Four years of regional league competition and friendlies ended on the opening day of September 1919. In the opening match of the first postwar season of official Football League business, the Chelsea team showed five changes from April 1915 – perhaps less disruption than could reasonably have been hoped for, given the ravages of the Great War.
The six who’d played in Chelsea’s last official League match were stalwarts Walter Bettridge, Jack Harrow, Laurence Abrams, Harold Halse and keeper James Molyneux, now well into his 30s and under pressure from understudy Colin Hampton, a war hero who’d received the Military Medal for Gallantry in Mesopotamia. His bravery and dependability on the less vital stage of association football saw him splitting custodial duties with the popular Moly in what would turn out to be an excellent year for the club.
Chelsea had been handed a reprieve from relegation by a mixture of match-fixing by our rivals for the drop Man United and a League decision to expand the top flight by two clubs – Chelsea and Arsenal.
The board at Stamford Bridge wasted no time in validating the Football League’s decision. Thirty-five thousand people watched at Goodison Park as the slickers from the Big Smoke stunned the reigning Division One title-holders Everton with a 3-2 win, including a penalty from Bob Whittingham that extended his amazing wartime goalscoring sequence.
“A Thrilling Opening. Chelsea Conquer The Champions at Goodison” Athletic News headline, September 1, 1919What chimed with both sets of fans was that back in 1915 a 2-2 draw at the Bridge had confirmed the Toffeemen as champions. They would finish this campaign in 16th place, despite gaining revenge in London against us a week later with a single goal.
However, personnel change remained inevitable. The ageing Whittingham soon moved on, and in his place arrived another Chelsea and England matinée idol, Jack Cock, from cash-strapped Huddersfield. The Londoner would top-score for the Pensioners for the next three seasons, and managed 21 in his first.
Striker Cock (above, right) hardened Chelsea's image as football's glamour club by singing on the local music hall stage and appearing (along with some of his teammates) in the first-ever football feature film, a silent movie produced by the Samuelson Film Company called, originally, 'The Winning Goal.'
It helped ensure that the arty, actor types still thronged to Stamford Bridge, though quite what the terrace wits made of a team with Hampton at the rear, Dickie in the middle and Cock upfront is not recorded.
This season proved the most successful of David Calderhead’s 26 as manager: his team finished a high-rolling third in the League behind surprise package West Brom and Burnley.
In the FA Cup there was also much at which to thrill. The kings of England and Spain watched consecutive victories in west London over Leicester and Bradford. The Bridge was definitely the place to be. One Manchester newspaper joked that Claude Kirby should have 'By Royal Appointment' engraved above the gates to the stadium.
As the cup semi-final against Aston Villa loomed, the debate reasonably turned to the FA’s decision finally to realise Fred Parker's original dream and stage the final at Stamford Bridge.
Should Chelsea be able to play the final at home? With typical generosity, the Pensioners ended the debate by dipping out 1-3 to Villa, the eventual trophy winners, in front of a crestfallen 37,771 fans.
Days later virtually the same team took the League points off them with a 2-1 win in front of 70,000. It was sets of results such as those that helped create the 'inconsistent' tag worn by generations of Blues.
Facts & figures: Jack Cock was signed for £2,500
Cup run: The semi-finals, losing to Aston Villa
All the rage: Mechanical teddy bears