Management Committee at the Great Western Hotel, Paddington, on 5 July 1955. His role in the room was merely as observer and minute-taker (‘mouth shut, feet on the ground, just listening and learning’), however, with Arthur Drewry in the chair.

‘The League Secretary, Mr Fred Howarth, reported that Chelsea FC had informed him that they had accepted an invitation to participate in the competition between clubs from European countries,’ Hardaker’s notes reveal, ‘and asked for the approval of the Management Committee. Although of the opinion that they could not withhold permission, the Management Committee instructed the secretary to ask Chelsea FC to give the matter further consideration because they thought that their playing in such a competition would not be in the best interests of the League.

‘The Management Committee did not therefore, in so many words, forbid Chelsea to take part, for the very good reason that they did not have the power, but the meeting was unanimous that Chelsea should be requested to stand down.’ In other words, the London club’s representatives would be strong-armed into withdrawing and denied a moment to make history.

Crucially, one committee member’s voice was absent – that of the Blues’ chair of directors, Joe Mears, who was ill. League secretary Howarth telephoned afterwards to pass on the bad news, to which Mears pliantly acceded from his sickbed. He then rang round his fellow Chelsea board members and later informed the committee that the invitation would be turned down.

Had Mears been present at the meeting he no doubt would have pressed Chelsea’s case, but in truth he was caught in a web of football politics. He was fiercely ambitious, and had recently added Football Association board membership to his CV.

A few weeks before that fateful phone call he had stood for election as Football League president but was unsuccessful. Rocking the boat risked sinking any further advancement, even though the decision contradicted his well-known principles.

A Royal Marine during World War Two, Mears was a confirmed internationalist in peacetime, representing the FA at the Congress of European Federations in March 1953. It was there that he supported UEFA’s shelved competition involving only European nations – mentioned earlier – that we now know as the Euros.

And when he was elected chair of the Football Association in October 1963 the then 58-year-old pronounced that, ‘The entry of English clubs into European soccer is the best thing that has happened to football for a long time.’ It is inconceivable the forward-thinking Mears would have held a different view eight years earlier.

Forty-four years would pass before the invitation winged its way to Stamford Bridge again. By then, Chelsea had won three of UEFA’s lesser prizes: two Cup Winners’ Cups (1970/71 and 1997/98) and one Super Cup (1998). The Blues eventually landed the big one in 2011/12, 57 years on from its inauguration.

In his autobiography, the notoriously xenophobic Hardaker absolved himself of blame for denying Chelsea the chance to ‘crack the continentals', and actually harangued the committee for its short-sighted attitude.

‘What I could not understand was the lack of vision then shown by the committee. They reached their decision about Chelsea in just a quarter of an hour … The subject of Europe had been dealt with to their satisfaction in less time than it takes to smoke a small cigar. They did not for a moment wonder about the possibilities of European football. No one said: ‘Right! Now let’s look at the potential.’

'No one asked if the idea was good, or whether the organisation was right, or what the benefits and disadvantages were likely to be. There was not a glimmer of curiosity. The decision was taken and the subject forgotten.’

This ‘glorious piece of insularity’ was, Hardaker claimed, retrospectively, ‘one of the Management Committee’s biggest mistakes.’

Just 12 months later Manchester United were crowned champions and smartly told the League their invitation to play European Cup football had come from the Football Association, whose secretary, Rous, had spoken of the 1956 Paris final so warmly.

When the League protested, the Mancunians dug their heels in and said preparations had already been made. On 9 September 1956 the committee admitted defeat, allowing United, not Chelsea, to become England’s European pioneers. Remarkably, 12 days before the first final Mears had been re-elected to the League management committee, thereby having a say in the Manchester club’s fate.

A year earlier, the Blues announced the withdrawal from UEFA’s new competition on 25 July, 20 days after Mears’s ring-around, making plenty of headlines.

‘Crash! Down came the Football League Management’s Iron Curtain at Stamford Bridge this week,’ blared Bryan Lewis of the West London Observer. 'Blues supporters have been anxiously awaiting further news, and then along comes the Football League with their favourite – and overworked – “damper”, the over-crowded League programme.

‘I asked [assistant manager] Stewart Davidson whether Chelsea would have gone ahead with their plans if they had got the go-ahead from the League. His answer? “Our plans were only provisional.” But Mr Davidson admitted that Chelsea were to have played a match on the Continent in September and that a top Swedish team were to have been the visitors at Stamford Bridge in October.’

This detail allows us a moment to imagine an alternative chapter in the Chelsea story. The Swedish team was Djurgarden and ironically, on 18 July when the European Cup organising committee published the first round ties it had drawn up, it was they who were yet to confirm entry, while Chelsea were in.

The away fixture would have been at the Stockholm Olympic Stadium on 20 September 1955 and on 12 October the Allsvenskan title-winners would have come to the Bridge for the decisive leg.

The tie would have meant renewing links with Anglo-Chinese football pioneer Frank Soo, who had played as a guest for Chelsea during World War Two. In the event Soo’s men faced the Blues’ replacements Gwardia Warsaw, champions of Poland, drawing 0-0 at home and winning 4-1 away. The Swedes came a cropper in the next round, the quarter-finals, against Hibernian, who had only finished fifth in 1954/55.

The first match in Stockholm was moved because of adverse winter weather and, similar to Chelsea in 2020/21, Djurgarden’s ‘home’ venue became neutral Partick Thistle’s Firhill – in Glasgow. Hibs took a commanding 3-1 lead back to Easter Road, where they won 1-0. In turn, the Scots fell to Stade de Reims in the semi-final, and the French side were beaten 4-3 by Real in the final itself.

A tantalising ‘what if’ question revolves around how well Ted Drake’s side would have fared in that sequence. It seems likely the Blues would have been good enough to reach the semi-finals at least. Then – who knows? – the world of football might have lionised Chelsea in Paris in 1956 instead of Real … or Celtic in 1967 and Man United the following year.

Analysis of Chelsea’s 1955/56 fixtures also reveals the travesty of the committee’s argument of a ‘full diary’. The Blues had free midweeks for every round of European Cup fixtures except one, over Easter, including the final. Chelsea’s programme even had to find space for four FA Cup replays against Burnley in February.

Meanwhile, tickets for Europe’s first major club showdown at the Parc des Princes in Paris on 13 June 1956 were like gold-dust. Real Madrid players were on a reported £400 per man to win it and lift the initial trophy, donated by L’Equipe, which still takes pride of place in Real’s museum 65 years on.

What a missed opportunity this may have been for Chelsea. Twenty-nine matches had been watched by 800,000 paying spectators, an average of 28,000 per game, who witnessed 127 goals, or four per game.

Huge crowds meant windfall gate money and public interest created valuable broadcast rights. Through the EBU, the BBC was able to televise the second half of the 1956 final live. Imagine the audience and the legacy had the Londoners been broadcast across the nation that flaming June.

One Englishman did take part in Paris, though, and was instantly enchanted. After officiating the final, legendary referee Arthur Ellis noted: ‘Modern travel now makes a visit to the Continent look like a trip to the seaside.’ He claimed the journey from Paris to his home in Yorkshire was just three hours and 25 minutes. Chelsea’s club secretary Battersby, formerly employed by Thomas Cook, certainly agreed.

‘I believe this competition has come to stay,’ Ellis wrote, ‘and I trust nothing will be put in the way of Manchester United … from participating in it next season. Chelsea must have felt like kicking themselves for withdrawing from it after seeing its success.’ And so say all of us.

Ultimately the European Cup, a product of the jet age, was about romance and thrill-seeking, change and renewal. Of the 20 clubs originally involved in the preparation and fulfilment of Gabriel Hanot’s dream, only four – Milan, Real, Chelsea, and PSV – have gone on to lift the trophy.

‘The other evening,’ wrote L’Equipe’s Antoine Blondin of the 1956 final, ‘there was something of the nativity at the Parc des Princes where, under a starry sky, football’s first European Cup was glimpsed by 40,000 wise men who had brought with them the myrrh and frankincense of a new enthusiasm.’

Above gate receipts, prestige, possibly even glory, come the sizzling sensations, the unique moments, the garlands of history… those are why we love football, and especially European nights. And that is what Chelsea, once again holders of this storied trophy, really missed out on back in 1955.