Thursday, 23 July 2009

Season by Season: 1919/20



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, 1919
What 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.

In 1919/20...
Facts & figures: Jack Cock was signed for £2,500
Cup run: The semi-finals, losing to Aston Villa
All the rage: Mechanical teddy bears

Season by Season: 1915-19


Since 1914 hundreds of thousands of young British men had returned from the trenches maimed, distressed, gassed or dead. Official national Football League and FA Cup campaigns were suspended at the end of 1914/15 season, and the sport was localised for the new, lower-key season beginning September 1915.

It was not the time for sporting heroism. Perhaps this had been brought home starkly to everyone at home by stories of the famous Christmas truce of December 1914, when German and British troops shared drinks and a game of football in No-Man’s-Land (perhaps with some of the 50 footballs Chelsea had sent to the front). More likely, it was the realisation that soon after the match, the soldiers were ordered to resume the slaughter.

The football authorities assembled regional leagues in the Midlands and Lancashire for 1915-16. A driving force behind arrangements in the capital was Chelsea's influential chairman William Claude Kirby (above, right). He helped establish a London Combination tournament of 12 teams (including, it must be said, Croydon Common) that Chelsea would win by seven clear points in early 1916.

A second, short competition taking in Luton and Reading was also scooped by the Pensioners. These informal championships lasted until the resumption of the League proper in 1919, with attendances ranging from 2-20,000.

Nearly half of the current Chelsea playing staff signed up to serve their country in some way. The most significant casualty of the campaign was Captain Vivian Woodward, wounded in January 1916. Others, inevitably, lost their lives, including several former Blues.

Danish giant Nils Middelboe, however, from neutral Denmark, cemented his popularity with the diminished crowds that turned up at Stamford Bridge and regularly strode the midfield of Stamford Bridge player.

Other big names, helping the war effort locally, guested in the mid-blue shirts of Chelsea. The tall, elegant England international Charlie Buchan, an inside forward who stills holds Sunderland’s all-time League scoring record, returned to his London home and scored 40 goals for Chelsea in 1915-16. He is best known as the later writer and publisher of Football Monthly, a famous magazine that was briefly owned by Chelsea in the 1990s.

Bob Thomson, too, was unstoppable. His fire-power helped earn a league and cup double in 1918, and a further Victory Cup final win over Fulham in 1919.
“So enjoyable has been the local rivalry brought about by the London Combination that many fans have been moved to suggest that it be retained as a competition” Football writer, 1919
Typical Chelsea – the first triumphs were achieved in unrecognised and unofficial tournaments. However, at least there would be good news when normal football service was resumed: an inquiry had ascertained that a vital First Division match back in season 1914-1915 involving Manchester United – who finished 18th to our drop-slot 19th – and Liverpool had been fixed by players involved in a betting scam.

Furthermore, it was any case decided to expand the top flight with the addition of two “relegated” southern clubs: Chelsea (conveniently) and Arsenal - much to the protest of Tottenham, who had finished above their new north London rivals in 1915.

So Chelsea retained top flight status honourably, while the Gunners received a lucky reprieve through the connivance of chairman Henry Norris. Don’t forget to remind your Gooner mates of that the next time you see them…

In 1915-19...
Facts & figures: One-eyed Bob Thomson scored 100 goals during the wartime years
Cup run: Winners of War Fund Cup, 1918 (v West Ham), and London Victory Cup, 1919 (v Fulham)
All the rage: Birth control pioneer Dr Marie Stopes’ illuminating 1918 book, 'Married Love'

Season by Season: 1914/15


The English football season was played with a frown this year. War had broken out across Europe in the summer of 1914.

With dreadful reports of battlefield carnage in the daily papers and horror stories passed on by the war weary on leave, many felt that such a trivial exercise should be suspended. Others wished to retain the sport as a necessary diversion. At the outbreak of war, Chelsea’s directors expressed the view that “football will be played as far as possible.”

In a show of solidarity with the war effort, though, they arranged for a percentage of takings to be donated to the Prince of Wales’s war fund – a facet of the regime since its outset, and a hangover from the Victorian belief in charity. A 1-1 draw with Spurs also benefited “dependants of those who had joined the forces from the Tube, Tramway and Omnibus companies” to the tune of £200.

The club also dispatched 50 footballs off to various parts of the war front.

Millions had rallied to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers; many were drawn from the terraces and locker rooms of football. Never the less matchday recruitment drives at stadiums including Stamford Bridge were met with apathy.

In response, the British establishment began a furious campaign of shame directed against the game and its supporters, and Chelsea stars Viv Woodward and local Harry Ford were among the first 'Chelsea Die-Hards' to join the 17th Middlesex Regiment, the 'Footballers' Battalion.'

Not that the entrepreneurialism of JT Mears (brother of the late founder, and new owner of Stamford Bridge) was completely curtailed. An application for a liquor licence at the Bridge in February 1915 was wrathfully rejected by local magistrate John Grey on the grounds that “I do not like to give facilities for entertainment to football at this time.” Considering JT (host of the Swan in Richmond) and the two Janeses on the Chelsea board were licensed victuallers, this must been quite a blow.

The voice from the trenches, meanwhile, was strongly in favour of football continuing. Hundreds of letters were received on the Fulham Road asking how Chelsea were faring and passing on their best. One wrote: 'The troops (well the Londoners anyway) nearly went dotty when they heard of Chelsea's victory over Newcastle. It interested the Tommies far more than any war could.'

On the field Chelsea’s League form was as depressed as the national mood. Had the league not been suspended at the end of the season Chelsea would have been relegated.

Yet the Cup provided rare moments of joy for fans at home and in the trenches. Servicemen, some as prisoners-of-war, had keen letters of support published in the Chelsea programme as the Pensioners saw off Swindon, Arsenal, Man City, Newcastle and Everton on the way to meeting Sheffield United in the FA Cup Final in April 1915.
“The nation is engaged in a huge conflict, and has sons of Empire in action in six or seven different parts of the world. But those who are in our island will rest awhile today” The Sporting Chronicle, on the morning of the 1915 FA Cup final
It said that so many of those who attended football at the time wore army uniforms that it was dubbed the 'Khaki Final.' Eyewitness reports barely mention the fact, though: they draw more attention to the dismal, foggy drizzle.

The venue was Old Trafford, with wartime travel restrictions imposed, and it was a wet and windy welcome for the Blues fans who had struggled north for the occasion.

History records Fred Taylor as the first skipper of a Chelsea team at a cup final - quite some achievement for a club that had not existed ten years earlier. Lieutenant Vivian Woodward had been given special leave to play but on the day of the game, in typically gentlemanly fashion, he stepped down in favour of Bob McNeil, whose goals had propelled the Pensioners there.

Sheffield United ran out easy 3-0 winners. In handing out the medals, Lord Derby caught the mood with a speech noting that “the clubs and players had seen the cup played for, and it was now the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England.”

In 1914/15...
Facts and figures: Chelsea estimated 200,000 supporters would have tried to go had the final been in London
Cup run: Runners-up
All the rage: John Buchan's epic spy novel, 'The 39 Steps"

Season by Season: 1913/14



The ninth season of professional football at Stamford Bridge began under the shadow of imminent war. By August 1914 the whole of Europe would be at war and British troops tramping around France. Football would soon become a meaningless sideshow, but for the time being people still flocked to the Fulham Road every other Saturday full of sporting optimism.

And before the military dispatches, a brigade of new footering favourites emerged on the Stamford Bridge terraces.

Only fourteen goalies have played more than 100 games for the Blues. Our second centurion, following the precedent set by our first great goalkeeping servant Jack Whitley, was the popular Merseysider James “Molly” Molyneux.

Whitley would stay at Chelsea as a trainer until the 1939, but the new man exceeded him in every respect, playing more games, keeping more clean sheets ... and letting in more goals. Soon, he would also become the first Chelsea keeper to appear in a Cup Final. Molly’s playing career spanned the War and he made more than 230 appearances.

Upfront, the experienced Harold Halse, a lithe England international who had twice won the Cup, had begun to share goalscoring responsibilities with the dependable Viv Woodward. There were two bit-part players who fleetingly lit up the Bridge too: Max Woosnam, an all-round athlete who would win an Olympic medal at tennis in 1920, was an amateur sportsman in the Woodward vein, but his career at Chelsea was curtailed by his business interests.

Lanky, skilful half-back Nils Middelboe, our first glamorous overseas recruit, began a ten-year love affair with the Blues that comprised mostly of one-night stands as he was so often unavailable because of his salaried work as a banker.

The “Great Dane” as he was inevitably called, is a legend in his native land. And in an era when there is overblown talk of “foreign mercenaries”, it’s refreshing to recall that the Danish amateur international would not even put in the expense claim top-ups that his English colleagues would. Middelboe was a star from the off. It was well-known he had scored the first ever goal in Olympic football in 1908, and on his debut for the Pensioners he was handed the honour of captaincy by his friend, Woodward.
"At Stamford Bridge, we have been told
Are seen obstructions; far too bold,

With Plume, and Hat, so very tall

'Not Half' the game is seen at all

Apart from that, a Gallant Dane

Is seen; and long may he remain

With Chelsea; so, please just to show

Respect; 'Hats off,' to Middelboe"

E. A. Goddard (Oxford Street)

Less fortunate was the great Ben Warren, whose descent into mental ill-health and death from tuberculosis deeply affected the football world - a benefit match was held at Stamford Bridge for his wife and children at the end of the season.

The Bridge also staged a display of hands across the water in February 1914, as George V attended a baseball match between two top US teams, New York Giants and Chicago White Sox.

As far as the football was concerned, though, this season was all about consolidation. Chelsea never really excelled, but rarely looked out of their depth in the top tier – despite a 1-6 humiliation at the hands of Burnley. David Calderhead's team finished the season in a promising eighth place.

Gratifyingly, they were also the top-placed London club at a moment when the capital’s clubs were competing feverishly for audiences. It would be two seasons – but six years – before that feat was achieved again.

In 1913/14... Facts & figures: Chelsea finished just five points short of the runners-up position in Division One
Cup run: First round, losing to Millwall
All the rage: The world’s first full-length colour feature film: 'The Word, the Flesh and the Devil,' a British production

Season by Season: 1912/13


With memories of the debacle of relegation three seasons earlier still fresh, the most realistic hope in August 1912 was that the club would survive, rather than thrive, in Division One.

A run of the three defeats at the start of the campaign, including a dispiriting 1-2 loss at home to an insignificant Liverpool team, confirmed the worst. This was going to be tough.

Still, David Calderhead’s side managed to beat Sheffield United 4-2 and swiftly followed that with morale-boosting wins over Sunderland and, in Plumstead, The Arsenal. The Gunners fired blanks that season and would finish bottom of the table and in considerable turmoil.

The map of football in the capital was about to change though. Complaining that no one wanted to go and watch them where they were – and taking just £200-odd through the turnstiles – Woolwich Arsenal accepted that other London clubs they had recently voted into existence, including Chelsea, were proving far too attractive to the football-going public in that part of the city.

They would soon move to land owned by the College of Divinity in Islington.
“It has been the experience that when professional football has been established in any quarter that a new public is created for the game. Chelsea is a case in point” Daily Mirror 1913
Chelsea’s rebuilding centred around the squad as usual. The most important new arrival had been Jack Harrow the previous campaign. Now settled into his new home, the former Croydon player (above, left) would be the left-back of choice for many years into the future. He became the first Blue to rack up 300 appearances, either side of the First World War, at that.

Yet Bob Whittingham was injured for long periods and the Pensioners missed his regularity, despite managing a creditable 51 goals, Viv Woodward again pulling more than his weight.
But 71 goals conceded in 38 games told its own story.

Between October and the start of January Chelsea notched just one win, against fellow top flight rookies Derby, in 14 attempts. The rest of the season, almost to the final day, was a torment to Stamford Bridge loyalists.

As it unfolded, it became clear that either Chelsea or Notts County would suffer the drop with The Arsenal.

Losing 1-6 at home to Blackburn Rovers at the end of March must have appeared disastrous at the time, but a spree of two wins in mid-April, one against struggling Spurs, happily rendered the final match superfluous.

Relieved, the Pensioners whacked Notts County 5-2. Better, much better, was to come in the ensuing seasons, but for now it was just great to remain among the top nobs.

In 1912/13…
Facts and figures: 21 defeats was the most suffered up to this point; it was 38 years before a worse record was established
Cup run: Second round, losing to Sheffield Wednesday in a replay
All the rage: Coco Chanel, icon of tailored chic, opened her first shop in Deauville, France

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Season by Season: 1911/12


At this point in Chelsea's history, just before the advent of “the war to end all wars” – the First World War of 1914-18 – it’s worth taking a look at the make-up of football in those days.

Let’s look at the map of the old Second Division in which we found ourselves in August 1911. At the end of the Edwardian era Leicester had a Fosse, not a City; Leeds had a City not a United; and Bradford’s City was a mere Park Avenue then.

There were plenty of familiar names: Blackpool, Bristol City, Wolves, Derby, Hull, Nottingham Forest, Burnley; but whatever happened to Glossop North End and Gainsborough Trinity?

Other recognisable aspects of the game included the football ‘pools’, which at that time were free but required the prediction of a scoreline to net a potential £300, and Spot-the-Ball. The Beckhams of the day – the likes of England striker Steve Bloomer – were already endorsing various products to augment their meagre, tightly-capped salaries.

So Chelsea's second season ending in glorious promotion to the First Division was played out across a timeless landscape in well-known settings. The prolific Bloomer’s club, Derby County, were one of Chelsea’s chief rivals for the step up, along with Burnley and Wolves. An early home win over County, following consecutive, confidence-sapping 0-0 draws to Stockport and Leeds, helped form the platform of belief for eventual success.

On Boxing Day, a fixture that has periodically been a ‘traditional’ one – home to Fulham – brought victory and third slot. In those days teams played the same opposition home and away over the festive period – the 26th; we beat over our closest rivals 1-0 in both.

February, however, brought devastating news: Chelsea's founder and owner, the larger-than-life Henry Augustus Mears (pictured above, right), died suddenly from kidney failure. His passing threw ownership of the freehold at Stamford Bridge into a dispute which took decades to settle. Gus is buried in Brompton Cemetery, next to the ground he built; the large funeral cortege paused momentarily at the stadium gates en route.

Nothing could stop the Pensioner filling one of the promotion slots, not even a disheartening 0-2 defeat at Derby. Four wins on the spin closed out the season while others faltered and David Calderhead's side finished second behind County solely because of an inferior goal average.

Burnley, the only team who could have pipped the Londoners, lost to Wolves on the final day, while Charlie Freeman’s strike was enough to see off Bradford in front of 40,000 at the Bridge.

"What a scene at the final whistle last Saturday! Those scribes who ascribe our crowds to mere 'accessibility of ground' were given the lie direct. There was no getting away from the delirious, almost hysterical joy of thousands of strong men who surged around the Pavilion, and cheered themselves hoarse." The Chelsea Chronicle, 30th April 1912

Chelsea had finished one place higher than the previous season, principally because the fewer goals scored were better spread out - more matches were won and fewer drawn.

'The Sphinx' Calderhead’s yo-yo team were at it again. This time, the stay in the top flight would last for 12 years, sometimes with ease, sometimes without.

Unfortunately, it was time to say goodbye to perhaps the first Chelsea icon, George Hilsdon. His off-pitch antics had become too much for the management, and he moved on to a more easy-going atmosphere at West Ham.

Better summer news, though, was that Chelsea forward Viv Woodward captained the amateur England national team to victory in the Olympics.

In 1911/12...
Facts & figures: Bob Whittingham, scoring 26, was Chelsea's new goalscoring hero
Cup run: second round, losing to Bradford
All the rage: the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 shocks the world

Season by Season: 1910/11


Make no mistake. Despite the hype surrounding the drop from today’s Premiership, Chelsea’s relegation back in the spring of 1910 had been an equally bitter blow to supporters’ and players’ pride, and the club’s finances.

The bandwagon stalled momentarily and, perhaps, had it not been for an instant rekindling of Stamford Bridge fans’ faith, we might be singing different songs in the stands today. Momentum towards promotion was regained, and although we have been relegated six times and six times restored to the top flight, the first response to adversity is always the most telling.

David Calderhead’s rollercoaster ride in the early years of managing the club belied the steady track he was laying into the future. Regulars in his team included insatiable goalscoring internationals Jack Whittingham and George Hilsdon, the renowned custodian Jim Molyneux, midfielders Ben Warren and Sam Downing, and Walter Betteridge and Jock Cameron in defence. These were solid, reliable performers capable of holding their own in the First Division that had dumped them.

But it was Viv Woodward (pictured above, right), the gifted, gentleman forward, who was the talisman of the team at this time. An international who had always retained his amateur status but was more ‘professional’ than most of his colleagues, Woodward left many of the headlines to Whittingham and Hilsdon.

But his amiable, stylish manner, deftness of thought and touch, and transparently sporting approach to the game, put the seal on an underachieving team that was easy to like. We have regularly formed sides like that over the years, but the theme began in this era.

“He was a gentleman, and in all my association with him I never saw him commit a foul or retaliate - and he did get some pastings. He was a wizard." Bobby Steel on Vivian Woodward

One familiar facet is the glorious FA Cup run. The 1910/11 season brought our first ever. And Woodward was instrumental in our progress. Wins over non-League opposition in the first two rounds were rewarded with a mouth-watering trip to mighty Molineux, home of the Wolves. Woodward scored the opener, Hilsdon the second and we were through.

A massive crowd made it to the Bridge for the visit of Swindon, beaten 3-1. We were well beaten in the semi-final against Division One opponents Newcastle, but would soon go the whole way.

In the League, Chelsea looked one of a few likely champions all season long, but we fell away to third and would have to wait another year for redemption. It was, though, a season that lit the pathway to a bright future.

In 1910/11...
Facts and figures: the Swindon cup victory is watched by a then record 77,952 people
Cup run: The semi-final, losing to Newcastle
All the rage: Electric escalators arrive at Earl's Court underground station

Season by Season: 1909/10

These were uncertain times around the world, not just the footballing community of London SW. In England’s coffee houses there were fears about Germany building a battleship fleet, problems in the Balkans and the destabilising effect of the Revolution in Russia.

From Indonesia, meanwhile, Dutch zoologists announced the discovery of the enormous Komodo Dragon to the world. If dragons - albeit not fire-breathing ones - actually existed, what other unwelcome surprises lay in store?

For the growing band of followers of Chelsea, London’s second and infinitely more attractive alternative to Woolwich Arsenal, the answer came on 30th April at White Hart Lane. A win against Spurs would have earned two points and, on superior ‘goal average’ (goals for divided by those against), consigned our Woolwich rivals to Division Two. As it is we lost 1-2, the winner coming courtesy of former Pensioner Percy Humphreys, and the bitter pill of relegation was swallowed for the first of six times in our history.

"To-day it is brass bands and fireworks or the Dead March in Saul and funeral coaches. Ah me! How we shall await the half-time verdict from Tottenham!" The Chelsea Chronicle ponders the club's fate ahead of the last game of the season

In actual fact for parts of the season it had looked as if Chelsea would achieve tedious mid-table again. But David Calderhead's team gradually slipped away from 14th at Christmas, with home form standing examination against the very best, but away form woeful.

The team, despite regular shake-ups from manager David Calderhead, won only once on its travels – at Middlesbrough. There were dispiriting defeats to Liverpool (1-5) and Bolton (2-5).

One of the primary causes was the early absence through injury of peerless goal poacher George Hilsdon, who played only a few matches and contributed just three goals rather than his familiar two dozen. The quality of a squad also boasting Ben Warren and Jimmy Windridge was augmented by the arrival of muscular midfield artist Sam Downing and another Chelsea legend, Vivian Woodward (pictured scoring against Tottenham). Woodward, a celebrated amateur international forward who oozed class, had quit Spurs in the summer and surprisingly reappeared as a Chelsea player.

His association with Chelsea would be a long one, but it began with disappointment. In April, as the Division Two trapdoor creaked open, Chelsea’s pockets were rifled again. English McConnell, Marshall McEwan and lantern-jawed striker Bob Whittingham, all deployed in the final match of the season, were among the panicking manager’s last throw of the dice. These emergency purchases prompted the Football Association to introduce the first ever transfer deadline.

But the wave of enthusiasm and finance that created had Chelsea Football Club, and that had carried the team into the upper echelon of the Football League after just 76 matches, had waned.

The Pensioners finished 19th, with just 29 points and a goal difference of –23.

In 1909/10...
Facts and figures: The 29 point haul remains Chelsea's worst ever
Cup campaign: Second round, losing to Tottenham Hotspur
All the rage: Morgan’s first three-wheel Runabout motor car is the urban head-turner

Season by Season: 1908/9


Chelsea’s second season in the top flight showed nothing if not consistency on the pitch; the campaign concluded with one more point than the previous attempt, three more goals for and one fewer against. We finished 11th, having hovered a perilous three points above the relegation places as late as April.

A shock 3-1 win on Tyneside over champions elect Newcastle United (see picture, right) provided the final spur to avoid the drop.

Off the pitch, it has to be said, progress was rather faster. The club founders’ early suggestion that the Stamford Bridge stadium would “stagger humanity” was proving no empty boast. The Archibald Leitch-designed oval stadium had been conceived as a 100,000 capacity, state-of-the-art, all-sport venue.

Since 1906 the stadium had been selected for staging international football and rugby by the respective authorities, and athletics and cricket would occupy the ground during the summer months (in fact Chelsea’s team regularly challenged Spurs to a match before the football season started).

Inter-League matches between Scotland and England were staged at the Bridge (our squad always had its fair share of friends from north of the border), so too were Amateur Cup Finals and Charity Shields – Manchester United winning the first there 4-0.

“Football, Cricket, Lacrosse, Lawn Tennis, Hockey, Polo, Bowls, Bicycle and Tricycle Riding, Running, Jumping… Military Tournaments, Agricultural, Horse, Dog, Flower and other shows” Chelsea’s modest statement of ambition for events to be staged at Stamford Bridge

Gus Mears’ principle of diverse use for the stadium was – in light of our recent experience – far sighted as well as critical to funding the development of the playing staff of his main concern, the football club.

David Calderhead, in common with his predecessor Robertson, found money was available. If the arrival of Fred Rouse, Chelsea’s first four-figure signing, had turned heads, then the purchase of brilliant wing-half Ben Warren, of Derby and England, in 1908 was a genuine statement of purpose. Unfortunately, as has often been the case with our most eagerly anticipated buys, ill luck saw off his potential. Serious illness curtailed his career and the investment failed.

Still, George Hilsdon continued to rattle them in, scoring 25, nearly half his side’s 56 League goals. And there were heartening victories over Bury (4-1), Manchester United (1-0), Middlesbrough (4-1 and 3-0), Newcastle (3-1), Bristol City (3-1) and Leicester (1-0).

Unfortunately, the overall quality of the side was not sufficient to create an impact at the highest level to match the owner’s vision.

If things did not change, Chelsea’s magnificent modern home would be staging prestigious international sporting events under the Second Division banner.

In 1908/9...
Facts & figures: Youthful Chelsea boasted three England internationals: Hilsdon, Warren and Windridge
FA Cup: Reached the second round, losing to Blackburn Rovers
All the rage: Orientalism, and kimonos for ladies

Season by Season: 1907/8


Chelsea‘s first successful promotion campaign had been built on the tightest defence in the Second Division. And there was little doubt, amid the hullabaloo surrounding the glamorous young club’s debut season in the top flight, that the same personnel would need to handle England’s finest with equal competence if the west Londoners were to thrive.

Manager and occasional player Jackie Robertson, who’d built the team but stood down before his side earned their elevation, had been succeeded by Lincoln City boss David Calderhead. Calderhead (pictured right) is rightly regarded as a Chelsea legend, if only because he remains our longest serving manager, surviving 26 years in one of the hottest seats in football.

"Chelsea had only three of their regular team playing. For all that they gave a capital display, the football of the visitors during the first half being extremely good. [Norrie] Fairgray, who was transferred from Lincoln City, proved a splendid partner to at outside-left to [Jimmy] Windridge. These two men, with [Billy] Bridgeman in the centre, played together wonderfully well." The Daily Mirror report of Brentford 2 Chelsea 4, September 1906

But Robertson’s acrimonious resignation was symptomatic of a widespread lapse in standards at easygoing Stamford Bridge. There were frequent absentees from training, and several fines for drunkenness. Club captain David Copeland was even suspended for abusing club officials while under the influence. The directors acted, taking over some organisational duties from Robertson. Calderhead, it was hoped, would exert more authority.

Still one star was errant. George ‘Gatling Gun’ Hilsdon, the sensational young striker, had begun to enjoy the extended drinking sessions that would eventually mar his career. At this stage, though, he was still able to set new standards of goalscoring, notching 30, including a stunning double hat-trick against Worksop in the Cup.

Others weighed in with high quality performances, including fellow forward Jimmy Windridge and goalie Jack Whitley, and the Bridge’s gates averaged more than 30,000. However, one win in the first eight matches did not augur well, and 62 goals were conceded. Still, 13th place in Division One would have been an achievement for a less ambitious club.

Whatever, the music hall songwriters of the day were finding a rich new source of material in SW6 with which to tickle the public fancy. In fact, following the shock death of trainer Jimmy Miller, variety star George Robey organised a benefit at which his All-Star XI played. So well did he perform that the comedian was actually signed up as a player on the Stamford Bridge staff.

Chelsea and entertainment were now intimately - and eternally - linked.

In 1907/8...
Fact & figures: More than 625,000 people watched football at the Bridge this season
FA Cup: Second round, losing to Manchester United
All the rage: Music hall comedian George Robey, of course

Season by Season: 1906/7

In early November 1906, the award of half a guinea (52.5p) for creating the best seven word sentence from the acronym C-H-E-L-S-E-A was printed in Chelsea’s matchday Chronicle: “Chelseaites Hope Every League Struggle Earns Advancement”.

Two hundred others had penned suggestions; crowds flocked to games home and away; the press enjoyed lampooning and hailing in equal measure; some more notable players were lured to Division Two to replace big names like goalie Willie Foulke and 18-goal striker George Pearson. In its second season, Chelsea FC was weaving its way into football’s tapestry.

Perhaps this was the period when the lasting image of Chelsea was struck, forged in the Imperial, excitable, warless days soon after the death of old Queen Vic. The board was a hedonistic mixture of wealthy building contractors and local publicans; what they all shared was a love of the high-living and sport.

The team fulfilled their fixtures around the country by train and the novel electric tram (no team coach then) to record crowds, fascinated by the newcomers. In the public psyche, the club was forever associated with its desirable but implausible West London location.

“Chelsea, you’re the team to show ’em (when you’re in the proper vein)” First line of a poem sent in to the Chelsea Chronicle by supporter F Douglas

Chelsea was an enigma.

One of the head-turning attractions was the 19-year-old Londoner George Hilsdon, perhaps the club’s first ‘discovery’. A centre-forward who was watched languishing in West Ham’s reserves, he had become manager Jackie Robertson most important summer signing. Fast, mobile, muscular and with bullets in either boot, he had destroyed poor Glossop – who’d left with a point the season before – on the opening day of 1906/7.

‘Gatling Gun’, as he was soon dubbed, rattled in five during our auspicious 9-2 win and within weeks scored a hat-trick during the English League’s first international, against Ireland. The glamorous George scored 27 of 80 League goals in the campaign and became an instant hero. A weathervane in his likeness (pictured above) still spins on top of the east stand at Stamford Bridge.

The self-evident ambition, on and off the pitch, of this star-studded club also earned plaudits even if the erratic away form didn’t. But with Stamford Bridge becoming a citadel (one defeat, no draws over the campaign), the Londoners were always favourites for one of the two promotion slots, and a Christmas run of four away games without defeat set up a comfortable conclusion: nine points clear of rivals Leicester Fosse; three behind champions Nottingham Forest.

In its second season Chelsea FC was promoted to the top flight, and the big time.

In 1906/7...
Facts and figures: The 9-2 defeat of Glossop remains Chelsea’s best ever League win
Cup run: Reached the first round, losing to Lincoln City in a replay after a draw
All the rage: Jules Verne was the JK Rowling of the day

Season by Season: 1905/6


On Saturday September 2nd 1905, just before three o’clock, a marching band, followed by a rabble of excited football fans draped in red and white stripes, wound its way through the Victorian streets of Stockport into County's Edgeley Park stadium. The largest ever crowd for the Cheshire club had come to catch the League debut of this glamorous new team from London, Chelsea FC.

Chelsea lost out, narrowly, 0-1. But some principles, established straight away, have resonated ever since. The team was attractive and ambitious, with many non-English players (albeit Scots and Irish); they played football with attacking flair; and they participated in a ‘first’ – larger-than-life keeper Willie Foulke had to adhere to a brand new rule dictating that goalies must stay rooted to the line when County were awarded a penalty.

Skipper Foulke – who saved the penalty – was a boisterous, 6’3”, 22st Shropshireman. One opposing forward felt facing him was “as though darkness had come over the goal.” He was marketed much like David Beckham is today, albeit on difference criteria: men marched around town when Chelsea were visiting with sandwich boards saying: 'Come and see the 23 stone goalkeeper!'

The England international was just one of many big names drawn in the summer to the new name in English football. Manager John Tait “Jacky” Robertson, himself a Scotsman, had managed to recruit, amongst others, the prolific Johnnie Kirwan, David Copeland and 5’7” inside-forward Jimmy Windridge, who notched our first hat-trick in the 5-1 home debut win over Hull on Sept 9th.

“What do you think of our Ground… Good enough for SECOND Division Football, is it not? And it is only a baby as yet. Wait until is it full grown, and then – well, we shall see what we shall Chel-sea.” Chelsea Chronicle, Sept 4th 1905

The novelty of the capital's first big professional Football League club drew massive crowds all around the country. On Good Friday 1906, for the crunch visit of title rivals Manchester United, an extraordinary attendance of 67,000 was recorded at the Bridge - more than three times the figure for the return fixture at Clayton.

With record-breaking numbers drawn to Stamford Bridge it was clear the club was too big for this level. Robertson's men decimated lesser opponents: Barnsley 6-0, Lincoln 7-0, Blackpool 6-0, Port Vale 7-0, Orient 6-0, Leeds 4-0.

But a poor spell of earning just three points from a possible ten (it was two for a win in those days) during the run-in meant that our expected promotion charge fizzled out behind runaway winners Bristol City and Manchester United, who claimed the other promotion slot.

The Fulham Chronicle ran articles to decide a nickname for the exciting debutants. Against ‘The Chinamen’, ‘The Buns’ and ‘The Cherubs’, we might be grateful that ‘The Pensioners’ came out on top, even though, as the Football Star observed, it was “rather suggestive of the lights of other days.”

Our motto in that first season was less in dispute. “Don’t worry!” was the regular rallying cry of millionaire owner Gus Mears (pictured left). It served just as well for most of the 100 to follow.

In 1905-6…
• League: Finished third in Division Two
• FA Cup: Reached third qualifying round v. Crystal Palace
• Fact: Our first ever signing – and goalscorer – was Robert ‘Bob’ McRoberts
• All the rage: double decker buses rumble along the King’s Road for the first time