For Chelsea supporters of a certain age, the trophy-laden Abramovich-era represents payback time. Every time John goes up to lift the this-that-or-other cup, opposing fans jealously enquire where we were when we were not quite as good as we are today … though less politely. It makes me smile.
During my formative years as a Blues supporter, I’d take my place on the crumbling old Shed Terrace and look on in angst as Chelsea huffed and puffed and toiled in vain to achieve any modicum of success, a mediocre Second Division side with as many problems off the field as on it. Relegation to the old Third Division had been on the agenda, but the unlikely combination of an outspoken Chairman in Ken Bates, and a mild-mannered manager in Johnny Neal, turned the Clubs fortunes around.
In 1984, after an absence of five years, Chelsea returned to the top flight … but not for long. In 1988, the Blues dropped through the First Division trapdoor and whilst the record-breaking season that followed culminated in the Club winning the Second Division title, there was, in truth, very little to cheer about as Chairman Bates continued his battle to save the Bridge.
1989/90, back in the big time, the Blues finished a creditable 5th. But several seasons of mid-table mediocrity beckoned. Managers came and went. Hollins, Campbell and Porterfield all fell foul of old Captain Birdseye Bates, the latter, in January 1993, gained the dubious distinction of being the first manager to be sacked by a Premier League Club.
The Blues had been tipped to do well during the inaugural season of the new competition, but by the end of the Christmas period they were hovering above the relegation places. Enough was enough for Bates. Former Southend United manager, Stamford Bridge legend David Webb, who was selling mountain bikes at the time, was entrusted with the task of preserving Chelsea’s top-flight status something he duly did and, as the season drew to a close, many Blues fans scratched their heads in wonderment at what might lie ahead.
The answer was Glenn Hoddle and, as it transpired, 1993/94 was to be a defining season in the history of Chelsea Football Club.
Why? You might ask.
Nothing magical happened on the field of play; the Blues once more flirted maddeningly with relegation before finishing an underwhelming 14th and, though the pilgrimage from Stamford Bridge to Wembley in the FA Cup was a sweet one, the final itself was desperately disappointing with Chelsea swept away by a rampant Manchester United side on their way to a league and cup double.
The answer comes in two parts.
Firstly, the appointment of Hoddle itself set off a chain reaction of events that would eventually lead to Mr Abramovich buying Chelsea Football Club from Mr Bates. Secondly, the final game of the season at Stamford Bridge, though sadly no-one knew it at the time, would be the last played in front of the old Shed End.
The appointment of Hoddle as player-manager was a welcome shot-in-the-arm for Blues fans tired of the inflexibility of Chelsea’s style of play. Out went 4-4-2 and in came the midfield diamond. The only trouble was the squad that Hoddle had inherited wasn’t exactly geared up for playing the enterprising ‘sexy’ football he had his heart set on … that would come slightly later with the signing of Ruud Gullit.
Chelsea began the season with a home fixture against nouveau-riche Blackburn Rovers, taking to the field in a brand new Umbro strip that bore computer company Commodore’s Amiga logo which would feature on the club’s shirts from 1993 until 1995. Significantly, this was the first season when squad numbers were introduced and Glenn Hoddle came in at number 20.
A crowd of over 29,000 expectant souls convened at the Bridge to see what the maestro could muster from his troops and, for the first 20 minutes or so, they watched enraptured as a delightful display of possession football ensued. New signing Gavin Peacock and Dennis Wise instantly colluded with the gaffers game plan, whilst Frank Sinclair and Erland Johnsen looked composed at the back.
The Blues went ahead early in the second half when Peacock capped his debut by heading Wise’s cross past Bobby Mimms … happy days … but Blackburn’s combination of pace and power had Chelsea increasingly on the defensive and, with Chelsea’s left flank continually exposed, it was no surprise when the visitors equalized. Eleven minutes from time Mike Newell scored the winner for Rovers and we traipsed out of the Bridge bemused and dejected. Chelsea (4-1-3-2): Dimitri Kharine; Steve Clarke, Frank Sinclair, Erland Johnsen, Andy Dow (David Lee, 81 min); Glenn Hoddle; Gavin Peacock, Denis Wise, Mal Donaghy; Tony ‘hee haw’ Cascarino, John Spencer (Robert Fleck, 70 min). Sub not used: Kevin Hitchcock.
My depression didn’t last too long though as news filtered through that ‘the’ Arsenal, playing in front of a newly refurbished North Bank, had lost 3-0 at home to Coventry City. Ridiculously, all three City goals were scored by journeyman, pie-loving Scouser, Mickey Quinn. Media pundits immediately suggested Arsenal should sign the lardy striker as a foil for Ian Wright. Sadly for all concerned, bar Gunners fans that is, the club eventually bought Dennis Bergkamp.
The Blues season stuttered and spluttered along unconvincingly though, this being Chelsea, there was always likely to be a dose of glorious unpredictability to be found somewhere along the way. In this case it was the 1-0 home and away Premier League victories over Manchester United in which Gavin Peacock scored the winner on both occasions.
The first of these victories came in September at Stamford Bridge and a couple of weeks later the Blues defeated Liverpool 1-0 … was this the turning point? The answer was a resounding NO! Incredibly, Chelsea went on a stunning 11 match winless streak in the league that saw them plunge into the relegation zone at Christmas.
Hoddle had signed diminutive striker Mark Stein from Stoke City for £1.5 million in a bid to stop the rot but, despite the little fella scoring against Southampton at the Dell on Boxing Day, the pressure was mounting on the manager as the Blues lost 3-1. Thankfully, lady luck at last smiled on Chelsea and in the very next game Stein scored again for Chelsea in a 1-0 victory over high-flying (no honest they really were back then) Newcastle United. Steino was in the groove and on what was a record-breaking run of nine goals in consecutive games. It wasn’t all sweetness and light but Chelsea were on the road to recovery.
Perhaps the most entertaining game of Chelsea’s season came on February 26th when the Blues entertained Spurs at Stamford Bridge. A sparse crowd of just under 17,000 watched as the visitors raced into a 2-0 lead with goals from Sedgley and Dozzell only for the jam to be taken out of the crowing cockerels donuts as Donaghy, Stein and Spencer hit back to make the score 3-2 to Chelsea at the lemon break. Under the bar, the Blues Russian stopper Dimitri Kharine was in inspired form making a series of world-class saves from sick-note Anderton, Scott, Gray and Campbell. Penalties settled the game. Andy Gray leveled the match from the spot on 71 minutes, but then failed to find the net when Kharine brought down Ronny Rosenthal 10 minutes later. Mark Stein settled matters with a penalty of his own in injury time. 4-3 to the Chels! It was livelier than usual in the Fulham Road that evening.
By the time the business end of the season came around Chelsea were safe, but the drama was far from over. At the top Manchester United won the title by a country mile, at the bottom it was a different story. May 7th 1994 saw Chelsea host Sheffield United. To beat the drop, the Blades had to win, or at least draw, and hope that Ipswich Town or Everton lost.
A crowd of just over 21,000, including a gang of United fans dressed in Arab regalia, were at the Bridge to see if they could do it. By fielding the team likely to play at Wembley in the FA Cup Final the following weekend, Chelsea avoided any possible accusations that they might take things easy against desperate opponents. Twice United had the lead, indeed at half-time they were several places above the relegation zone whilst Mike Walker’s Everton had looked doomed as they’d trailed Wimbledon 2-0 at home.
As it happened, the Toffees rallied and saved themselves by scoring three goals whilst Sheffield United suffered late heartbreak as that man Mark Stein, out injured for ten weeks and wanting to prove himself fit for Wembley, found himself on the money leveling the game at 2-2 in the 76th minute, before scoring a last minute winner. With just 30 seconds left, Dennis Wise centered and substitute Hoddle, finding himself in what he later called the ‘nose-bleed area’, headed the ball on for Stein to volley home the goal that severed United’s grip on the Premiership.
“It is one of those unbelievable moments in football but they happen,” said Blades manager Dave Bassett of his club’s relegation. “When you play Russian roulette, you sometimes get the bullet.”
Game over! Football can be a cruel game as Blues fans know oh too well.
It’s a crying shame that there was no grand celebratory farewell to the Shed, I’m sure there would have been had we known Blaster Bates’ intentions. Later that month Ken sent the bulldozers in and the famous old terrace was demolished and with that a large part of my youth was gone forever.
Mark Worrall is the author of the cult terrace classics Over Land and Sea, Blue Murder and One Man Went to Mow and the co-author of Chelsea here Chelsea there which is published on August 25th. Buy on line with free UK postage and save up to 50% on these titles at www.overlandandsea.net