For a club owned by one of the richest people on the planet, it’s ironic that Chelsea run out to the strains of a song called The Liquidator. For Blues fans of a certain vintage, though, the Harry J Allstars’ 1969 classic was a perfectly apt number for the one-time paupers of West London to enter the pitch to. “We have a T-shirt,” lifelong Chelsea supporter Neil Beard tells FourFourTwo. “It says ‘Where were you when we were sh*t? Below that it says ‘Your town, your pubs, your end’.”
Unlike a lot of the Jonny Come Lately brigade who now occupy the posh seats at one of the Premier League’s most well-appointed grounds, Beard remembers the days when being fourth from bottom of the Premier League wasn’t a disaster or a subject to be discussed ad nauseam on radio phone-ins or social media.
It was, quite simply, par for the course for a club that had won the league in 1955, the FA Cup in 1970, the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971 but was now going nowhere at the speed of a Russian-piloted Super Yacht.
It’s 29 years since Chelsea last suffered such an ignominious start to a top-flight campaign. Then, with Stamford Bridge crumbling and the club’s chairman openly mooting the installation of electric fences as the best way of countering hooliganism, Chelsea went through the first five games of a First Division season without recording a single win in 1986/87.
Having finished sixth the previous campaign – above both Arsenal and Spurs – the run was more than most Chelsea irregulars could stomach. By the time the club’s second home game of the season rolled around, the fans weren’t content with voicing their complaints – they were voting with their feet.
“Chelsea were caught up in an early-season confidence crisis last night when they were booed off after this First Division game by the lowest Stamford Bridge crowd in three seasons,” reported The Times after the drabbest of 0-0 draws against Coventry – a team who would go on to win the FA Cup final the following May.
That crowd, believe it or not, was under 12,000, which hinted not only at the disaffection of Chelsea fans at that time but also at the fact that the West Londoners were most definitely not the modern-day fashionistas that they have evolved into during Roman Abramovich’s reign.
Richard McCormack, a current Chelsea season ticket holder, began watching the club around this time and recalls a period when there were there was more than one Hazard at Stamford Bridge – one was called Micky and the other was the omnipresent threat of getting beating senseless on your way to and from Fulham Broadway station.
“No one going to the ground today would believe that there used to be cars between the Shed End and the pitch,” he laughs. “Honestly, there were times when you needed binoculars to see what was going on at the other end of the ground.
"I was in the Shed End for the Maccabi Tel Aviv match and now you’re right on top of the pitch, you can see exactly what’s going on. Back then, you seemed miles away from the action.” There were plenty of times in the '80s when that was something of a blessing – and none more so than during that run 29 years ago.
Manager John Hollins had left £1.2m worth of talent on the bench for the aforementioned Coventry match as he desperately attempted to find a blend that could not only achieve results but also provide the champagne football that brought to mind the early-'70s glory days of Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson and Charlie Cooke. While Steve Wicks, Micky Hazard and Gordon Durie looked on, though, the Blues struggled to string two passes together, let alone do the unthinkable and run amok.
Things were as miserable off the pitch as they were on it. Before the start of the season, Simon Barnes of The Times wrote – admittedly with tongue loosely in cheek – that any club considering playing Chelsea should be charged with ‘behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace’.
That said, any Blues fan considering running towards the away end for a spot of bovver would have had to possess an admirably high level of fitness given the distance they'd have had to travel between one end of the ground and the other.
Back to the football, just three days after their Coventry snooze-fest, Chelsea prepared to roll out the welcome mat for a club that had arbitrarily banned all away fans from its ground for the entire season.
Admittedly, after an unwelcome visit from Millwall fans (not to mention a few West Ham nasties) two seasons before, Luton were rightly suspicious of anyone not of a Hatters persuasion, but, for this September weekend at least, Chelsea couldn’t have proved more accommodating hosts.
Despite taking the lead from a Kerry Dixon header, Chelsea’s circus-like defending ensured that Luton ended up chalking up an impressive 3-1 win courtesy of a brace from Mike Newell and a single strike from Brian Stein that merely rubbed salt into an increasingly open wound. So what did Hollins make of it?
“We have been in a worse position,” said the under-fire but endlessly optimistic manager, recalling the generous three-day goal-shipping carnival that had seen his side go down 6-0 at QPR before kindly opening the floodgates for West Ham to smash four past them without reply at the Bridge just six months earlier. Unlike Jose Mourinho, there was no scowling, no ranting; just a simple acceptance that this was Chelsea and, hey, we would like to win a trophy but at the moment we’d settle for winning a game.
Then, as now, Chelsea ended that September weekend just one place outside of the relegation zone before meeting another team from North London. Back then it was Spurs rather than Arsenal, but Mourinho will be hoping that history repeats itself on Saturday: Chelsea beat Spurs 3-1 at White Hart Lane, although it was hardly the springboard for a season to remember. The following week they got humped 6-2 by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, while a few days later they were dumped out of the League Cup by York.
Still, at least they finished the season in 14th place and well clear of relegation, much to the delight of Chelsea’s fluctuating fan base. The current lot are unlikely to be so forgiving.
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