Welcome to the next instalment of our ‘Falls from Grace’ series where we take a look back at the rapid declines suffered by certain clubs over the years. In previous editions, we have looked at the malaise that European Cup winners Aston Villa and Manchester United found themselves in just a few years after winning ‘Old Big Ears’, and today we have a look at another club that hit upon hard times just a few years after winning a major European trophy.
London in the mid-1960s was said to be a ‘swinging’ place to be. Whether this particular referred to certain bedroom activities or not is perhaps left best unresearched, but it certainly appeared to be amongst the nation’s hot spots for fashion, culture and a certain hedonistic lifestyle.
It was during this period that Chelsea Football Club started attracting headlines and attention on and off the field. Under the leadership of Tommy Docherty, the side played with a youthful yet swashbuckling style that drew many admirers within the game.
Stamford Bridge for a while acted as a magnet for the rich and famous who wished to have some of the club’s perceived glamour rub off on them and many a household name from film, television or music could be seen adorning the stadium on match day.
Under Docherty, the League Cup was secured and the final of the FA Cup reached. Chelsea also seriously challenged for the league title for the first time in a decade and all told it was a time of excitement, mystery and mischief along the King’s Road. When Docherty finally ran out of steam, he was replaced by Dave Sexton and the good times continued to roll.
The years 1970 to 1972 were successful in as much as firstly the FA Cup was secured, then its European extension the Cup Winners’ Cup was added and finally, another League Cup Final was reached. With the announcement that the club was looking to redevelop the Stamford Bridge stadium into a state of the art arena, it looked like the glory days were ready to continue indefinitely.
Just a few short years later and the club was bouncing around between the first and second divisions.
So, what went wrong? Well, to start with Dave Sexton seemed to both lose his mojo and get fed up with what he perceived to be the antics and lack of professionalism of some of his so-called stars. According to Sexton, some of the players were beginning to believe their hype and were appearing too frequently in nightclubs and the fashion pages of magazines and not enough on the training field for his liking. This led to fallings-out with players such as Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood and David Webb and all three were ultimately sold to the dismay of the Chelsea support.
Results started heading south and Chelsea fell out of the running for major honours. The 1973-74 season was a poor one and relegation was only avoided by a solitary point in the end. Sexton needed a good start to the following campaign but unfortunately, none was forthcoming and after just six games of the season he was dismissed.
By now the club had started construction on the massive East Stand and that was to prove a financial money pit in the years to come. This meant that transfer funds were limited, to say the least, and what money was garnered through outward sales was seemingly squandered on players far below the standards of those departing.
Sexton was replaced by the first team coach, but form remained woeful and it was to the surprise of nobody that the club was relegated in April 1975. It was a rapid drop in fortunes for a side that had just four years previously reigned in Europe courtesy of defeating Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. Now instead of rampaging through Europe, Chelsea faced the somewhat more humble prospect of away days at places such as York City, Hull City, Plymouth Argyle and Leyton Orient, while home matches would be played in front of gates as low as 12,000 in a crumbling building site of a stadium.
If Chelsea thought they would sweep through the second flight in the manner Manchester United had done a year earlier, they were in for a rude awakening. Another pretty drab campaign followed under new manager, Eddie McCreadie, and the best that could be achieved was a dismal eleventh-place finish.
The following season, 1976-77, saw the shoots of recovery start to push through with McCreadie putting his trust in youth. With a young Ray Wilkins beginning to mature, promotion was a real possibility for most of the season and was finally secured with a runners-up finish behind champions Wolves.
With Chelsea and McCreadie now back in the big time, the future at least looked steady if not spectacular but then things all started to go pear-shaped once more and if legend is to be believed, it was all due to a disagreement over a club car.
After securing promotion, McCreadie went to see Chairman Brian Mears about his contract and bonuses. During discussions, so the tale goes, McCreadie asked Mears for an upgrade on the company car he was currently being provided with and when this request was rejected, McCreadie quit in a fit of pique.
McCreadie was replaced by his former full-back partner, Ken Shellito, and Chelsea struggled to re-establish themselves in the top flight. Although relegation was avoided in 1978, the following season was a similarly tough one and with the club firmly entrenched in the relegation zone as Christmas approached, Shillito was dismissed and in his place came Danny Blanchflower.
Blanchflower was, and remains, a legend in the game based upon what he achieved as a player with Tottenham Hotspur. He captained the legendary Spurs side that won The Double of league and FA Cup in 1961, the FA Cup again the following year, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup a further twelve months on. Unfortunately for his legacy, he has also gone down in infamy as statistically the worst manager in Chelsea FC’s history.
In a truly dismal nine months in charge, Blanchflower presided over only five victories in 32 matches. To be honest, looking at those statistics now it was a wonder that he lasted as long as he did in a reign notable only for the sale of Ray Wilkins to Manchester United and the departure of Peter Bonetti from the club after fifteen years of service.
Unsurprisingly, Chelsea were by now back in the second division and not looking like climbing out of the abyss anytime soon. Blanchflower was replaced by his former assistant, Geoff Hurst, who flattered to deceive for a season or two before being replaced in 1981 by former Middlesbrough manager John Neal.
The early 1980s were not a particularly happy time to be around Stamford Bridge and far from wishing to be associated with the club as was the case in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, the rich and the handsome did everything they could in order to avoid being seen around the place. The ground was still a tip, hooliganism and perceived racism amongst the support was rife, attendances were spiralling, and debts were mounting to the degree that there was a very real chance that the club go under.
Ken Bates famously bought the club (and all its debts) for a pound and through bullish and astute financial management the club slowly, very slowly, started to recover.
It took Neal three seasons to get the club back to the First Division but in 1984 promotion was finally gained after a five-year hiatus. Neal stood down due to ill-health and into the breach stepped former player, John Hollins.
A promising first season in charge saw Chelsea actually challenge for the league title until the last six weeks of the season and, although the side fell away to eventually finish sixth there seemed no cause for alarm. The next season started badly, however, and by Christmas, the club was once again facing a relegation battle. Although Hollins was able to turn things around in the second half of the season and lead Chelsea away from the danger zone, the following season 1987-88 was another struggle and in March Hollins was dismissed and replaced by Bobby Campbell.
Campbell could lead Chelsea to a final finishing spot of no better than eighteenth in the twenty-one team table and so the club had to partake in the end-of-season play-offs in an attempt to secure First Division football for another season.
After Blackburn Rovers were overcome in the semi-finals, Chelsea met Middlesbrough in the winner-take-all final. A 2-0 deficit from the first leg was not overcome in the return at Stamford Bridge, and so for the third time in fourteen seasons, the club saw itself relegated from the top division.
Although promotion was secured at the first time of asking, another few years of struggle were to follow on the field before Chelsea started to taste even relative success again.
Fast forward to 2004 and the injection of Roman Abramovich’s millions and the club finally achieved what it had threatened to do some four decades earlier by becoming part of football’s elite.
This year’s second Champions League triumph seems a long way from playing York City at home in front of 9,000 supporters in the old Second Division and is perhaps an indicator of how footballing fortunes can turn.