Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Season by Season: 1934/5

The great Hughie Gallacher turned out for Chelsea for the last time in November 1934. With their customary ability to mark historic moments by a disappointing showing, the team lost 2-5 at Elland Road. Gallacher, who would stay up north with Derby County, scored one, George Mills grabbing the other.

There was some symbolism in that: Mills, the dogged and resolute forward matching his inspirational but unreliable strike partner for the last time. It almost represents the unresolved riddle at the heart of the club ever since 1905. Do we prefer showmen or grafters? Do we want to win at all costs, or be entertained?

In truth, the loss of the Scots genius would have been a more bitter blow had he been on top of his game and his lifestyle. The ready attractions of west London and his unstable home life were taking their toll on his performances though. This did not escape club management.

Once Gallacher left Chelsea, his life rapidly and sadly declined. Once out of football he returned to the north-east and tragically committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.

In the summer of 1934 Leslie Knighton had planned ahead, bringing in another Emerald Isle star, the prolific Linfield and Ireland centre forward Joe Bambrick. He re-signed wandering Alec Cheyne, who returned from a money-spinning two-year spell with Nimes in France, and brought in winger Dickie Spence, a crucial signing from Barnsley.

Yorkshireman Dickie (pictured, above left) was a tiny, sparky livewire on and off the pitch, good with both feet, and with a healthy appetite for goals.

Spence set a Chelsea record for goals by a winger of 19 in his first term – an incredible 12 of which were penalties, many earned through his pace and trickery against cumbersome opponents. He scored all our goals in a 4-1 drubbing of Liverpool and became a regular England international.

"Mr A.J. Palmer, Stamford Bridge official ... doubts if any winger has equalled Spence's performance. Yes, the Stamford Bridge team is improving. The greatest achievement nowadays is a better club spirit." W.H. Bee, 'Daily Mirror', after Dickie Spence's four-goal haul against Liverpool in Dec 1934

Spence's promising Chelsea career, like so many others’, would soon be interrupted by war, but it was after the conflict that he would have his greatest impact at Chelsea. Spence was one of those who set up and ran the Chelsea Juniors scheme well into the Seventies.

His skills as a trainer and nurturer helped bring through the likes of Bonetti, Brabrook, Bridges, Greaves, Harris, Hollins, Houseman, Hudson, Murray, Osgood, Sillett, Tambling, Tindall and Venables.

In 1971, as many of those progenies celebrated winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup, Dickie could look back on 37 years of service at Chelsea.

Back in 1934/5, Chelsea at last looked like a side capable of holding its own again in the top flight. Joe Bambrick lived up to his billing, netting 15 times in 21 matches, including four in a 7-1 home battering of Leeds United. The Pensioners finished 12th, but the remodelling under Knighton was taking shape.

In 1934/5...

Facts & figures: At 11,701, our lowest crowd of the season is for the visit of Everton, Dixie Dean and all.

Cup run: Third round replay, losing to Luton Town.

All the rage: European fascism – “Herr Hitler” and Mussolini strongarm their way into the newsreels.

Season by Season: 1933/4

If 18th position in May 1933 was enough to end manager David Calderhead’s tenure at Stamford Bridge, new boss Leslie Knighton hardly set SW6 alight in his debut season.

In fact, the Pensioners ambled to an even lowlier 19th under him. Knighton’s former club, Birmingham City – mid-table regulars under him – finished one place lower. It was hardly his fault, though.

Despite the regular under-achievement, with lucrative gates of 50 and 60,000 a frequent occurrence at Stamford Bridge the ambitious board had been prepared to invest again in summer 1933.

Knighton used his contacts across the Irish Sea to bring in stylish Tom Priestley (famous for the idiosyncratic skull-cap he wore on the pitch) and combative midfielder Billy Mitchell, who would serve the club well in his time. The manager also brought in flame-haired winger Jimmy Argue from his former club and bought Scotland's keeper Johnny Jackson from Partick Thistle.

Never the less, the new man had been swiftly alerted to the enigma of Chelsea that had defeated Calderhead and now challenged him. In his first match in charge, no less than six internationals took the field at newly-promoted Stoke’s Victoria Ground. And lost 0-1.

A 5-2 home victory over struggling Wolves was followed by on-the-road defeats at Huddersfield (1-6) and Sheffield United (1-4), not helped by a massive list of key injuries that virtually killed the season.

There was plenty of talent, but team spirit? Once again the glamour boys were favourites for relegation come Christmas.

The football world was all too ready to enjoy our usual underachievement. A popular song from the halls at the time was 'The Day That Chelsea Went And Won The Cup', which related all the equally unlikely events (lawyers waiving their fees, cabbies having change of a fiver etc) that took place on a day that the satirical writer could obviously never foresee. This despite the Pensioners reaching the semi-final in 1932.

“Brave as a lion. Quick, safe, sure.” Leslie Knighton hails Jackson, one of his two great keepers

There were green shoots of promise to enjoy. Once fit Johnny Jackson would clearly prove a fine acquisition, a goalkeeper to rival Vic Woodley. Both would play regularly for their country – Scotland and England respectively – and they became the best of friends despite the professional rivalry. Jackson had all too quickly lost his first-team place through injury, but was still selected for Scotland on recovery.

Two goals in the FA Cup from Stanley Matthews helped Stoke heap more misery on us in the Cup as we lost 1-3 away, but as fitness returned a flurry of five consecutive wins in March and April saw off the last real threat of the drop. The next season, it was hoped, would bring fewer injuries and genuine progress.

Off the field, the greyhound racing that would entertain (and impoverish) crowds of punters for three and a half decades was launched at Stamford Bridge in July 1933 (pictured, top left). Former star winger Harry Ford was one of those who worked on the turnstiles at the evening meetings.

In 1933/34...

Facts & figures: More than 10,000 punters regularly attended greyhound events at the Bridge.

Cup run: Fifth round (losing to Stoke City).

All the rage: Aussie batsman Don Bradman is the new toast of Ashes cricket.

Season by Season: 1932/3

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.

“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

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.

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.

In 1932/33...

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.