Monday, 17 August 2009

Season by Season: 1921/22

Players come and go, managers move on, directors, and even the very bricks and mortar of a football club, change eventually. Less transient are the crowds that are the lifeblood of the place, and through them the folk memory is passed on down the years.

And it’s a club’s reputation, its character, that once established is the only real constant.

Chelsea Football Club epitomises this.

Even now, established as we are among the elite of the Premiership, we are constantly reminded of the club's enduring “inconsistency,” the perennial struggle to see of supposedly inferior opposition, the underachieving glamour, the, well, unusualness.

Such personality traits were already apparent after 15 years of football at Stamford Bridge. By this time Chelsea had been promoted twice and relegated once, and had recently finished 3rd and then 18th in consecutive First Division seasons.

The club the Mearses built had earned a reputation for failing to follow up well-earned victories with further wins.

A poor 1950s joke might equally have applied back then: Two men are looking at newspapers at King’s Cross Station. “I see Chelsea won yesterday,” says one. “They can’t have,” frowns his pal, “they won last week.”

So how sweet April 1922 must have been for supporters when the club enjoyed one of its best ever sequences, winning seven on the spin. All of them, except a 4-1 thrashing of Aston Villa in Birmingham, were against teams lower the First Division.

The team boasted the necessary glamour, too, in Great Dane Nils Middelboe, the dashing Jack Cock, trainee medic and able right-winger Dr John Bell and the colourful, unorthodox keeper Ben Howard Baker (pictured above, right), a former high-jump champion whose party trick was to kick light bulbs out of chandeliers.

Baker, known as ‘HB’, became (and remains) the only goalie to have scored for Chelsea, when he converted the last-minute winning penalty against Bradford City in November 1921.

Two months later, against Arsenal, another of his spot-kicks bounced back into play and he raced the length of the pitch in vain to stop them scoring. He never appeared on scoresheet again.
“Just to make the poor fellow taking the spot-kick a bit more nervous” Keeper Ben Howard Baker on the reason for his antics before facing a penalty taker
Much like Chelsea sticksman Petar Borota six decades later, HB seemed disdainful of the 18-yard box, often rushing out into midfield in pursuit of the ball. He would play basketball around the box, flicking the ball over an opponent, while the coach was barking through a loud hailer for him to "get in with it!" And, like a Bruce Grobbelaar or Fabien Barthez, he would spend ages joshing around before facing a penalty kick himself.

He was an absolute hero, the epitome of the old Chelsea, and stayed in contact with the club well into the 1980s. HB died in 1987, perhaps the club’s longest-lived player at 94.

Chelsea finished ninth in 1922, but what an entertaining place the Bridge must have been.

In 1921/22...
Facts & figures: HB conceded an average of just 1.082 goals in his 93 games
Cup run: First Round, losing to West Bromwich Albion
All the rage: the luxurious Orient Express now travels all the way to mystical Istanbul

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