Last week in the first part of our The History of Chelsea Women series, we started at the beginning of the story that has led up to a sell-out crowd for our Women’s Super League opener at Stamford Bridge on Sunday 8 September.
The Stage is set for that match and having previously looked back to a women’s game in our stadium almost a century earlier and a trophy-winning 1970s incarnation of Chelsea Women following the lifting of a ban on female football, in part two of the History of Chelsea Women today, we recall the rebirth of the team in the 1990s leading up to the start of the modern era…
A new team in London as Chelsea Ladies begin in 1992
‘At last – the official Chelsea women’s football team.’‘We will show that women can play football and just as well as the men.’With those lines in the matchday programme for one of the Chelsea men’s games at the start of the 1990s, the manager of a new Chelsea Women’s team, Tony Farmer, announced the fresh project to the Blues fanbase.However he did admit there was a lot of catching up to do with the likes of Arsenal, Wimbledon and Millwall who were leading the way in London with long-established women’s teams playing in a new national league.
The aim was to surpass those outfits but for Chelsea who started with around 50 players training twice a week with a view to fielding two senior teams and one Under-14 side, it was to be the local leagues. We were starting small and the players could be found at Stamford Bridge on men’s match days selling lottery tickets to raise funds for the side.The first campaign for what came to be named Chelsea Ladies was 1992/93, coincidentally a sea-change season for the men’s game in general with the start of the Premier League and the Champions League. Our women finished third in the Greater London Women’s League Division Three, behind Barnet and Mill Hill.
1993/94 however brought the first promotion, the team remaining unbeaten as they stormed to the championship. Often fielding seven players under the age of 16, they also beat four First Division sides in various competitions. Crowds ranged from a handful to 150. Promotion was directly from that Third Division into the Greater London First Division.A second successive promotion elevated the team to the local Premier Division with striker Julie Newell prominent in these early seasons. Although the kit matched the one worn by the Chelsea men of the day, it was notable the shirt sponsor differed.
The National League was now the target but at the start of the first Premier League season, top players left for Arsenal. Chelsea were still a long way off being able to compete with the top sides but we did enter the Women’s FA Cup for the first time. That brought its own difficulties with the cost of travel to Newcastle for a replay sending the season’s costs up significantly.
Losing players but showcased at Chelsea’s Wembley FA Cup final
1996/97 was a year of consolidation but third place meant no promotion play-off spot. While the men were lifting their first FA Cup in a generation, the Ladies lost two local cup finals and failure to reach the National League meant losing the best players was a recurring theme. Every year the management had to half re-build the team. Frustration! Five years in existence, there was still plenty of catching up to do before Chelsea could offer the rewards, the platform and the amount of training other clubs were able to.There had, however, been the chance to show our skills at that men’s 1997 FA Cup final when Chelsea beat Middlesbrough, with the two clubs’ women’s teams playing an exhibition match on the Wembley turf beforehand. A year earlier, in another exhibition game, this time at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea Ladies had taken on Manchester United as part of the club’s Eurofest, an event organised by then chairman Ken Bates to run alongside the end of Euro ‘96, which was being hosted in England.The match took place the day before the final between Germany and Czech Republic. The female Blues side had also played Arsenal at the Bridge in May 1995 as part of a charity day.
Back in the world of competitive football in the second half of the 1990s, restructuring of the league pyramid threatened to take Chelsea even further away from the top tier but we successfully made it into a new South East Counties League for 1998/99, although a second-place finish was still not enough to climb into the elusive National League structure (the Blues were beaten to that by Wembley Mill Hill).
Chelsea Ladies win leagues, cups and earn international caps
However and significantly, a first piece of silverware since the 1970s version of the women’s team was won. We beat National League side Reading Royals 2-1 to win the County Cup. Another indication of progress was the team’s first ever England recognition when Casey Stoney was selected for England Under-18s. The story remained the same however when she was soon taken by Arsenal. Fara Williams, who was staying a Blue, then made England U16s.
After eight years of existence, Chelsea Ladies in 1999/00 left the local leagues and moved to a regional one, which now fed directly into the top national league. It was a season of unprecedented success as the team retained the County Cup, won their League Cup and their league title. The treble winners proudly showed off their trophies at half-time in a Stamford Bridge game. They had gained promotion to the Women’s Premier League (Southern).From the main club came extra funding which paid for a physio, a fitness coach and a second main coach and in our first season in the south section we came close to promotion straight up into the big time as we finished runners up to Brighton, missing promotion by one point. We retained the County Cup for a third year in succession.
Williams, by now an England Under-18 international, was top scorer but ominously Fulham, who were new to our division, turned fully professional.In 2001/02 with Fulham training 25 hours a week and Chelsea still on that 1992 schedule of two evenings a week for 90 minutes each, our neighbours had no trouble leap-frogging us and into the league above. In fact we slipped to fourth. Young goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain broke into England U19s.The following season it really felt like Chelsea Ladies were treading water and the squad was completely rebuilt under new boss George Michaelas who was previously the youth coach. Only one player was left from the treble-winning side but still we were competing against pro or semi-pro sides for promotion to the top division. We lost England goalkeeper Chamberlain to Fulham, having previously said goodbye to future England captain Stoney, Williams and highly rated Eartha Pond. But change was in the air.
Becoming a financed part of Chelsea FC
Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea and 2003/04 was the final season as a self-financed team for our female players - and how welcome that end was! For an away game versus Middlesbrough, five players had not been able to afford the cost of overnight accommodation. We finished fourth in the southern division, won the Surrey Cup and reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, an all-time best in that competition, but there were bucket collections to raise money at the Bridge that April.In 2004/05, promotion to the FA Women’s Premier League was finally won and a five-year strategy to make it into the top four was announced.Now under the wing of Chelsea’s Football in the Community programme and playing at Imber Court, the home of non-league side the Met Police, the Blues rose from an initial bottom-place finish in the top division to eighth. We signed Eniola Aluko and Stoney returned. Those were statements. Both were full England internationals and youth international Clare Rafferty signed from Millwall. Then Chamberlain also re-joined a rising force in the women’s game as we moved up to fifth in the league.
World Cup-winner Lorrie Fair was first announced as an ambassador but then became the first USA international to move to the Women’s League in England, although serious injury soon after becoming a Chelsea player meant her contribution became more an assistant manager to Steve Jones, who had taken over from Shaun Gore for 2008/09.We signed England internationals Lianne Sanderson and Anita Asante and finished an all-time-best third behind Arsenal and Everton for two years running.Stoney was briefly player-manager before Matt Beard became the last Chelsea Ladies manager prior to the Emma Hayes era. Young Drew Spence emerged and we made it as far as the semi-final of the FA Cup before losing to Arsenal.Then the modern era of the game in England truly began. Chelsea were founder members of the Women’s Super League in March 2011.
The Stage Is Set
Tickets for the London derby against Tottenham Women sold out in record time but a few returned standard tickets are back available to claim free of charge, plus some restricted view tickets. There is also a Brunch + Ticket package offer.