Chelsea: the real crisis days

Recalling when José Mourinho’s mob were truly terrible.

Jose Mourinho
Special One The man football fans all love to hate. Image Picture Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After Sunday’s battering by Bournemouth, sports reporters and the younger devotees of Stamford Bridge claim Chelsea have never had it so bad.

Older Blues fans may greet these end-of-days proclamations with a roll of the eyes and a gentle reminder of when things were really, really shit.

Crisis-hit Chelsea currently sit, temporarily you would assume, in the bottom half of the Premier League. Their billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich gives no indication that he will stop pouring his millions into the club. The biggest problems facing Jose Mourinho, one of the most successful coaches in football history, are easing the club into the knockout stages of the Champions League, and coaxing half-decent performances out of international A-listers such as Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard.

Crisis? What crisis? But it was not always thus.

As the more grizzled veterans of the Chelsea Shed will remember with a shudder, 33 years ago Chelsea really were heading for the knackers’ yard. Having vastly overspent on building the East Stand, the owners sold the freehold on the ground to property developers who proposed demolishing Stamford Bridge. They then flogged the entire club for the princely sum of £1 to a piratically-bearded Thatcherite chancer named Ken Bates.

Mickey Droy of Chelsea FC in 1981
Taking the Mickey Centre-back Mickey Droy – definitely no Cesc Fabregas. Image Picture Hulton Archive/Getty Images

And if things were dodgy in the boardroom, they were even worse on the pitch. Having been relegated from the top tier in 1978, the 1982-83 season opened with Chelsea enduring their fifth consecutive season in Division Two (the Championship, in today’s money). Their manager was a former lower-league full-back named John Neal.

In stark contrast to Mourinho, with his stints at Inter Milan and Real Madrid, Neal’s managerial CV encompassed the less glamorous outposts of Wrexham and Middlesbrough. The squad he assembled at Chelsea was similarly prosaic: a sorry collection of exclusively British journeymen, has-beens and never-would-bes.

As violence raged on the terraces – Chelsea deservedly gained one of the worst reputations going in the distant, dark days of 1980s football hooliganism – the 82-83 season began badly and got worse. Early results included chastening defeats at such noted colossi of English football as Notts County and Carlisle United.

“After losing twice to Shrewsbury, Chelsea went into a spectacular tailspin”

Star players? The Blues didn’t really have any, with the fans instead forced to vent their displeasure at the likes of shit-house centre-back Mickey Droy, erratic winger Peter Rhoades-Brown (28 appearances; one goal) and exotically named midfielder John Bumstead. Mourinho may tut today at the match-day shortcomings of Branislav Ivanovic and Diego Costa, but you wonder how he would have got on pulling his prima donna antics on former Bedford Town winger Phil Driver and injury-prone, 37-year-old forward Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson.

Terrace veterans of those days must listen to the whinges of today’s disgruntled 606-bothering Chelsea fans with utter incredulity: You don’t know you are born. Plummeting to defeat at relegation rivals Rotherham United and Grimsby Town and having the double done over them by Shrewsbury Town – Shrewsbury Town! – Chelsea then went into a spectacular tailspin that saw them fail to win a match from the middle of March to the beginning of May.

Relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in the club’s history loomed, but somehow Chelsea pulled it out of the bag: away to Bolton Wanderers in their penultimate game of the season, mercurial winger Clive Walker lashed in a wonder goal to secure a 1-0 win that ensured that they would limp to the end of the season in 18th position (an unfortunate off-the-field incident was to mean that their saviour’s terrace nickname was later to become Clive ‘Flasher’ Walker, but that is another story entirely).

This may be a chastening history lesson for a beleaguered Mourinho to contemplate, and yet it comes with a happy ending. Despite the worst season in Chelsea’s history (and against the bellicose advice of The Shed), Bates stuck with his embattled manager and the following season Neal turned things around splendidly, building a new team around the likes of Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin and leading them to the title and promotion.

So, the moral of the tale? Crisis is a relative concept – and the fans currently howling their ire at Falcao should be relieved that at least he is not John Bumstead.


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