I’ve just looked out of the window and the sky is dark grey, the rain is teeming down and the wife’s plant pots are being toppled by the howling wind (nature’s, not mine). The only thing keeping me warm is the radiator behind me. That’s right: summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in your fleece.
With no World Cup or European Championship to warm the cockles this summer, the country’s tabloids will be rife with rumours and speculation about which players will be joining the Premiership’s elite in time for the new season, which kicks off in 73 days as I write this, not that I’m counting or anything. As for our beloved Blues, who knows which of Mourinho’s boys will be moving on to pastures new over the next 1,752 hours, not that I’m counting or anything. One thing is for certain, if Roman does decide to part with a few more Roubles, he will be continuing a Chelsea tradition that has now spanned the best part of a quarter of a century – the Stamford Bridge summer spending spree.
John Neal was the first Chelsea manager of the modern era to indulge in a spot of fantasy football, when he was given £500,000 to spend in the long, hot summer of 1983. Having come perilously close to falling into Division Three at the end of the previous season, Neal showed an acuteness in his transfer dealings that had been only hinted at previously – David Speedie had joined a year earlier from Darlington for £80,000, and Wrexham’s Joey Jones followed a few months later for just £34,000 – and twelve months later, his revamped Chelsea side were back in the top-flight, promoted as champions. What Neal achieved on a budget that, although generous in terms what he was used to receiving since taking over from Geoff Hurst two years earlier, was not a particularly considerable amount even 24 summers ago and, in fact, only matched the amount Hurst had tried to spend on Manchester United’s Andy Ritchie in 1980, was truly incredible. In one magnificent summer, the canny Wearsider recruited Eddie Niedzwiecki, Joe McLaughlin, Kerry Dixon, Nigel Spackman and Pat Nevin. They replaced talented but disinterested underachievers such as Mike Fillery and Gary Chivers, and slapstick footballers of the ilk of Micky Nutton and Alan Mayes, and the transformation was immediate. Promotion was followed by two consecutive top six finishes in Division One. Despite a brief blip later in the decade, that team marked the beginning of the renaissance of a club that’s very existence was hanging by a string prior to Neal’s 1983 recruitment drive. Chelsea were back on the map – never again would the likes of Andy Ritchie turn down the opportunity to sign for Chelsea in favour of a move to Brighton and Hove Albion!
As Neal’s side put a smile back on the faces of the long-suffering Chelsea supporters, one man who took many of the plaudits was John Hollins. The Blues’ former midfielder was one of a trio of older heads who had also joined in the summer of 1983 – burly Scottish international striker Derek Johnstone being recruited at the same time as Hollins and his former team-mate, Alan Hudson, both or whom were brought back to the Bridge at the behest of the chairman. Hollins took on the role of player/coach and proved a popular choice on both counts, although his legs betrayed him after Christmas and he was primarily employed in the role of first-team coach thereafter.
In the summer of 1985, with his reputation burgeoning and his name being linked with a number of managerless clubs, Hollins was appointed manager of Chelsea, with Neal being moved ‘upstairs’, apparently as a result of failing health (Neal had undergone major heart surgery in the summer of 1984, although it was generally accepted amongst the playing staff that he was now well on his way to a full recovery, something that Neal himself has subsequently confirmed). After a relatively successful first season was followed by a hugely disappointing second campaign at the helm, Hollins decided to freshen up his squad with a significant cash-splash in time for the 1987/88 kick-off. Out went David Speedie, Colin Lee, Doug Rougvie, Keith Dublin and John Millar. The latter three were all left-backs, and were replaced by Aston Villa’s Tony Dorigo – signed for £475,000 – and Clive Wilson, who was equally adept on the left of a back four or in midfield. Wilson, who had previously shone for Manchester City in matches against the Blues, had been recruited towards the end of the previous season, but loaned back to City for the remainder of the term. His namesake Kevin, a striker who had caused a riot with his last-minute winner for Derby County in an FA Cup tie against the Blues in January 1983, moved to SW6 from Ipswich for £335,000. He joined Kerry Dixon and Gordon Durie in vying for one of two spots in the Chelsea front-line.
Not surprisingly, Kevin Wilson began the new season on the substitute’s bench, while Clive Wilson slipped smoothly into the left of midfield, playing directly ahead of left-back Dorigo. Kevin Wilson did not appear in the starting line-up until mid-September, and it was a further three months before he could celebrate his first Chelsea goal. As the former Ipswich man finally began to make an impact in the New Year, his namesake began to fall from favour, and after an impressive start to the campaign, Clive Wilson became something of a fall-guy as the roof caved in on the Blues’ season. Dorigo maintained a high level of performance throughout the term, and was crowned Player of the Year in May. However, relegation after a play-off defeat by Middlesbrough was not what Hollins had envisaged from his million pound outlay, and led to his departure from the club before the season was out. Despite receiving his Player of the Year trophy from the fans, Dorigo handed in a transfer request within days of the club being relegated, the Australian citing concerns over his England international future. Ken Bates refused to accept his request, but Dorigo was still whingeing about his unrest when the new season began. In April of the following year, with promotion all but guaranteed, Dorigo suddenly announced that he was happy at Stamford Bridge once again! He eventually remained with the Blues until his contract expired at the end of the 1990/91 season, and will always be remembered for his excellent winning goal in the 1990 ZDS Cup triumph over Middlesbrough at Wembley. Whether playing in the First or Second Division, displacing Stuart Pearce in the England side ultimately proved impossible for Dorigo, but he did win a League title medal with Dirty Leeds in his first season at Elland Road after joining the Yorkshiremen for £1.3 million.
Clive and Kevin Wilson both played an important part in Chelsea’s immediate return to the top-flight, and Kevin was actually second behind Graham Roberts in the Chelsea appearance makers list that season. Often playing a wider role than his fellow strikers, Dixon and Durie, Kevin’s 13 League goals were invaluable as the Blues ran riot in Division Two.
Back in the top division, Clive Wilson became little more than a squad player, and eventually moved to QPR for £450,000 when his contract expired in the summer of 1990. Kevin Wilson made an impressive return to Division One, and particularly enjoyed scoring goals at White Hart Lane, which is always nice. He eventually left for Notts County in March 1992.
There is a well-worn saying that most people are familiar with: never speak ill of the dead, unless you are talking about Emlyn Hughes. By the summer of 1990, the former Liverpool captain – who was famously unpopular in the Anfield dressing room – was writing a weekly column for the Daily Mirror. Chelsea had just completed the signings of Andy Townsend and Dennis Wise, the former for £1.2 million from Norwich City and the latter for £1.6 million from Wimbledon, and many writers were tipping the Blues for a tilt at the Division One title. The squeaky one, writing on the eve of the new season, wrote a hugely disparaging article scoffing at Chelsea’s hopes of making an impact at the top of the table. Sadly, he was to be proven right.
Republic of Ireland midfielder Townsend, fresh from an impressive showing at the Italia 90 World Cup, impressed immediately, and was wearing the captain’s armband by autumn. Wise, whose transfer fee appeared at the time somewhat excessive, was sent off in his second game, and eventually endured a somewhat tortuous first campaign at the Bridge. Despite manager Bobby Campbell’s hefty outlay, the Blues won just two of their first ten League matches, and were out of the title race within weeks of the season’s start. Two saving graces for a poor campaign that finished with Chelsea in mid-table were a victory over Arsenal in February, that proved to be the Gunners’ only loss of the campaign, and a run to the semi-finals of the League Cup that included an incredible 3-2 win at Portsmouth having trailed 2-0 with ten minutes remaining, and a magnificent 3-0 drubbing of Spurs at White Hart Lane. As was their wont at that time, the Blues then imploded embarrassingly to lose 5-1 on aggregate to Second Division Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-finals.
Townsend stayed at Chelsea for three seasons, and was an inspirational captain for the first two. In his second season, the Blues reached the last eight of the FA Cup, only to fall in a replay to eventual losing-finalists, Sunderland. Speculation surrounded Townsend throughout his final season at the Bridge, and his response was to deliver a lacklustre set of performances in which he appeared to save himself for the big games. Chelsea again reached the latter stages of the League Cup only to lose to a poor Crystal Palace side. At the end of the 1992/93 season, Townsend left for Aston Villa, saying he wanted to play for a club that was going to win trophies. He won two League Cups with Villa and, later in his career, was a member of the Middlesbrough team beaten by Chelsea in the 1998 League Cup Final. Wisey, of course, hung about for a bit longer, and reaped the rewards of his long association with the club. Even now, six years after leaving Chelsea, Wisey continues to display loyalty and affection towards the Fulham Road supporters – he’s just taken Leeds down into what was once known as Division Three. Townsend, who was once the target of some pointed abuse from a Chelsea fan during a minute’s silence at the Bridge, now appears frequently on our TV screens as an ITV pundit, and seems to have nothing good to say about his former club! Andy, the feeling is mutual.
By the time Townsend left the club, Ian Porterfield’s managerial tenure had run its course. Porterfield replaced Bobby Campbell in the Chelsea hot-seat at the end of the 1990/91 season and, over the space of two summers, the Scot recruited Paul Elliott, Tommy Boyd and Joe Allon for his first season in charge, and, a year later, Robert Fleck, Mal Donaghy, Mick Harford and John Spencer. Elliott, for whom Chelsea paid Celtic £1.4 million, was probably the most successful of Porterfield’s signings, although there can also be a case made for Spencer. Fleck was, at a record-busting £2.1 million, a terrible disappointment. Donaghy played his best football for Chelsea once Glenn Hoddle had converted him into a holding midfielder, and Harford gave the Blues sterling service for four months before his legs suddenly began to betray him. Joe Allon was a prolific goalscorer in Division Four and would have remained a prolific goalscorer had he stayed in Division Four, and Tommy Boyd, although hugely successful during his career north of the border, remains lesser-known in SW6 than his Magpie-presenting namesake.
Subsequent summers have seen incredible recruitment drives at Chelsea, sparking success that was unthinkable in the days of Neal, Hollins, Campbell and Porterfield. Over the past decade, summer spending sprees have brought the likes of Marcel Desailly, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Andriy Shevchenko to the Bridge. Lest we forget, one of them also brought Chris Sutton at a cost of £10 million!
So far this summer, Chelsea have signed Reading’s Steve Sidwell and Claudio Pizarro of Bayern Munich, both on free transfers. With the African Cup of Nations due to take place midway through the coming season, you can be sure that there will be plenty more transfer activity to come. Can the Blues unearth another Nevin, Lebeouf or Mikel, or will we be faced with the prospect of another Fleck, Sutton or Laudrup. I guess we will have a better idea in approximately 105,120 minutes’ time. Not that I’m counting or anything.