Great Football League Teams 24: Chelsea, 1983-4
The early eighties were torrid for Chelsea. A decade or so on from their greatest triumph – a Cup Winners Cup victory over Real Madrid in Athens – the club was marooned in Division Two, beset by financial trouble, hooliganism and low gates. Barely more than 8,000 had turned out at the Bridge for a game against Cambridge United in 1982, Paul Canoville was booed on his debut and a succession of famous names saw their reputations laid to waste in the hot seat – Danny Blanchflower, Bobby Gould, even World Cup hero Geoff Hurst. As fans attempted to outdo Hurst’s namesake Capes in lobbing seats towards the away end from the lower tier of the white elephant of the East Stand, Papa Smurf presided over it all, having purchased the club after the conclusion of the Mears Dynasty for the princely sum of a pound.
The appointment of the dour son of County Durham John Neal as manager in 1981 had initially promised little, although a rousing run to the quarter finals of the FA Cup had seen Liverpool defeated 2-0 in the Spring of 1982. But away from the knock outs, the Blues were abysmal – a Clive Walker goal at Bolton only just preventing a slide a division further. Losing a then alarming £12,000 a week at the time, 1981-2 still goes down as Chelsea’s worst ever campaign.
These days, it seems unlikely that a club of this size would turn to Reading, Clyde, Bournemouth and Wrexham to enact a reversal in fortunes, but Neal’s acumen in the transfer market was suddenly evident under the increased financial stability of the Bates regime. Kerry Dixon had scored a brimful in a relegated Royals side the season before – even scoring four times and yet ending up on the losing side in a 7-5 at Doncaster; Pat Nevin had starred for Scotland in the European Youth Championships; Nigel Spackman had been a midfield mainstay for Harry Redknapp’s attractive Cherries and gobby custodian Eddie Niedzwiecki shored up a position that had been a problem ever since the retirement of Peter Bonetti.
Alongside, Dixon, the tigerish David Speedie had been another gem of a pluck from Darlington; centre backs Joe McLaughlin and young Colin Pates provided a formidable wall that helped Blues fans forget the previous decade’s made guy Micky Droy and storied ex-Liverpool full back Joey Jones outdid even the keeper for barking; whirling his arms feverishly as the hordes roared on from the stand – for the Bridge was to reassert its role as a cauldron, belying its open sided nature – the roof of the old Shed End rattling with hum and adding to the intimidating atmosphere.
Youth product John Bumstead, an under rated player if ever there was one, accompanied Spackman in a crisp midfield and the start could not have been better – Derby County thumped 5-0 in front of a then respectable attendance of 17,388 (these were football’s darkest days remember) and Brighton outdone 2-1 at the Goldstone; Dixon the author of a brace. But this was a tough league and major opponents lay in wait – Newcastle United boasted McDermott, Waddle, Beardsley and King Kev himself; Imre Varadi and Gary Bannister were firing them in for a resurgent Sheffield Wednesday and the likes of Manchester City and Leeds were down there too. The first setback came at Hillsborough in September – Clive Walker netting in a 2-1 defeat, but Chelsea hardly broke stride.
A 5-3 win at local rivals Fulham and a 4-0 hammering of the Geordies were highlights of the Autumn – the latter saw Nevin go on a intricate dribble that saw him beat the same three players three times each. I was present at the latter encounter and the 30,628 in attendance made a right old racket. After a 1-0 loss at Maine Road in early December, Chelsea were never out of the top two, with a 6-1 bashing of Swansea City and a 4-2 win in the bucolic surrounds of Shrewsbury’s Gay Meadow adding to the legend. Mickey Thomas was brought in from Stoke in January (although windows didn’t exist back then) and made a major contribution as the club sailed on. Even the continental style kit with horizontal pinstripes added allure in an era where all things French were fashionable again (Le Coq Sportif were its manufacturers).
Promotion was clinched in one of the most one sided matches I have ever attended – another 5-0 annihilation – this time over Leeds United in April – Dixon grabbing a heady hat trick. The Bedfordshire man then rounded things off with a fitting winner at Grimsby in the season closer and the title was scooped on goal difference from Wednesday. This Chelsea side weren’t the business’s only representatives to achieve football league glory in the 1980s – Dixon was again pivotal as the achievement was repeated in 1989 – but their emergence signalled the first signs of a rebirth that continues today.