Look Away Now: Match Of The Day, 17th March 1973
It ‘s March 1973, and the builders are in at Stamford Bridge. In fact, they’ve been in since the previous summer building Chelsea’s vast new East Stand, which is understood at the time to be the first part of a redevelopment of the stadium which is due to end with the stadium becoming a huge leisure centre for West London. It’s expensive and the construction process is surprisingly slow but even at a quoted cost of £1.6m it should end up being worth it, as part of a redevelopment that will turn the ground into a properly-enclosed 60,000-capacity stadium which will become the most modern in London by quite some distance.
The new East Stand had originally been commissioned in 1970. At the time, the club was still riding the crest of a wave which had seen it finish in the top six in the First Division in every season bar one since promotion in 1962. The club had won the 1970 FA Cup – and in front of what remains one of the biggest television audiences in British history – and had a squad sprinkled with star players. Yet Stamford Bridge needed work. It had a running track which was never even used, and the facilities there were, by the end of the 1960s, decrepit. Rebuilding the ground would be expensive but, the club reckoned, worth it.
One consortium bidding for the job had urged a degree of restraint on Chelsea’s part. Attendances had been falling year on year and there was no suggestion that this was likely to end, whilst Stamford Bridge would have to be used for more than just football matches if the project was ever to be commercially viable. Another firm of architects – with no previous experience of the peculiarities of building a football stadium – called Darbourne & Dark, however, had a more grandiose plan for the club, and it was they who were given the job of bringing plans which emphasised image and status to life.
For two seasons, one side of Stamford Bridge was a building site. Supporters hated the loss of atmosphere, and players were reported to find the three-sided gorund unsettling. At the same time, the team of the late 1960s, which had seemed on the brink of being able to launch a sustained bid for the league title, was starting to break up and the players coming in to replace them were, to put it simply, not as good as those that they were replacing. By the time of this match, Chelsea were having their worst season in the First Division since the 1966/67 season, and were settled in mid-table in the First Division.
The decision to rebuild the East Stand would come to have long-lasting ramifications for the club. By the time it opened in August 1974, Chelsea were in a tail-spin and the new stand would become a symbol for the club’s lapse into chaos, starting with relegation from the First Division at the end of the 1974/75 season. By 1976, the club’s debt was £3.4m – an astronomical amount for the time – the vast majority of which was attributable to the stand, and it would take until well into the 1980s before the club recovered financially. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the next stages of the redevelopment of the stadium were put on hold and it wouldn’t be until the middle of the 1990s that Stamford Bridge would be properly brought up to date.
In March 1973, though, Chelsea had Wembley on their minds again. Having lost the 1972 League Cup final there to Stoke City, they were hoping for a quick return and an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal looked as though it might be the most difficult game they’d have, so long as they could steer clear of Leeds United. The BBC’s cameras were there, and it’s rare that we get a chance to see an episode of Match Of The Day from this period in the wild, between the Kenneth Wolstenholme days and the Jimmy Hill era, which would begin the following year. This being Match Of The Day, of course, there is also a second match to take in from Roker Park, as Sunderland take on Luton Town.