Long before the takeovers of Roman Abramovich and Todd Boehly, another Chelsea takeover would create an arguably even bigger shift in the club’s fortunes. In 1982 businessperson and former Leeds owner Ken Bates acquired the club for one pound. The price tag may seem like a bargain to many, especially knowing the monster Chelsea are today, but taking a look at all the angles the price will actually seem exorbitant. All exaggerations aside, the club was in a very dire situation, as a redevelopment of the stadium had left the club in a horrible financial situation.
Forced to sell key players to keep afloat, the success and stability of previous decades was replaced with relegation and a very real danger of them becoming homeless. Stamford Bridge was owned by a holding company, which was separate from the club entity. Controversially, Bates only decided to buy the club and not the stadium. The shares in the freehold that owned the stadium was sold to Marler Estates, a property development company.
The fortunes of the team were about to change, against the backdrop of Bates’ legal battles with Marler Estates, under the tutelage of manager John Neal. He managed to rebuild a squad that had come close to relegation to the Third Division with a budget of under half a million pounds. At the end of the 1984 season, the team had the second league title safely tucked away in their trophy cabinet. The next season, Chelsea were battling for the European football spots, but could not go all the way, finishing sixth.
The prospect of European football had been slashed for all English clubs due to the Heysel disaster. The club had not escaped England’s hooligan landscape and owner Ken Bates resorted to installing an electric fence to prevent pitch invasions, an idea which some say he got from a similar set-up on his cattle ranch. London City Council, however, refused to supply electricity for the fence due to health and safety concerns, prompting it to be demolished a few months later.
With the 1980s coming to a close Chelsea had experienced a failed title charge and another promotion and relegation since the electric fence incident. Their first five years of the 90s were occasionally spent trying to avoid relegation, with their fortunes ebbing and flowing. Two landmark years would bring about developments that would propel the club to the glamour my title mentions.
In 1992, Chelsea were one of the breakaway clubs that decided to form the Premier League. The same year with fortune smiling upon them Bates managed to buy back the ground from the property developers who took a big hit during a market crash the previous years. At the end of the 92-93 season, Chelsea picked Glen Hoddle, a very young manager by the standards of the time to lead their team after finishing eleventh. Hoddle would ultimately kickstart a new age at the club with his landmark signings, the first ones coming in 1995.
The first signings were that of Ruud Gullit on a free and Mark Hughes for £1.5 million from Manchester United. These transfers were made possible by Bates and director Matthew Harding starting to make funds available for the team. The image of the Chelsea pensioner, which the club replaced with the rampant lion in the 50s was seemingly back, as Gullit was 33 and Hughes was one year his junior.
With the addition of Dan Petrescu, Mark Hughes’ puzzle was complete and the team started picking up form, ended the 95-96 season in eleventh, and reached the FA Cup semifinal. Hughes would leave at the end of the season to take up the role of England manager. Ruud Gullit was appointed player-manager for the next season and a flurry of new additions joined the club, amongst them superstars Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli, both over 30.
Gullit, despite his age, was runner-up for the Player of the Year award in the previous season, and overall the “foreign revolution” was taking over the Premier League. Gullit’s season as manager was very successful, ending Chelsea’s 26-year wait for a major trophy, winning the FA Cup. With Vialli and especially Zola adding much-needed flair to Chelsea’s team, the League Cup and the European Cup Winner’s Cup followed next season. With the club in the semifinals of both competitions, Gullit was sacked amidst a contract dispute.
Once again, a player-manager was the solution the club preferred, with Vialli taking over the role. His tenure began in a highly successful manner, winning the two previously mentioned cups and moving on to defeat Real Madrid in the Super Cup. The next few years saw Chelsea reach the quarter-finals of the Champions league and win the FA Cup under Vialli, who became Chelsea’s most successful manager.
Two more veterans were recruited to the squad, in the form of World Cup winners Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps. In one of the hallmarks of the transition from the old English Division One towards the promised land of the Premier League, Chelsea were the first English side to field a starting eleven completely made up of non-English players.
By September 2000 Vialli had been dismissed as manager, after a poor run of form and Claudio Ranieri took over the squad. The recent years saw Chelsea transformed from an average London side with hooligan issues to an exciting cosmopolitan side that challenged for the top four and played European football. Ranieri guided the club to two sixth-place finishes, before rumors started circulating that the club was in financial trouble.
As a result, the 2002-03 season was expected to be thoroughly unsuccessful, but the side managed to clinch Champions League football in front of Liverpool, on the last day of the season. At the beginning of the 2003-04 season, Chelsea was standing in front of the world as a club from a city that was to enter a new era of prosperity and globalization, with modern landmarks such as the Millennium Dome, London Eye and the Millennium Bridge having been recently built.
They were symbolic, as other clubs in the country, of the increased multiculturalism in England and especially London. All of these factors combined, in my opinion at least, placed Chelsea in a Goldilocks zone of English clubs. Based in the capital and successful enough to peak interest, but not overly successful, as to be valued at an exorbitant price, like Arsenal, Chelsea was primed for the takeover that ultimately happened.
By: Eduard Holdis / @HE_Ftbl
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Mike Eggerton – EMPICS / PA Images