1932-3 was a season with the foreboding familiar to any fan of an attractive but ineffective team, of any era. Chelsea had made some significant signings since returning to the top flight, including the prolific Hughie Gallacher and the best keeper of his generation, Vic Woodley.
But early results suggested that veteran manager David Calderhead’s squad needed more than freshening up. It had aged with him.
In fact, thoughts turned to whether the “Sphinx” as this poker-faced Scotsman was known, was still up to the job after more than a quarter of a century. Football, after all, had changed. After the Great War, the world had changed too.
Chelsea’s status as the butt of music hall comedian was still unfortunately alive and well. The swanky west Londoners losing on the south coast to lowly Brighton & Hove Albion was the latest in a long line of FA Cup humiliations. Luckily, high-flying Arsenal lost to Walsall and stole some of our thunder.
And there was consistency in the board’s policy of multi-purposing Stamford Bridge. Stadium owner Joe Mears had ambitions to place Chelsea at the heart of the football establishment while encouraging lucrative non-football fads to be staged in SW6. The two goals were not always complementary.
In December 1932 the stadium hosted the England football team’s surprise international victory over the brilliant Austrian ‘Wunderteam’. Quite what the FA made of Mears’s latest move, though, we can only wonder.
Since 1929 the cinder track around the pitch perimeter had been used by Claude Langdon, a showman and entrepreneur, for high-profile matches of the speedway league, or dirt-track racing, imported from Australia. The Amateur Athletics Association had moved its annual meets to White City because of the disturbance to the running surface.
The Stamford Bridge speedway club had been successful and attractive, with star riders such as Gus Kuhn (pictured, top right) rapidly becoming celebrities of British sport, and between 1928 and 1932 Langdon made himself a fortune. He was soon to fall foul of stadium owner JT Mears's machinations, however.
Mears, always with an eye for novelty, had already decided that speedway had had its day, and informed Langdon. The Stamford Bridge landlord had noted the swift emergence of a new proletarian sport as a magnet for betting enthusiasts and, despite moral panic voiced in Parliament, wanted to be in at the start of greyhound racing.
“Langdon, I’m afraid you’ll have to go. I’m thinking of having greyhound racing here at Chelsea.” Joe Mears breaks the eviction news to speedway supremo Claude Langdon
There may also have been other motives involved: it is interesting to note that two of the shareholders in the White City, Harringay and Stamford Bridge Greyhound Racing Bookmakers Association were Harry and Joe Sabini, members of the notorious Clerkenwell gang masterminded by Darby Sabini that ran gambling in London.
A controversial aspect of Mears’s leasing agreement with greyhound promoter Major Dixson was the creation of a company called ‘The Stamford Bridge Stadium Ltd’, which would dominate decisions taken regarding the stadium and come back to haunt the football men with its demands for half a century.
On the pitch there was little of note, except one of the most excruciating matches in Chelsea history – at Blackpool, October 29th 1932. The game had taken place despite icy conditions all across the north-west. As it wore on, with a north-easterly wind driving heavy, freezing sleet into their faces, Chelsea’s ‘southern softies’ began to wilt like precious orchids.
By the end, only six visitors remained on the pitch. The other five were in the dressing room, apparently being tended for exposure. It was also rumoured that the players were under the misapprehension that the referee had to abandon a game when one team was so far depleted. He didn’t, and Blackpool won 0-4.
Len Allum (on debut), Bill Ferguson, Harry Miller, James O’Dowd and Albert Oakton – you did Chelsea's reputation no favours! Luckily, only 7,311 people were there to laugh at the poor dears.
Eventually, a 4-1 win at Maine Road in May secured 18th place and safety. Finally, after 26 years of under-achievement, the great servant David Calderhead made way for the respected Leslie Knighton as secretary-manager.
Facts & Figures: Chelsea escaped relegation by just two points.
Cup run: Third round (losing to Brighton & Hove Albion).
All the rage: Popular music recordings – newly-formed EMI dominates the market for “78” records.