Chelsea FC History

Trying to condense the entire 110 year history of Chelsea into a single, manageable feature is no easy task. One could easily focus on Jose Mourinho’s press conferences alone and surpass the required length of article and so, rich and delightful as the in-depth history would be, it must be saved for another time and place. Our three-part feature on the history of Chelsea will attempt the impossible and aim to be both concise and comprehensive – wish us luck!

The Very Beginning and the Bite of a Dog

The Butcher's Hook Pub in London
Chelsea FC were formed at a meeting at the Rising Sun pub, now known as the Butcher’s Hook (shown above), which is a stone’s throw from Stamford Bridge. Photo by The Blues, Wikimedia Commons

That said, let me start at the beginning and explain – at the risk of over-elaborating – how Chelsea FC may never have come about were it not for the bite of a dog. In 1904 Edwardian businessman Gus Mears was taking a stroll with a friend, Frederick Parker. Mears had been keen to establish a football team on an open piece of land in west London but difficulties arose and the idea looked like being consigned to scrapheap of unfulfilled dreams. Parker, a huge enthusiast of the football scheme, was attempting to talk Mears round but with little joy. The two men walked on and suddenly Mears’ dog bit Parker quite savagely, drawing blood from the hand… but little more than amusement from the stoically Edwardian Parker.

That bite, or more accurately, Parker’s quiet, calm reaction, persuaded Mears that Parker could be trusted and the next day the Stamford Bridge project was full steam ahead. Originally, whisper it quietly, Fulham, already in existence, were invited to play at the new ground but when they declined Mears decided to create an entirely new club.

On March 10th 1905 a meeting was held in the pub now known as The Butcher’s Hook and Chelsea FC was born, but not until naming suggestions of Stamford Bridge FC, London FC and Kensington FC were all rejected. A squad of players was assembled, with Scot John Robertson as player-manager and Mears set about trying to gain entrance into a league. The Southern League were unwelcoming so Chelsea took the bold step of aiming higher and 29th May 1905 at the Football League’s AGM Chelsea FC was elected into their Second Division.

At this time the Football League was a very northern place, with few teams from the south and Chelsea being allowed to become the first team ever to be elected to the League without ever so much as muddying a shirt may simply have been an attempt to increase the game’s popularity in the south.

The Early Years

Vintage Brown Leather Football Against White Background
Chelsea’s first ever league game was on the 2nd September 1905, a 1-0 away defeat by Stockport County

Things started inauspiciously on the 2nd September, 1905, with a 1-0 defeat at Stockport, a result avenged three months later with a 4-2 win at the Bridge. Despite that first defeat things rapidly improved and, watched by crowds in excess of 60,000, at times Chelsea held their own before gaining promotion to the First Division the following season. George Hilsdon scored 108 goals in six seasons, earning him a weather vane that remains at the ground to this day, whilst perhaps the biggest character, in every way, of these early years, was the 22 stone goalkeeper, Willy “Fatty” Foulke, whose disdain for both forwards and referees was obvious and oft demonstrated. Chelsea also brought in their first foreign player, “The Great Dane” Nils Middelboe, long before Gianfranco Zola would woo the crowds.

These early years brought mixed results, however, and by the 1910-11 season the Blues were back in the Second Division, having finished second-last the year before with just 29 points from 38 games – and you thought things were bad in the ‘80s!

1915 may have been darkened by the First World War but Chelsea brought cheer to their fans by reaching a first FA Cup Final, played at Old Trafford against Sheffield United. With the nation at war few Chelsea fans could make the final and the Blades ran out 3-0 winners in the so-called (due to the large number of military uniforms in the crowd) “Khaki Final”.

The 1920s brought more FA Cup action, in one way or another, with the first three years of the decade seeing the Cup Final held at Stamford Bridge. Founding Father Mears had died in 1912 but it was his vision for a super-stadium that enabled these historical moments and Chelsea almost did him justice by narrowly missing out on the 1920 showpiece. That aside this was not a great decade for the Blues and relegation to the Second Division came in 1924, with a return to the top flight not achieved until 1930.

The 1930s and 1940s

Blue and Red Table Football Players
Arsenal were the dominant force in the 1930’s, winning five league titles. Chelsea spent big, £25,000, on Hughie Gallacher, Alex Jackson and Alec Cheyne to close the gap

Chelsea were in Arsenal’s shadow at the start of the 1930s, the Gunners winning the title four times between 1931 and 1935, only Dixie Dean’s Everton able to stop them in 1932. In 1935 almost 83,000 packed into Stamford Bridge for a game against Arsenal, the highest ever attendance at the ground, the game ending 1-1. In attempt to compete with the rivals from north London Chelsea spent a club record £10,000 (slightly less than Eden Hazard earns in an hour) on Hughie Gallacher from Newcastle United. Two other Scottish international strikers were signed and the trio made a fine start in a 6-2 win over Manchester United.

However, the side was unbalanced and several bottom half finishes ensued before the Second World War shifted football firmly to the sidelines. The Football League was put on hold with local and regional competitions to the fore and Chelsea made a first Wembley appearance in 1944 in the Football League South Cup Final, losing to Charlton before beating Millwall in the same competition the following year.

Stamford Bridge escaped the War unscathed and on the 13th November 1945 the ground hosted Dynamo Moscow, who toured Britain as part of a post-war goodwill mission. A total of 74,496 fans attended, officially, although estimates put the attendance at closer to 100,000, the game finishing 3-3. The latter part of the decade was uneventful, with mid-table the norm, despite some lavish spending on centre forwards, although Roy Bentley, brought in from Newcastle, was top scorer in each of his eight complete seasons with the Blues.

The 1950s and 1960s

Chelsea spent the entire 1950s in the top flight of English football but the early years at least were a struggle, the Pensioners finishing level on points with the bottom two in 1951 only surviving by the skin of their teeth, whilst they were 19th of 22 in the following two years. However, signs of what was to come were apparent with two semi-final appearances in the FA Cup during in this period, both ending in replay defeats to Arsenal.

In May 1952 Ted Drake replaced the retiring Billy Birrell as manager and sought to bring in a more professional era, both on and off the pitch. The Chelsea Pensioner was removed from the club badge and the nickname unofficially abolished, whilst Drake demanded that visitors to Stamford Bridge should be “eating, sleeping and drinking” Chelsea, rather than just pop along to watch a game of football.

Drake, a former star with Arsenal and England who had proved his managerial ability at Reading, placed a big emphasis on youth and lower league scouting and developed a hungry and committed team. Progress wasn’t instant – no doubt Roman Abramovich would have pulled the trigger before Drake got things going – but by Easter 1955 the Blues were four points clear of champions Wolves at the top of the table. They sealed the title in the penultimate game but sadly the developing youth structure couldn’t provide players quickly enough and success wasn’t sustained.

Chart of Chelsea First Division League Positions Between 1949-1950 to 1959-1960

The following year Chelsea finished 16th and remained a mid-table club for the rest of the decade. The youth system did produce Jimmy Greaves, but even with his glut of goals – he thrice scored five times in a match, registering 100 goals before the age of 21 – Chelsea were unable to repeat the success of ’55.

The fast, two-footed Greaves was sold to AC Milan in 1961 after 132 goals in 169 games and without his talents the Blues struggled. 12th in 1961, Chelsea dropped to rock bottom the following year, with just 28 points from 42 games and an average of more than three goals conceded each away game.

Thankfully life in Division Two was short-lived, a second place finish enough to secure promotion to the top flight, albeit on goal average (as it was then) from Sunderland in third. Drake had been sacked in the relegation campaign with a young (just 33) Tommy Docherty replacing him. Docherty boldly selected youth, the average age of the team dropping to a startling 21 as talents such as Peter Bonetti, Terry Venables, Ron Harris and bobby Tambling came through.

This was, arguably, Chelsea’s golden age, a youthful, vibrant and attacking side playing with lots of pace and coming close to the treble in 1965. They defeated Leicester in the League Cup Final but Liverpool beat Chelsea in the FA Cup semis whilst the league challenge faltered with three consecutive defeats after the Blues were top for much of the campaign.

For the remainder of the decade Chelsea were never out of the top nine and strong performances and the youth and identity of the side encouraged an increasingly vocal crowd, centred on “The Shed”, as it became known, on the south terrace. There was another FA Cup semi-final in 1966 but defeat to underdogs Sheffield Wednesday was a bitter blow and in the fallout Venables left, his relationship with the manager reportedly having become strained.

Charlie Cooke came in and his superb dribbling and creative ability made him a fan favourite, especially as he dovetailed nicely with future legend Peter Osgood who was coming through in this period. Sadly Osgood missed Chelsea’s FA Cup final performance in 1967 with a broken leg, the 2-1 defeat all the more difficult to bear for Venables and Greaves lifting the cup in the white of Spurs.

The late 60s was a time of change, Docherty being replaced by Dave Sexton and Bobby Tambling leaving, eventually, with 202 goals in his 370 games. Bonetti and “Chopper” Harris continued at the club but by the end of the decade the club was more about the swing of the late ‘60s and King’s Road than genuine football success.

The 1970s and 1980s

The 1970s started with a big, ugly, bang and an FA Cup Final with Leeds, the dominant team of the era and a side renowned for their physical tactics. That suited “Chopper” Harris just fine and the game was at times brutal. It ended in a draw, Chelsea lifting their first FA Cup in the replay at Old Trafford and thus earning qualification for the European Cup-Winners Cup.

Steady progress was made and the Blues defeated Man City in the semis to make the Athens final against Real Madrid. Chelsea were denied by a late equaliser and when extra time failed to separate the teams – and before the days of penalties – a replay was required just two days later! In front of just 19,917 people on a Friday, Chelsea claimed their first European success with a 2-1 win.

The following season the defence of the cup started well with a record aggregate win over Luxembourg minnows of 21-0 but the Blues were then eliminated by Swedish side Atvidabergs. In 1972 the League Cup Final was lost to Stoke and, yet again, the team began to break up. In 1974 Sexton sold Osgood and fellow star Alan Hudson, the board backing the boss over the players. However, Sexton himself was soon to depart after poor league form and after finishing 17th in 1974, the Blues finished second bottom the following year and were relegated.

Two seasons in Division Two were followed by just two back in the top flight before the Pensioners were relegated once again in 1979, finishing bottom. A proposed stadium redevelopment in the mid-1970s was only partially completed, late and over-budget and the debts the club accrued left them in a dangerous position. The new hero, Ray Wilkins (who had captained the side at just 18 years of age), had to be sold to Manchester United to help stabilise the team but with managers being changed at a rate akin to the modern game – three in four years – the Blues were set to begin life in the ‘80s in the second tier.

At first they struggled to adapt and lower mid-table finishes were the norm. Crowds as low as 6,000 did nothing to help the finances and with players going unpaid Ken Bates stepped in to buy the club for a nominal fee of just £1. Bates set about revolutionising the off-field aspect, the situation so dire that even the club’s fundraising lottery was losing money!

Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon and David Speedie were brought in and Chelsea marched to the Division Two title in 1984 with a +50 goal difference. The following season they finished sixth in the top flight, a feat repeated a year later, with Dixon to the fore. However, in 1987 the team slipped to 14th before relegation on goal difference the following season as they dropped to 18th. Chelsea were badly hurt by the standing down (due to illness) of manager John Neal and that precipitated the demise.

Chart of Chelsea's League Positions in the First and Second Divisions Between the 1969-1970 and 1989-1990 Seasons

Thankfully the side spent just one season in Division Two, romping to the title in 1988-89 with 99 points, 17 more than second placed Man City. Bobby Campbell was the boss and he led Chelsea to a very solid fifth place finish the following year in the top flight and as the 90s Britpopped onto the horizon, things looked good for the Pensioners.

The 1990s

In May of 1990 Chelsea finished fifth in the old First Division but mid-table finishes in the next few years failed to build on that. In 1992 a new era for English football arrived as the Premier League and Sky arrived, bringing with them huge amounts of money. This enabled the Pensioners to invest more heavily in the team and having bought their first £1m players at the start of the decade (Andy Townsend for £1.2m in 1990 and Denis Wise £1.6m the same summer, both club records at the time) they brought in Glen Hoddle as manager in 1993, replacing Ian Porterfield.

Glen Hoddle – June 1993 to May 1996

Hoddle raised the profile of the club and also got them playing attractive football. They made the FA Cup Final in 1994 and whilst they lost 4-0 to Man United, future Blue Mark Hughes getting the third, Hoddle’s first season in charge was a success. That year Chelsea finished 14th, beating Double winners Manchester United home and away in the league but sadly not at Wembley.

The next season showed modest improvements again, resulting in an 11th place finish but a European Cup Winners’ Cup semi final and the following summer with the club in a more solid financial position Hoddle made a number of fine signings. Ruud Gullit arrived on a free, Hughes brought experience to the attack and Dan Petrescu’s ability on the ball gave more options at the back. Gullit, signed from Sampdoria, initially played as a sweeper but soon moved into midfield where his class allowed him to control the game.

Gullit was one of the first really big foreign stars to arrive in the Premier League and his ability was obvious. He ended the season with six goals and was runner-up to Eric Cantona as Footballer of the Year. Chelsea again enjoyed relative cup success, losing in the semi final of the FA Cup to Man United but remained mid-table in the league.

Ruud Gullit – May 1996 to February 1998

Gullit was helping Chelsea play a more progressive style and when Hoddle left to manage England following Euro 96 the Dutchman was the obvious choice to take charge. His influence allowed the club to sign Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo, Frank Leboeuf and Gianfranco Zola and the following season would be the most successful in a long time.

Fans at the Bridge were treated to some superb football and a sixth place finish in the league was capped with an FA Cup win, the Blues beating Middlesboro 2-0 to end a 26-year trophy drought, helped by Di Matteo’s stunning opener after just 43 seconds.

One dark note in the season was the tragic death of then-vice-chairman Matthew Harding. Harding died returning from a game in a helicopter accident and didn’t get to see the FA Cup glory. He now has a stand named in his honour at Stamford Bridge.

More overseas players were brought in, with Uruguayan midfielder Gus Poyet, Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo, Nigerian defender Celestine Babayaro and Dutch keeper Ed de Goey joining French-sounding England full-back Graeme Le Saux in signing for the Blues.

Gianluca Vialli – February 1998 to September 2000

The 1997-98 campaign was another season of improvement, the Blues finishing fourth and lifting the League Cup (again against Middlesboro) and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. The latter was secured thanks to a goal from Zola in Stockholm against Stuttgart. The man at the helm for these success was not Gullit, but Vialli, the Italian having replaced the man who signed him in February 1998.

Vialli oversaw more progress, the Blues maintaining a title challenge for much of the 98-99 season before finishing third, just four points adrift of Man United. World Cup winner Marcel Desailly had been brought in and the future was starting to look very bright indeed.

The 2000s to the Present Day

In 2000 Chelsea made the quarter finals of the Champions League with a 5-0 win at Galatasaray and a 3-1 home win over Barcelona the highlights, although the campaign perhaps took its toll as the team dropped to fifth domestically, despite a 5-0 home win over runaway champions Man United. There was yet more cup success, another Di Matteo goal securing the FA Cup against Villa and when the British transfer record was equalled to bring Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to west London for £15m the following summer, many expected the title to follow.

However, off the pitch there was unrest, with Vialli growing unpopular and failing to keep the squad fresh. Just five games into the season he was dismissed, Claudio Ranieri coming in. Didier Deschamps, another World Cup winner had been brought in and the following season Frank Lampard, William Gallas, Emmanuel Petit and others were added.

Chart of Chelsea's Most Expensive Signings in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 Seasons

Chelsea finished sixth in 2002, fourth the following year and, with the club in a weak financial position after over-spending, Ranieri was being lauded for nurturing young talent and making some astute signings. Soon, however, the shape of Chelsea football club would be changed forever and it would prove both a blessing and a curse for Ranieri.

On July 2nd 2003 36-year-old Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the club and financial woes were over, with an unprecedented era of transfer spending set to begin. Zola left in controversial circumstances and despite his popularity that was soon forgotten as Joe Cole, Glen Johnson, Wayne Bridge, Geremi, Damien Duff and Juan Sebastian Veron arrived. Adrian Mutu, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makelele completed the £100m plus spend and a Champions League semi-final and second place league finish were decent enough.

Or, should have been. However, Abramovich decided enough was enough and replaced “the Tinkerman” with the reigning Champions League manager, a youngster called Jose Mourinho! Much has been said and written about Mourinho and whilst it is true that he spent heavily in his first spell there can be no doubting the brilliance of The Special One, nor the fact that he captivates like no other.

Between 2004 and 2007 Mourinho would guide the Blues to the following trophies:

  • Premier League – 2005, 2006
  • FA Cup – 2007
  • League Cup – 2005, 2007

There were controversies along the way but aside from ending Chelsea’s 50-year wait for the title, then winning it again the following season, Mourinho also built the spine of the team that would last for many years to come. Cech, John Terry – elevated to captain by Mourinho – Lampard and Didier Drogba gave Chelsea such leadership and power that few could compete. The title was won in 2005 with just 15 goals conceded and a Premier League record points total of 95 but the foundations were well and truly laid.

Despite this, Abramovich wanted two things that Mourinho failed to deliver: the Champions League and stylish, attractive football. The owner, it could be ventured, also wanted a little more of the limelight than he was liable to get with The Special One around. So, with their relationship soured, Mourinho left the club in September 2007, replaced, almost unbelievably, by the dour Avram Grant.

Despite finishing second in the league and making the finals of the League Cup and Champions League (where Chelsea lost on penalties to Man United), Grant lasted just one season. In came “Big Phil” Scolari…for all of seven months. After a bright start results faltered and the Brazilian was replaced by Guus Hiddink. Hiddink lost just once at Chelsea, though a controversial Champions League elimination in the semis against Barcelona was a major low point. However, the Dutchman delivered an FA Cup success and helped the Blues to recover and finish third in the league and was hugely popular with fans.

However, Hiddink was always intending to leave at the end of the season to fulfil commitments with the Russian national side. That brought Carlo Ancelotti to the Pensioners and the former AC Milan legend was another success. Ancelotti guided Chelsea to their first League and FA Cup double in 2009-1010, his side scoring a record 103 Premier League goals in the process.

The following year, however, despite finishing second in the league, Chelsea had the worst results (statistically) since the Abramovich era had begun. Not famed for his patience, the owner dismissed another manager after the season which saw Terry and Lampard both pass 500 appearances for the club.

Andre Villas-Boas, a former colleague of Mourinho and – like him – a man who had achieved extraordinary success at a young age at Porto, was the new man in charge. However, he tried to change too much, too quickly and his highly tactical and analytical coaching style was unpopular with players. By March Chelsea were four points adrift of fourth place and AVB was sacked. Assistant Di Matteo was promoted and though the Blues would only finish sixth domestically – 25 points behind Man City – this was to be a great season.

Somehow, despite stuttering form and performances, Chelsea managed to overcome Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and, finally, Bayern Munich, to lift the Champions League trophy. Against Barcelona it was a backs-to-the-wall job with 10 men and in the final they needed a late Drogba header to take the game to extra time before triumphing on penalties to put the misery of 2008 behind them.

It was Drogba who scored the decisive penalty, an amazing end to his Chelsea career (for now?!). The Ivorian battering ram scored 157 goals in eight seasons, including a staggering nine in cup finals!

Di Matteo was appointed as permanent boss and just as quickly sacked as results dipped. He was replaced on an interim basis by Rafa Benitez who slowly won the crowd over, or at least some of them. Chelsea finished a respectable third and, having been eliminated from the Champions League the club made history by winning the Europa League the year after having won the continent’s premier club competition.

In the summer of 2013 Benitez moved on and, to the delight of almost all Chelsea fans, Jose Mourinho was installed as boss. The rest is history waiting to happen but with the Special One at the helm things are sure to be interesting and almost as certain to be silver.