At 4.40pm on Saturday 14th May 1983, the referee blew his whistle to bring an end to a drab 0-0 draw between Chelsea and Middlesbrough at Stamford Bridge. That whistle also brought the curtain down on what was statistically the worst season in Chelsea Football Club’s history. A 1-0 win at Bolton a week earlier had effectively kept the Blues out of the old Division Three, and the goalless encounter with the Teesiders confirmed officially that both clubs would be safe from the clutches of an ignominious drop for at least another year.
The latter weeks of that tumultuous season had seen the Blues faithful – what was left of it – campaigning loudly for the removal of manager John Neal and the return of 70s great Eddie McCreadie. Chairman Ken Bates, however, had other ideas. He discussed the situation with his experienced club captain, Micky Droy, and the gargantuan defender confirmed Bates’ belief that the problem wasn’t the manager, rather that some of Droy’s less-motivated colleagues, in the captain’s own words, needed “slinging up the road”.
The previous season, Neal had brought in three tough campaigners from the bitter north, hoping that their hunger, desire and will to win would rub off on some of his talented but disinterested players. David Speedie, Tony McAndrew and Joey Jones were signed from Darlington, Middlesbrough and Wrexham respectively, and each would make their mark at the club. Speedie and Jones would play a significant part in the successes achieved over the next couple of years, while the gritty McAndrew – whose entire Chelsea career was blighted by a severe back problem – became a major influence in the dressing room. Youngsters like Colin Pates and John Bumstead, who had come through the Chelsea ranks at a time when the club wore mediocrity like a badge of honour, bought into the new regime fully, and their careers flourished. Others were slung up the road, to under-perform elsewhere.
For all his many faults, Ken Bates can look back on the summer of 1983 with immense pride. He cobbled together half a million quid and told Neal and his trusty assistant Ian McNeill to use it wisely. The two scoured Scotland and the lower reaches of English football in the pursuit of rough diamonds, and actually found a few that were already well polished. In the long, hot summer of 83, Neal and McNeill brought in Wrexham ‘keeper Eddie Niedzwiecki, Morton centre-half Joe McLaughlin, Bournemouth’s industrious midfielder Nigel Spackman, Clyde’s diminutive winger Pat Nevin and, finally, Reading’s prolific centre-forward Kerry Dixon. A player at the other end of his career to these hungry youngsters, Glasgow Rangers striker Derek Johnstone, also made the move south, while trophy-winning heroes from a decade earlier returned to Stamford Bridge in the shape of midfielder Alan Hudson and player-coach John Hollins. 37-year-old Hollins would make a valuable contribution at right-back for the first half of the forthcoming season, eventually making way for Colin Lee after Christmas when his legs started to betray his veteran status.
After a fallow four years in Division Two, apparently becoming more consolidated in the role of also-ran as every season passed, few amongst the Blues faithful were anticipating the success that the club sat on the brink of. And then promotion favourites Derby County came to SW6 for the opening game of the season and were on the end of 5-0 spanking which was as surprising as it was sensational. Spackman opened the scoring and Dixon completed it with a brace, the first two strikes of what would be an eventual 193 in a Chelsea shirt for the big, blond striker. As the team left the pitch, Colin Pates, the man who would end the season as captain of the club he supported as a boy, turned to his close friend John Bumstead and announced that this side was heading for promotion.
That magnificent start to the campaign inspired Neal’s newly-galvanised Blues to ever-greater heights. A week later, 15,000 Chelsea fans journeyed south to see their side beat newly-relegated Brighton – who had come within a whisker of winning the FA Cup Final against Manchester United the previous May -on a day which will live long in the memory of everybody who witnessed it. A great team performance and another brace for Dixon, was supplemented by disturbances and a mass pitch invasion at full-time which ended with three police officers being hospitalised by travelling fans. In tune with the times, that day set the tone for a season where Chelsea weren’t only making headlines on the pitch, they were doing the same thing off it.
As autumn turned to winter, 19-year-old Pat Nevin was introduced to the team as a replacement for Clive Walker. An excellent cameo in a 5-3 win at Fulham gave the fans an idea of what the stylish winger was all about, but he truly announced himself to the football world with an astonishing display in a 4-0 hammering of a Newcastle side featuring Kevin Keegan, Terry McDermott, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley. The young Scot, quickly being heralded as Chelsea’s new Charlie Cooke, simply tore the visitors apart that day, on one occasion gleefully nutmegging Keegan but, most famously, with an outrageous dribble from the edge of his own penalty area to the opposite end of the pitch, skipping past opponents as though they didn’t exist.
While Nevin was producing his magic on the right, the opposite flank was playing host to the more pacy and muscular attributes of Paul Canoville, who had made his breakthrough into the first team in earnest towards the end of the previous season. Not to be outdone by his Scottish friend, Canoville stepped up to the plate when Swansea City visited Stamford Bridge in December and shipped six, with Canners finding the net three times and walking off with the match ball. However, when the team’s form blipped either side of Christmas, John Neal once again turned to one of his former charges, the experienced Mickey Thomas, bringing the left-sider in from Stoke as a direct replacement for Canoville.
Mickey Thomas’ influence was immediate and obvious. Two goals against title rivals Sheffield Wednesday on his home debut gave the Welshman immediate hero status – his celebrations with the nutters in the East Stand’s notorious Gate 13 also helped – and the fact that Chelsea were unbeaten for the remainder of the season following Thomas’ acquisition is testimony to his contribution and importance.
It was evident by March that Chelsea would be returning to the top-flight, the only question now was whether they could finish above a relentless Sheffield Wednesday side which had overcome the defeat at Stamford Bridge with a charge back to the Division Two summit. The Yorkshiremen went into the final run of games as clear favourites, a position which was cemented when Chelsea failed to secure their promotion by blowing a two-goal lead at Portsmouth, on another night when local police came off worse in a battle with the Chelsea supporters, albeit that on this occasion it was the constabulary who had initiated the aggro.
Promotion was finally sealed four days later, with a 5-0 win over historic rivals Leeds. Thomas opened the scoring early, Dixon banged a spectacular hat-trick and, fittingly, Canoville – a man who had not only battled with the rigours of a relegation battle 12 months earlier, but also had to fight through a flood of racist abuse from his club’s own fans to establish himself as a Chelsea player – came off the bench to complete the scoring. The day was one long, sunny celebration. Every goal was met with a joyful pitch invasion, the pitch was enveloped by home fans as the clock ticked down, and the Leeds players were frantic in their attempts to get the referee to bring the game to an early end. When he eventually did, the Stamford Bridge pitch hosted an hour-long party with 30,000 revellers in attendance.
Obligingly, Howard Wilkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday side decided to get into the party spirit in the final fortnight of the season, dropping points which allowed the Blues to climb above them going into the final Saturday of the season. There had been no slacking from John Neal’s team following the Leeds match, with a memorable 2-0 win at Manchester City being witnessed by 8,000 visiting supporters despite the fact that the match was being shown live on BBC1. Barnsley were then beaten 3-1 on May Day Monday, before Chelsea made the journey to Grimsby for the final game of the season, knowing that a win would be enough to finish the season as Division Two champions.
Nobody knows exactly how may Chelsea fans travelled to Lincolnshire that day, or how many people were actually in the ground for the game, but on a bonkers afternoon when the crowd spilled over pitchside for no reason other than that there was no room to accommodate them all on the terraces, the Blues did just enough to ensure the championship trophy would be theirs. Sadly, John Neal would not witness the final moments of a triumphant season, as the chain-smoking Wearsider collapsed before the end of the game, an episode which preceded major heart surgery the following summer. What he missed were fantastic scenes of celebration, as Kerry Dixon’s header earned the three points which saw Chelsea – so close to falling into Division Three a year earlier -clinch top spot. Five years earlier they had been relegated in a game at Highbury; now, at last, they were back. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were now just a few weeks away from returning to the top-flight at the same venue where that last relegation had been confirmed, but that’s another story…
Kelvin is the author of Celery! – Representing Chelsea in the 1980s and co-author of Making History, Not Reliving It, both of which are available to buy from Gate17.co.uk
We had former Chelsea Player from the 1980’s – Paul Canoville – on the show recently and we talked about the 1983-1984 season and his experiences of it:
If you were there and want to relive those great days or if you were too young and want to know what all the fuss was about, there is an event being held in May to commemorate the 1983-1984 season. Paul ‘Canners’ Canoville will be hosting an event where the special guests are Paul himself, Doug Rougvie, Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin. Its on Friday 16th May, in Raynes Park and the tickets are priced at £15 and are available from firstname.lastname@example.org
Get your self a ticket pronto – should be a cracking evening, and these lads were all brilliant.