The incredible story of Chelsea’s 106-year stay at Stamford Bridge

by Ciaran Kelly

To most outsiders, Stamford Bridge does not seem the right fit for the modern Chelsea: a team who over the last nine seasons, through Roman Abramovich’s near-billion pound expenditure, have been considered among the best in Europe in spite of the amphitheatres and glittering history of the likes of Barcelona (99,354), Real Madrid (80,354), Internazionale/Milan (80,065), Manchester United (75,957) and Bayern Munich (69,901).

Following the development of world-class training and youth facilities at Cobham, multi-million pound sponsorship deals with Adidas and Samsung, breaking into the lucrative Asian football fan market and the acquisition of Europe’s biggest superstars over the years, including the likes of Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack, Andriy Shevchenko, Ashley Cole, Fernando Torres and managers José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, the only piece of the jigsaw missing from a ‘traditional’ sugar daddy-like takeover is a new stadium.

While a £100 million valued 42,449 capacity stadium, complete with hotels, restaurants, bars, executive office space, an underground car park and an in-house television station, is nothing to be ashamed of, Chelsea are badly lagging behind nearly half of the Premier League teams – who all have larger stadiums: Old Trafford (75,811), the Emirates (60,361 and a £6.6m stadium name and shirt sponsor deal), St. James’ Park (52,409 and a seemingly pending multi-million name rights deal), the Stadium of Light (48,707), the Etihad Stadium (47,405 plus £10m per annum stadium name sponsorship deal), Anfield (45,276) and Villa Park (42,786). This situation will only worsen, given that the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Everton, Liverpool (have a bigger stadium regardless), Tottenham and West Ham will/are hoping to move to larger stadiums and Stamford Bridge has already plummeted to 72nd in Europe’s largest football stadiums this season.

However, even though it may seem a straightforward and economical decision for some Chelsea fans, given that facility redevelopment is encouraged by the UEFA Financial Fairplay Rules and the fact that Manchester United make an estimated £25 million more per season than Chelsea do in Premier League match revenues alone, the club have had a whirlwind and unforgettable 106 years at their home at SW6 and are the only Premier League club who can say that they have been at the same ground for their whole history.

The first stadium on the SW6 site was built for the London Athletic Club (LAC) by the wealthy Waddell (James and William) brothers, who held the freehold of the site from 1877. However, the Waddells soon saw their finances wane, departed the country and left the LAC with high levels of debt. John Stunt, a local businessman who owned much of the area adjacent to the stadium, secured the freehold and the stadium’s immediate future in 1883. The site and stadium soared in value, with Stunt’s stability and the growing property/underground boom, and after Stunt’s death, his sons sold the freehold to the Mears (Gus and J.T) brothers on 29 September, 1904. The Mears’ were building contractors who had come into a sizable inheritance and had bought up most of the surrounding pleasure ground area around the site. As amateur footballers and huge football fans, the Mears’ pledged to spend a staggering £100,000 to ensure Stamford Bridge would become what Wembley did nineteen years later in 1923: a national stadium. Remarkably, before this planning began, Fulham had been contacted over a possible ground-share at the newly-established Craven Cottage, but this was rejected.

Aided by the entrepreneur Frederick W. Parker, a stadium plan was devised with the renowned architect Archibald Leitch – who had planned Ibrox, Celtic Park, Hampden Park and played a part in the development of stadiums such as Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury, Landsdowne Road and White Hart Lane. Leitch’s works before football were functional rather than aesthetically elegant, due to his earlier work on industrial buildings, and this was reflected in all of his stadiums. He submitted his plans of one grandstand (30-35,000 fans) and three banks of terraces (accommodating 50,000 fans) to London County Council on 23 February, 1905. From this, a 5,000 share issue was launched by the Mears’ and a board set-up with lifelong LAC member Claude Kirby as chairman. With Chelsea Football and Athletic Club founded just a month later in March, Chelsea played their first ever match at Stamford Bridge (the name given due its closeness to the tributary of the Thames behind the East Stand) in a friendly against Liverpool on 4 September, 1905. Remarkably, when Manchester United visited on Good Friday, 1906 for a second division match, the then largest ever English league attendance occurred: a then whooping 67,000.

The 1920 FA Cup final

Such was Stamford Bridge’s remarkable rise, with Chelsea now a first division team, that it hosted the 1920 FA Cup final in place of Crystal Palace – whose stadium had been used by WWI forces. This continued in 1921 and 1922 until Wembley’s opening in 1923. However, the stadium was not without its problems: the Chelsea board did not own the stadium, which J.T Mears had now bought off his brother’s widow and intended to put into a trust after his own death; there was a greyhound track around the pitch to help raise extra incomes; and the stadium had just one exit onto Fulham Road. Despite these hindrances, Chelsea achieved remarkable attendances, including 82,905 against Arsenal in 1934/35 (the league’s second highest ever attendance to this day). J.T Mears died in 1935, with the ground going into a trust which benefited his three children. A new stand on the north side was built in 1939 by Archibald Leitch’s son but it was poorly built, held just 2,483 spectators and was demolished in 1976. Joe Mears, who had become the youngest director in the Football League as a 26 year old in 1931, took over as club chairman in 1940 and it was under his chairmanship that Chelsea came into their own.

As well as overseeing the unforgettable friendly visit of Dynamo Moscow and Chelsea’s first ever First Division title in 1954/1955, Mears sanctioned the building of the West Stand for £150,000 in 1964/1965. While this may have sounded promising, there were even more exciting plans afoot from 1961 to turn Stamford Bridge into a three-tiered national stadium and sports centre, with a 150,000 capacity and roof. This did not come to fruition, however, due to incredible costs and by 1965, the stadium was ultimately disjointed: three terraces, one grandstand (which shook when trains went by) and a West Stand made up of 6,300 reserved seats and 3,360 concrete ‘bleacher’ benches at the front. The West Stand did have floodlights, however, which were unprecedented in the English game and Chelsea were also one of the first clubs to provide permanent TV facilities with a 30-foot gantry. After Joe Mears’ death in 1966, his son Brian took over after a caretaker spell by Bill Pratt Jr. Brian Mears, at first, seemed like he was going to be the man to finally tie Chelsea down to Stamford Bridge and from this, allow the much-needed redevelopment of the stadium to finally begin.

Mears announced on 14 October, 1970 that the complicated and overdrawn purchase of the Stamford Bridge Grounds from the J.T. Mears Trustees would be completed no later than May, 1974. Building company Darbourne and Darke of Richmond had been contacted over renovating and expanding the site, to house 80,000 spectators and implement an array of mod-cons like seat heating and electronic scoreboards. The cost of the whole operation, regardless of the plans being more ‘realistic’ than the previous 150,000 super stadium, was estimated at an astonishing £6.25 million – with appreciation, 10% year by year, in building costs leading to the original £6.25m being nearly doubled by completion eight years later in 1980.  While Chelsea did not yet commit to the whole project, work began on the East Stand in June, 1972. It proved foolish due to delays, loss of gate receipts and relegation in 1975 and 1979, and the club’s debts totalled £4 million by 1977.

Chelsea had been too frivolous, ironically carefree and over-ambitious, and the threat of liquidation was constant. Desperate measures kicked in, including separating Stamford Bridge Properties Ltd from Chelsea Football and Athletic Club (CFAC) and in 1982, C.F.A.C was sold to Ken Bates for just a £1. The club did not technically own the stadium, but it was not as simple as Bates taking liability for Chelsea’s debts and David Mears (Brian’s son) rejected Bates’ £450,000 offer for Stamford Bridge Properties Ltd. Instead, it was sold to Marler Estates for redevelopment, in return for one million shares for of Marler Estates – a much more appealing offer to the flaky Mears, but even he could not forecast the property collapse of the late ’80s. The fourteen-acre Stamford Bridge site was now open to potential supermarkets, offices and housing, and its value would rise to £50 million if redeveloped. Such was the predicament that Bates et al were placed in that Marler had offered £3 million to Crystal Palace to share Selhurst Park in May, 1985. Although this was rejected, the seven-year lease that Bates had rented in 1982 expired in 1989 and Chelsea were left in limbo: losing money in trying to stay, but with no feasible alternative.

Along with the mess in the courts, hooliganism was gripping the terraces. Given Chelsea’s image of the ‘King’s Road suits’, the Chelsea Headhunters may seem surprising but it was an epidemic that gripped Chelsea home and away from 1969-1989.  Of course, hooliganism has troubled nearly every English club, from West Ham and Millwall to Manchester United and Burnley, but it overshadowed some of Chelsea’s biggest occasions of that period, including the 1965 League Cup Final victory against Leicester, the 1967 FA Cup Final defeat to Tottenham and the 1971 Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final away to Club Brugge. This seems all the more remarkable when one considers many of Chelsea’s fans today and before this period with Ted Drake, Chelsea’s manager between 1952 and 1961, once trying to publicly rally the fans to be more aggressive and intimidating.

A lack of on the field success between 1975 and 1984 added weight to the hooligan cause and family attendances were rapidly dwindling. However, two moments between 1982 and 1985 helped to drive out the problem: a campaign run by the club before the FA Cup quarter-final against Tottenham in March, 1982, when a fan of each club shook hands on the pitch and the club programme was filled with anti-hooliganism messages; and the desperate instillation of electric fences on 27 February, 1985. Also, the government, under Margaret Thatcher, began a much stricter policy on hooliganism as the decade ended and the tragedies of Heysel (29 May, 1985) and Hillsborough (15 April, 1989) changed English football terracing and dynamics (all-seaters, multi-racials, women and children) forever.

Marler decided to sell at a profit to John Duggan, who owned Craven Cottage, and Cabra Estates. With the economic downturn, the battle-worn Bates continued to dally without any realistic hopes, plans or alternatives. However, when the Premier League was set-up and First Division clubs resigned from the Football League in 1992, Bates set-up Chelsea Football Club, rather than continuing with the previous Chelsea Football and Athletic Club. This, ingeniously, led to Duggan ‘winning’ a liquidation claim against essentially, an empty club with no contracts. From this, Chelsea Football and Athletic Club went into administration and years of uncertainty and holding out literally paid dividends for Bates. To prevent any future disaster, Bates set-up the Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) – who owned the rights to the pitch, stadium naming and turnstiles.

The Royal Bank of Scotland gave Bates a 20-year lease of the freehold and in 1993, the construction of the North Stand (soon to be renamed the Matthew Harding stand) commenced to replace the archaic terrace. The Shed End stand was completed in 1997 and the West Stand was expanded to 13,500 seats by 2001. A complex called the Chelsea Village was also set-up, instead of an expansion of 6,000 seats, with hotels and apartments. This has been looked on as regrettable by Bates’ successor Bruce Buck, but considering what Bates achieved in saving Chelsea and the stadium, and in spite of his unsavouriness and lack of respect for Chelsea’s tradition with the Chelsea Village and inhumane electric fence, it could have been so much worse.

Nearly twenty years later, the CPO are in the headlines again. It is a group made up of 15,117 £100 shares, with an estimated 12,000 shareholders. The fans are traditional, old-school (before the glamour of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli et al) and long-term, given Chelsea’s precarious predicament at the time, and were pivotal to tying the stadium to the club. Chelsea FC loaned the CPO £10,040,743 to purchase the pitch,turnstiles,etc and this loan is interest fee and can be extended until 2196. Chelsea are willing to write-off the loan, in return for the CPO selling their shares back at a similar £100 price to what that they bought them for, and in return, the CPO shareholders will earn various privileges if a new stadium is built: including names on a roll of honour, first-choice on season tickets and the guarantee that if Chelsea move before 2020, which is very likely, that it will be within a three mile radius. However, the initial vague plans for moving by Chelsea were turned down, with only 62% of the required 75% voting yes at an extraordinary EGM on 27 October. If the CPO continue to reject Chelsea’s plans, fairly unlikely if the club, as expected, give more assurances and detailed plans, Chelsea would not be able to move stadium without changing their club name and would not be able to redevelop and sell the Stamford Bridge site.

Given that Chelsea have exhausted the possibility of redeveloping Stamford Bridge, spending £700,000 in testing out the merits of flattening the pitch and rotating it, it is a significant move by chairman Bruce Buck, chief executive Ron Gourlay and owner Roman Abramovich with Financial Fair Play on the horizon. The site of Stamford Bridge would be redeveloped as flats for a fee of up to £200 million and architectural firm Kohn Pederson Fox have been hired to draw up plans for a new stadium. Mike Hussey, the chief executive of Almacantar, has been appointed as the development partner and despite the complications involving the site owing Lloyds Banking Group and the Irish National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) £300 million, Battersea Nine Elms in SW8 would seem to be the most likely destination. With the site of the power station being just three miles away south of the Thames, having the necessary space for the stadium and the Charing Cross branch of the Tube Line being extended to include it as a stop, Battersea is a much more viable option than Earls Court.

However, with Stamford Bridge becoming a stadium with an increasing amount of ‘day-trippers’ rather than season ticket holders and from this, a failure to sell-out the stadium in every competition, a higher capacity would have to lead to lower ticket prices (currently stand between £56 and £82 for AA Premier League games; £52-£70 for A Premier League games; £47-£65 for B Premier League games; £40 for Champions League group games; £52-£70 for Champions League second round games; £56-£82 for Champions league quarter-finals/semi-finals; £30 and £25 respectively for FA and Carling Cup games; and between £750 and £1250 for season tickets) for Chelsea to sell-out a 55,000–60,000 capacity. However, it seems unlikely that the club will change their ticketing policy dramatically. With the episodes of the Emirates and Wembley fresh in mind, with vastly-overpriced tickets and soulless successors to their predecessors, Chelsea will struggle to improve an already often subdued home atmosphere – regardless of whether they can fill out 55,000-60,000 most weeks.

Also, aside from the fact that the legendary Peter Osgood’s ashes are buried underneath the penalty spot at the Shed End, Stamford Bridge has seen many of Chelsea fans’ most memorable moments of all-time: their first ever league win after beating Hull City 5-1 on 11 September, 1905; the 3-3 friendly draw with the mighty Dynamo Moscow, when an incredible 100,000 fans turned up to Stamford Bridge on 13 November, 1945; their first championship was clinched after beating Wolves 1-0 on 9 April, 1955; the epic 5-5 draw with West Ham, having gone 5-2 down to the ‘World Cup winners’, on 17 December, 1966; the brilliant 4-2 comeback win over Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final on 26 January, 1997; the magnificent 5-0 thumping of the 29-game unbeaten Manchester United on 3 October, 1999; the memorable 3-1 victory over Barcelona on 5 April, 2000; the ‘club saving’ 2-1 win over Liverpool on 12 May, 2003; the epic 4-2 win over Barcelona on 8 March, 2005; the brilliant 3-0 defeat of Manchester United, the subsequent guard of honour from United and Mourinho’s throwing of his medal on 29 April, 2006; the emotional 3-2 victory over Liverpool on 30 April, 2008 to finally reach the Champions League final; and the 8-0 hammering of Wigan on 9 May, 2010 to take the first step towards a historic double.

While moving to the ‘Samsung Arena’ will solidify Roman Abramovich’s legacy in Chelsea’s history, many fans will find it difficult to just see the facts and figures of Financial Fair Play and matchday revenues, and will begin to wonder what might happen post-Abramovich – having had an unforgettable 106 years at SW6.

7 Responses

  1. Mr Oliver Tuck says:

    What,no mention of Andres Iniesta’s sensational goal at the Shed End in 2008 or Tom Henning Ovrebo’s refereeing masterclass at the same game in the list of all-time great Bridge moments?

    More seriously,this article is a comprehensive,beautifully-written, tour-de-force.
    Congratulations 19 year-old Ciaran Kelly… you’re going places…watch out desiccated Hugh McIlvaney,Brian Glanville,Patrick Barclay,David Lacey etcetera.. you’ve had your time,there’s a fresh new sporting quill in town.

    Please God,let us at least score a goal v The Blue Meanies @ Loftus Road on 23rd October.
    But if The Cottagers got 6….(stops to change underpants ;-) )

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  3. Captain Bluebeard says:

    Ciaran – best article I’ve read all year about CFC in any form of journalism. Well done mate – keep it up … you’ll wipe the floor with the tired old hacks in journoland if you keep this level up.

    Good luck with the Finals!

  4. Wonderful site. A lot of useful info here. I am sending it to a few buddies ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thank you on your effort!

  5. Jose says:

    Nice reading. Good job. Hope to know Stamford Bridge before is gone.

  6. FOOTBALL says:

    SO CHELSEA IS NOT THE RIGHT OWNER OF THE STADIUM???

  7. FOOTBALL says:

    That means that they are not the real owner of the stadium right?

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