Monday, 17 August 2009

Season by Season: 1924/25

In July 1924, a British Empire athletics squad lost out to its USA counterpart by 3pts to 11. Among the British winners was miler Eric Liddell, immortalised in the film 'Chariots Of Fire.' Even if Chelsea’s footballers were languishing in Division Two for the third time, sportsmen could still light up the venue for an enthusiastic fee-paying public.

Relegation had come at an awkward time in the evolution of the club and during a deep economic depression in the country. The diversification of use that had been the aim of those running the stadium from 1905 was now desperately needed to bring in vital revenue.

The wooing of various sports authorities, old and new, had produced mixed results. (Much like the football team, which without significant new investment in players finished fifth in the Second Division.)

American baseball showcases had begun to be staged. In the November King George V and Queen Mary, along with two princes, watched Chicago Whitesox play the New York Giants.

A few years later, Joe Mears’ manoeuvring delighted the capital’s petrol-heads as the novel sport of motorcycle speedway came to the Bridge; shortly after that, the famous greyhounds arrived.

The hosting of athletics events was in keeping with the stadium’s roots. It had been the home of the London Athletic Association before Chelsea moved in.
“65 sports meetings held in the close season, and when there are no meetings as many as 150 to 200 Athletes are on the ground training” Football League report into the state of Chelsea’s pitch
But multiple use of the playing surface came with a price to pay. The football authorities listened to several complaints from First Division clubs in the early Twenties that the pitch was often not up to standard.

Equally important, the dream of developing a covered stadium that would rival the great football temples of Glasgow did not materialise. Major structural improvements would not come until the Thirties, and a cinder track would surround the pitch for the bikes before a lid was placed over the South Stand.

The biggest loss had come when Chelsea’s hosting of FA Cup Finals ended with the completion of Wembley stadium – a major blow, even though Charity Shields remained in SW6.

On the pitch, Andy Wilson’s skills and Bill Whitton’s goals, plus the continues defensive supremacy of Ben Howard Baker, back in goal, and full-backs Harrow and Smith, made it still worth a visit.

In 1924/25...
Facts and figures: Chelsea’s average crowd in this Second Division season was 31,000
Cup run: First Round, losing to Birmingham City
All the rage: the Charleston arrives in Britain – everybody’s doing it.

Season by Season: 1923/24

As Chelsea Football Club approached its twentieth anniversary the wheels on the entertaining bandwagon appeared to be working loose. Disputes over the stadium real estate and public doubts over the motives of one or two directors had sullied the fantasy atmosphere of football in SW6.

Goals had dried up too. By late November Chelsea had hit the net in just five of the first 16 matches. Of last season’s leading scorers, Buchanan Sharp was no longer around and Harry Ford’s flow had dried up.

The renowned amateur international from Corinthians, A.G. Bower, known as "Baishe", joined his teammate Ben Howard Baker on the Chelsea roster, although work commitments prevented the great full-back from turning out regularly for the Blues.
Public interest reflected fare that was unlikely to interest an audience, especially in times of biting poverty. Attendances had fallen substantially for the first time outside wartime.

But the club’s divided board still knew a few tricks. At the end of that meagre November Chelsea visited Ayresome Park, and one of the two Middlesbrough scorers that day was a Scottish international who would emerge as one of the greatest pocket battleships of Chelsea’s attack.

Andy Wilson (pictured, above left) became the club's record signing after the return match at the Bridge a week later – won 2-0 – for a substantial £6,500. A small but sturdy 5’6” in his nailed-on studs, he stayed eight years and was a pioneer in the club tradition of petite entertainers that will be familiar to anyone who watched Hughie Gallacher or Mark Stein – or even Gianfranco Zola, another spectacular autumn acquisition 73 years later.

Wilson, despite the impediment of a war-damaged left hand, was also a typically crowd-pleasing Scots winger, full of tricks to elude an opponent and deadly in his distribution from just outside the box. Although he was primarily a provider, he also top scored for the Pensioners with a paltry five League goals. An enthusiastic smoker, Wilson was never the less a pioneer in producing football training books for children.

At 53 the record of goals conceded compared favourably to third-placed Sunderland, and was testament to main goalie Colin Hampton and his back line, including the long-serving Jack Harrow.

But an impoverishing 31 goals for would do the damage and ways of escape from a second relegation with that dreadful goal average began to test terrace mathematicians as the season drew to a close.

Yet the Pensioners suddenly revived, seeing off heavyweights Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland and producing the kind of hope that can be fatal.
“The midget Chelsea forwards faded away, almost sunk from view” Chelsea historian Scott Cheshire on the downpour at the Bridge that ended Chelsea’s hopes of staying up
Before the final match, against Man City, it was nevertheless clear that only a serious win margin, probably by double figures, would suffice.

Imagine this, all you who were drenched watching Chelsea 4 Viktoria Zizkov 2 in 1994: the Pensioners had scored three times in the first 15 minutes, when an almighty rainstorm engulfed the Bridge, quagmired the pitch, and virtually ended any hope. The final score was 3-1.
Even the weather, it seems, has it in for Chelsea sometimes. The Blues were relegated in 21st place; Boro finished bottom.

In 1923/24...
Facts and figures: Chelsea had lasted 15 years in the top flight
Cup run: First Round, losing to Southampton after a replay for the second year running
All the rage: football hooliganism – this is the year of the White Horse FA Cup Final

Season by Season: 1922/23

On Boxing Day, 1922, the visit of Nottingham Forest was inauspicious. The Midlanders arrived knowing that Chelsea had not won in 11 games, hadn’t troubled the scorers at all during November, and were looking like rivals for relegation from Division One.

Happily, Chelsea won 4-0 on the day, with the less familiar names of Buchanan Sharp and Jimmy Armstrong, with a brace, sharing the rare glory with fading star Harry Ford.

Many of the old names had faded now, and the celebrated Jack Cock was crocked and then moved on to Everton.

It had all looked very different on Monday September 4th at the Bridge, when Sharp and Cock were both on the scoresheet in a 3-2 win over Stoke that put Chelsea top of the League for the first time in our history.

The last 14 games of the season were a nightmare, though, with only a 3-0 win over Bolton earning the maximum two points. We finished in 19th place, just above the relegation slots.
Off the field, too, the turmoil of the period has a familiar ring to any supporters who sat through the 1970s. Needless to say we are talking about a scandal surrounding ownership of the land on which Stamford Bridge is built.
“It would appear that from the formation of the club the Mears family have exercised a controlling influence” FA inquiry into the running of Chelsea FC, 1922
Joseph Theophilus Mears, alongside his late brother Gus, had been a founder director of the football club. He was a sports fan who knew better than most how to make money from leisure and entertainment. He ran pubs, built cinemas and owned the steam launches that puffed up the Thames from Eel Pie Island in Twickenham (see advertisement, top left).

After Gus’s death, Joe quietly bought the freehold to the property from their sister, Gus's executrix, Beatrice, who had previously offered the land to the football club at a higher price.

Back in 1920 Mears had first advised the club that as new landlord all rents should be paid to him. He offered an alternative, however: buy the freehold for £42,000 over 14 years.

Sadly, Chelsea could ill afford such a fee. Mears also paid the club relatively little for his lucrative monopoly on all catering inside the Bridge, and all renovations were carried out by his contracting firm at a hefty sum. Matters came to a head in the boardroom in 1922.

An unseemly spat ensued during which Mears attempted to boot his
brother-in-law, Beatrice's husband and a fellow building contractor Henry Boyer, off the Chelsea board. Boyer in turn disputed the value of construction work carried out on the ground through Mears's firm, and wrote to the FA.

The FA was appalled at what they read and instigated an inquiry
so that for the first time, but certainly not the last, Chelsea’s dirty laundry was washed in public. In 1922 Mr J Howcroft produced a report condemning Chelsea as an unhealthily run club, and demanding changes among the directors - there were too many Mears employees, he felt, including Tom Kinton, his clerk of works - catering arrangements and tendering procedures.

Boyer and
Kinton were both ousted in 1922, and in their place came former player Vivian Woodward, who remained for eight years, and Charles Pratt Sr., a local antique dealer. Pratt was briefly chairman in 1935 following Claude Kirby's death, and his son held down the same post between 1966 and 1968.

Unfortunately, history proved that the battle of Stamford Bridge was far from over.

In 1922/23...
Facts and figures: The FA inquiry was told that Joe Mears paid £35, 750 for the freehold of Stamford Bridge

Cup run: Second Round, losing to Southampton
after a replay
All the rage: Decaffeinated coffee is invented – skinny latte decaff, anyone?

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

Season by Season: 1920/21

Progress on the field and the official patronage now bestowed on our inter-national class stadium by visiting royalty and the staging of FA Cup pointed to a very bright future. The 72,805 who attended the 1920 final tie at the Bridge brought in record receipts of £13,414. Football, and its place in society, was also changing.

The advent of a Third Division, almost exclusively made up of members of the old Southern League, extended the heartland of the game. Newspapers’ sports pages suddenly expanded to provide sufficient coverage and new dedicated magazines sprang up.

Crowds were returning to the terraces. Attendances of 45-50,000 were the norm. Chelsea had become a very big club with a reputation for regularly fielding top internationals.
“The best centre forward exhibition ever” Football writer on Jack Cock’s performance for England v Scotland, 1920
In October 1920 an enormous 76,000 crowd turned up to watch Chelsea seek revenge over newly-promoted Spurs, who had decimated their London rivals 5-0 at White Hart Lane the week before. (Sadly, the Lilywhites merely resumed where they had left off, and the Pensioners lost 0-4.)

Still the Corinthian spirit survived at the club, despite Vivian Woodward’s retirement from playing. Danish international Nils Middelboe would often skipper the side, and over the next few years more famous amateurs would join him, including goalkeeper Ben Howard Baker.

The war was still a strong memory – players were listed in the “Chelsea Chronicle” with the relevant service rank appended to their names. And, of course, the red-coated Pensioners sat proudly in the grandstand, as they do to this day.In truth, this was a disappointing period in our history after the promise of 1919. Veteran star winger Harry Ford (pictured, top left) was starting to miss more games, the over-reliance on Jack Cock’s goals was proving problematic, and a half-decent defensive record suffered accordingly.

On the back of the FA Cup finals success, the Chelsea board’s ambitious strategy for the Stamford Bridge stadium included an increase of capacity to 80,000 with steep, terraced banking at the north and south ends, improved conditions for dignitaries and no less than 61 turnstiles to handle those with their paste-board tickets or cash to hand over on the day.

There were even plans to build walkways from local train and tube stations. Not for the first or last time in the ground's history they amounted to nothing, and notions of the Fulham Road becoming the permanent host for national events would soon be scuppered by the building of Wembley Stadium.

Such thoughts of renovations at Chelsea did not extend anywhere near deep enough into the playing staff, however, and an ageing squad struggled to live up to the glamorous setting.

Come May 1921, we were back in the then familiar territory of 18th in the 22-strong First Division, and too close to relegation for comfort.

In 1920/21...
Facts & figures: a benefit match against the British Army in Sept 1920 was won 2-0
Cup run: Fourth round, versus Cardiff City
All the rage: Shaving fanatic Jacob Schick invents the Magazine Repeating Razor, based on a gun design