As Bad as Things Got: Chelsea, 23rd April 1983
On Saturday 23rd April 1983, Chelsea made the long trip north-west to Lancashire to play Burnley in the Second Division. It had been a dismal season at Stamford Bridge, and they needed a result from this game. They’d won just two of their previous thirteen league matches and sat in the relegation places at the foot of the table. Chelsea were in a desperate condition both on and off the pitch, and the likelihood of dropping into the Third Division for the first time was very real indeed. The decline of the club, however, didn’t occur in a bubble. Chelsea’s fall from grace over the previous decade had come about as a result of bad luck, bad planning, and a crisis in the English game which spread far beyond Stamford Bridge.
It hadn’t been much more than a decade since Chelsea were considered serious challengers for the First Division title. They’d started the 1970s by finishing in third place in the First Division and winning the FA Cup, beating Leeds United after an Old Trafford replay in front of a television audience of 28.6m people. The following year they followed this up by winning the European Cup Winners Cup, beating Real Madrid after a replay in Athens to lift their first European trophy. This success persuaded the club that it was time to bring Stamford Bridge into the new decade. The club had been formed to inhabit the stadium in 1905, but despite significantly raising their profile throughout the previous decade their home had suffered from under-investment, with the only development being the construction of the utilitarian West Stand in 1965 for £150,000. Stamford Bridge needed a facelift, and the silverware won at the start of the 1970s persuaded the club that now was the time to spend that money.
The club developed plans to completely renovate the stadium in stages in 1970 at a cost of £6.25m, beginning with the dilapidated East Stand, which on its own would cost £1.6m to build. The old stand was demolished at the end of the 1971/72 season, and work began on the new construction that summer, but the timing of this work couldn’t have been much worse. Industrial action plagued the early part of the build, while the oil crisis of the following year pushed the cost of materials skywards. What had been intended as a statement of the club’s ambition was rapidly being come to seen as a white elephant, a symbol of a club that had started to decline on the pitch in a world in the grip of a financial crisis.
The stand wasn’t completed until the end of the 1973/74 season, by which time the team had only finished in 17th place in the table. It opened in August 1974, but Chelsea lost 2-0 at home to Carlisle United, a result that would set their tone for the rest of their season. They finished the 1974/75 season in 21st place in the First Division, and were relegated for the first time since 1962. By 1976, with the team having completed their first season back in the Second Division in 11th place in the table, the company accounts revealed that they were an astronomical £3.5m in debt (£25.5m, adjusted for inflation), with attendances and revenues continuing to fall. The remainder of the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge had to be shelved.
Under the managership of Eddie McCreadie Chelsea returned to the First Division the following year, but this proved to be a false dawn for the club. McCreadie left the club in the summer of 1977 following a dispute with chairman Brian Mears over a company car. They survived relegation by four points at the end of their first season back, but with players still having to be sold to balance the books the club dropped back into the Second Division in 1979 with just twenty points, having recorded just five wins all season.
That summer brought two potent symbols of the club’s decline. Most visibly, Ray Wilkins, the engine of the team that won promotion two years earlier, was sold to Manchester United for £825,000 to help balance the books. Less publicly (but more importantly, in terms of the future of the club), the freehold to Stamford Bridge was separated from the club to a company called SB Developments as part of a wider restructuring plan designed to finally stabilise Chelsea’s finances once and for all.
The restructure didn’t seem to have the desired effect, though. Attendances during the Second Division promotion season of 1976/77 season had averaged 30,622. By the end of the 1981/82 season, when Chelsea finished in 12th place in the Second Division for the second season in a row, they’d fallen by more than half, to just 13,132, with the club’s wider reputation having been torn to shreds by repeated outbursts of hoolganism. In the summer of 1981, Brian Mears resigned as chairman of the club. The Mears family ended an association with the club that had lasted since its formation 77 years earlier the following year when they sold the club to Ken Bates for £1. For reasons that have subsequently been disputed, though, Bates didn’t take up an option to buy SB Developments, the company which owned Stamford Bridge itself.
Bates’ version of events was that he had reached agreement with David Mears, the majority shareholder of SB Properties, to acquire Mears’ stake in SB Properties for £450,000. Bates, however, later discovered that Mears was also in discussions with the Crystal Palace owner Ron Noades, with a view to moving Chelsea away from Stamford Bridge to ground share with Palace at Selhurst Park. With the deal with Bates not coming to fruition, Mears and Lord Chelsea subsequently sold their shares to property developers Marler Estates, giving Marler a 70% stake in the company. Disputes over what would happen next to Stamford Bridge would come to occupy Bates for the next decade, and would only be resolved when Marler Estates themselves collapsed in the early 1990s.
At the time that he took ownership of the club, according to Bates, Chelsea were losing £12,000 a week. The new owner’s first action was significant cost-cutting, with redundancies around the club. Since the departure of Eddie McCreadie five years earlier, three managers – Ken Shelitto, Geoff Hurst and Danny Blanchflower – had tried to steady the listing ship with little success. The appointment of John Neal, who’d built himself a decent reputation in his previous appointments at Wrexham and Middlesbrough, turned out to be one of Brian Mear’s last actions as the chairman of the club. There had been signs that Neal could potentially turn Chelsea around – despite their average league position in 1982, they’d knocked the European champions Liverpool out of the FA Cup in the Fifth Round before losing narrowly to Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-finals – but the club’s bad financial position prevented the investment that the first team needed.
The 1982/83 season didn’t start too badly, with a win at Cambridge United and draws against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Queens Park Rangers, both of whom would end the season by getting promoted. Indeed, form wasn’t too bad throughout the late summer and early autumn, and crowds didn’t seem to deterioate too much. When they played out a goalless draw against Leeds United – a grudge match with its origins in considerably happier times for the club – at the start of October a crowd of more than 25,000 turned out to watch, with Match of the Day cameras in attendance.
The six matches from the end of October on, however, brought two draws and four defeats, and an improvement in form over Christmas – a win at eventual champions Queens Park Rangers and a goalless draw at home to promotion-chasing Fulham, which attracted a crowd of almost 30,000 to Stamford Bridge – proved to be a flash in the pan. By the end of February, crowds had slipped well below 7,000. A 6-0 win against Cambridge United in the middle of January again seemed to demonstrate that there was life in this Chelsea team yet, but this proved to be yet another false dawn. They won just two of their next fourteen games, and by the 23rd April 1983 were third from bottom in the table, facing relegation into the Third Division for the first time in the history of the club.
On this day, then, came a long trip to another club which was in a state of serious decline at the time. Burnley had been the champions of England 23 years earlier, but went into the match at the bottom of the Second Division. Cup runs, however, had given them a couple of games in hand on the teams just above them and a win could narrow the gap between them and safety to just six points, with six games left to play. For Chelsea, there would be four games left to save themselves if they couldn’t pick up a win at Turf Moor. It was a disastrous afternoon for Chelsea. Burnley won the match by three goals to nil, with Northern Ireland international Billy Hamilton scoring twice and Terry Donovan scoring the other. Chelsea hadn’t won in the league for six weeks, and seemed to be in a tailspin from which it was difficult to see how they could recover.
There was, however, still time for Chelsea to rescue their season. The bottom half of the Second Division this season was remarkably congested, even with just four matches left to play. Just three points separated Chelsea from Cambridge United, in twelfth place in the table, with only Burnley and Rotherham United below them. Every single point, it was clear by this time, would be critical, and a draw at home to Rotherham the following Saturday saw them draw level on points with Crystal Palace, who were one place above them. Two days later, on Bank Holiday Monday, they were frustrated again at home. A David Speedie goal gave them the lead against Sheffield Wednesday, only for a second half equaliser from Gary Bannister to peg them back. The draw from a winning position may have been considered two points dropped, but the point that they did pick up lifted them out of the relegation places, above Crystal Palace.
Two games to play, then. Two chances to save their season. The penultimate Saturday of the season took Chelsea to Bolton Wanderers for a match that would be the make or break moment. With two games of the season left to play, eleven teams could still go down and Bolton were far from safe themselves, being just two points and three places above Chelsea in the league. With Ken Bates having threatened to close the club down should they be relegated, Chelsea supporters seemed to understand the importance of the match, with those who’d travelled up from London making up almost half of the 8,687 crowd. This, however, wasn’t an afternoon for anything but nerves. In driving rain at Burnden Park it was a poor match, but with eighteen minutes to play Clive Walker scored with a shot from outside the penalty area. Chelsea hung on to win by a goal to nil. The Chelsea official website still describes the win as, “The most important victory in Chelsea Football Club’s history.”
It was certainly a result that had a dramatic effect on the bottom of the Second Division table. It lifted Chelsea to 16th place in the table, though they still weren’t out of the water just yet. With Burnley having caught up with those above them, going into the last day of the season any three from ten different clubs could still be relegated, and Chelsea were still only two points above the relegation places. If they failed to win, they would be dependent on results elsewhere to guarantee their survival in Division Two.
A crowd of 19,340 turned out at Stamford Bridge for their last game against Middlesbrough, with tensions high and entertainment pretty low on the agenda. Boro themselves needed a point to mathematically avoid the drop themselves, and the match played out as a goalless draw. It was only when results came through from elsewhere at the end of the match that it became clear that they’d just about done enough to avoid relegation, by two points. Rotherham United and Bolton Wanderers were relegated that day. Burnley and Crystal Palace both had a game in hand which became a winner takes all match to avoid the final relegation spot. Palace won that game by a goal to nil, and Burnley were relegated alongside Rotherham and Burnley. Had Chelsea lost that match at Bolton a couple of weeks earlier, they would have gone down and Bolton would have stayed up instead.
That summer, John Neal finally got the opportunity to start rebuilding his team. Kerry Dixon arrived from Third Division champions Reading for £175,000, alongside Joe McLaughlin from Morton for £100,000, Pat Nevin from Clyde for £95,000, Nigel Spackman for £35,000 from Bournemouth, and goalkeeper Eddie Niedzwiecki from Wrexham for £55,000. It was money well spent. Dixon scored twice on his league debut and formed a powerful attacking pair alongside David Speedie. Chelsea finished their 1983/84 season as Second Division champions, and promotion was confirmed with a 5-0 win against Leeds United, with three games still to play. Their return to the First Division saw them finish in sixth place in the table. John Neal retired through ill-health at the end of the 1984/85 season, and underwent heart surgery in 1986. He died in 2012, at the age of 82.
It’s no overstatement to talk about how critical that win against Bolton Wanderers was. English football had been in decline for years, but it hadn’t finished bottoming out by the summer of 1983. The Bradford fire and Heysel were still two years away. Even if Ken Bates hadn’t closed the club that summer, relegation at that point would likely have been a challenge for the club. Crowds during the second half of the 1982/83 season had fallen as low as 6,500. How much further might they have fallen in the Third Division, with crowds continuing to plummet elsewhere across the game?
Burnley, who put them to the sword in the match which confirmed just how real Chelsea’s relegation fears at that time were, were playing to retain their place in the Football League by the last day of the 1986/87 season, beating Orient to avoid become the first club to be automatically relegated into the GM Vauxhall Conference. Chelsea Football Club would likely be a very different club today, had Clive Walker not pulled something out of the bag in the penultimate game of the 1982/83 season. That match arguably gave Chelsea the seeds of their revival. Two weeks prior to this at Turf Moor, though, they stared into the abyss, and it wasn’t clear in that moment that there was any way of escaping it.