In order to know who you are you need to know your history! Chelsea’s destiny dramatically changed with the arrival of Roman Abramovich but contrary to popular belief this wasn’t a fluke event. Roman bought the club because it represented the best value for money available and the foundations for success were already in place. Chelsea had a fantastic stadium, the trophy cabinet was becoming respectable and we were a top six team in England. This evolution took place over a twenty year period and began in the summer of 1983.
1982-83 was a nightmare and Chelsea narrowly avoided relegation to the Third Division. Clive Walker saved the day by scoring a late goal in a relegation dog fight at Bolton and home gates fell to as low as 6000. Hooliganism was rife and things were spiralling out of control in a downwards direction. Chelsea finally made sure of their Second Division status with a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough at home in the final game of the season. Ken Bates promised the fans that things would never be this bad again and was thankfully good to his word. This was a pivotal point in the clubs history, years of steady decline was reversed and Chelsea fans now had something to look forward to.
At this time Chelsea was struggling to make ends meet and relegation to the Third Division would have been catastrophic. Our problems weren’t confined to the pitch which in itself was cause for massive concern. War was shortly to break out between Chelsea and the property developers that owned Stamford Bridge, in a battle that was to cost millions and lasted for years. Ken Bates did a miraculous job, the ‘Save the Bridge’ appeal was launched and eventually Chelsea won the day. However, what would have happened to Chelsea had we been relegated to the Third Division in 1983? Would money have been available for new players? What players would want to come to a Third Division club? Rumours constantly circulated about ground sharing schemes and this could easily have become a reality. Ground sharing with another club would not have been the same as moving into a purpose built stadium. This would have meant moving in with one of our smaller West London neighbours leading to a complete loss of identity.
Money was thankfully made available in the summer of 83 and Chelsea went on a spending spree that laid the foundations for today’s success. John Neal and assistant manager Ian McNeil made some fantastic signings which at today’s prices seems laughable; Kerry Dixon £75000 from Reading, Pat Nevin £95000 from Clyde, Nigel Spackman £40000 from Bournemouth, Eddie Niedzweiecki £45000 from Wrexham and Joe McLaughlin from Greenock Morton for a fee of £100,000. Kerry Dixon went onto become Chelsea’s second highest scorer of all time and played for England. Pat Nevin served us magnificently for six years and along with Joe McLaughlin represented Scotland. Eddie Niedzwiecki was our best keeper since Peter Bonetti and played for Wales until an injury in 1987 tragically ended his carer. Nigel Spackman was a superb midfielder who later went onto win a number of trophies with Liverpool. All these players were starting their careers when they came to Chelsea and their arrival signalled a dramatic transformation in the clubs fortunes.
Chelsea destroyed Derby County 5-0 on the opening day of the season playing a brand of exciting and attacking football that became the hallmark of this team. It is all too easy to get stuck in a reminisance hump and live in the past but for me the 1983-84 season was on a par with anything that I have ever experienced as a Chelsea supporter. Joey Jones won the European Championship with Liverpool but is quoted as saying that his greatest moment in football was winning the Second Division Championship with Chelsea. Following years of false dawns we finally had something to get excited about and the fans flooded back. Every away game was like a home game as Chelsea’s fanatical travelling support regularly out numbered home supporters. Within a year thousands of us celebrated promotion back to the First Division following a 5-0 demolition over Leeds. Stamford Bridge went berserk and the pitch became a moving sea of royal blue and white. Promotion back to the First Division seems laughable compared to where we are now, but this remains one of my favourite memories.
In many ways football is a reflection of life because nobody has a smooth passage and at the end of the season you get what you deserve. Nothing is guaranteed and once a club goes into decline, like a bankrupt or an alcoholic, they can go into freefall without a parachute. Some clubs hit rock bottom and then go on to make a full recovery and others can’t break free from the cycle of despair. Our friends from Leeds are an example of what can happen when a bill is presented for a frivolous and unsustainable lifestyle that can’t be paid. English football is littered with punch drunk clubs that flirted briefly with greatness before disappearing into obscurity. Chelsea’s future hung by a thread and we could easily have been reduced to a state of senility with nothing left to sustain us but that glorious night back in 1970.
Following promotion back to the big time in 1984 the club went onto finish in a very credible sixth place and proved themselves capable of beating any team on their day. John Neal did a fantastic job for the club until ill health forced him to stand down and John Hollins took over. Hollins was a great servant for the club as a player but a disaster as a manager. I often wonder what might have happened if John Neal had stayed in control, he did a fantastic job at every club he went to and seemed to be able to get the best out of players. Surmise aside, John Neal nursed the patient back to health and put the club firmly back on the road to recovery.
Avoiding relegation and the summer signings of 83 were critical because it gave Ken Bates a much stronger base in the titanic fight to stay at the Bridge. Hammersmith Council were committed to having a First Division club in the area but would their attitude have been the same if we were languishing in the lower divisions? How would the club have funded the battle on Third Division gates? These questions are irrelevant now but our newer supporters should know that supporting Chelsea has never been about glory. Supporting Chelsea has been a labour of love that has at times seemed hopeless and all too often has ended in bitter disappointment.
Nowadays I spend much of my time living in Sao Paulo in a district called Santo Andre and I often see Brazilian’s walking down the road wearing Chelsea shirts. This is a true measure of how far the club has progressed since those dark and desperate days back in the early 80’s. 1983 saw the club embark on a voyage of success that at the time was beyond the furthest reaches of a drug induced trance. The seeds for our golden age were sown back in the summer of 83 and were harvested twenty years later when an unknown Russian walked into our lives. Things would never be the same!