If anyone asks you “Where were you when you (Chelsea) were sh*t”, I can tell you. It was precisely between the years of 1979 and 1983 or the 1978-79; 1979-80; 1980-81; 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons to be precise.
Danny Blanchflower, certainly Chelsea’s worst ever manager, oversaw a bottom of the table finish in Division One and relegation to Division Two at the end of the 1978-79 season. The club, in financial dire straits, sold our best player and Captain, Ray Wilkins, just to make things more depressing.
Blanchflower incredibly lasted 7 games in the next season, leaving Chelsea 11th in Division Two. True, Chelsea finished 4th in Division Two in 1980, with Geoff Hurst at the helm. But Hurst’s promising start didn’t last and two wins in twelve matches and failing to score in the last nine matches of the 1980-81 season left Chelsea stranded in Division Two for another year, with a 12th place finish. Chelsea’s lowest league finish at that point.
John Neal replaced Hurst consequently and then remarkably Chelsea’s ownership changed hands. The Mears family, who had been custodians of the club since it was founded handed the reigns over to Ken Bates.
Things got worse. Not much seemed to change in the 1981-82 season and then in 1982-83, Chelsea finished in 18th place, their lowest ever league position and only avoiding relegation to Division Three courtesy of Clive Walker’s goal away at Bolton Wanderers in the penultimate match of the season. Had Chelsea been relegated the distinct possibility that the club may have folded was very real.
This was the context which supporters had to deal with at the beginning of the 1983-84 season. Picture the scene. Our worst ever team having finished in our lowest ever position. A new manager who had failed in two seasons to mount a campaign to get Chelsea back to Division One. A new owner faced with a legacy of financial ineptitude and the threat of losing the ground to property developers.
Things could not have been bleaker for a Chelsea supporter.
To make it worse, Chelsea’s task of getting back to Division One would be made harder with stiff competition in the form of Sheffield Wednesday, a Newcastle side boasting Kevin Keegan, Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle, Terry McDermott, Manchester City and Derby County managed by Brian Clough’s former right hand man Peter Taylor and including European Cup Winners Archie Gemmill and John Robertson.
John Neal bought shrewdly in the summer, bringing in Nigel Spackman, Joey McLaughlin, Pat Nevin, Eddie Niedzwiecki and Kerry Dixon all relatively unheard of and for a fraction of what their true value to Chelsea was revealed.
The 5-0 drubbing of Derby County on the opening day of the season validated John Neal and Ian McNeill’s canny scouting network. The supporters could hardly believe what they were seeing given the horror of the last few seasons.
The momentum gained on that opening day was maintained for the rest of the season and when it threatened to de-rail, Neal signed Mickey Thomas. Chelsea did not lose another match and sealed promotion back to Division One with a 1-0 win away at Grimsby Town on May 12th, 1984, as Champions.
It had been one of the most thrilling seasons in Chelsea’s history with some of the best football played by the club. Playing 4:4:2 with wingers Pat Nevin, Mickey Thomas and Paul Canoville supplying the bullets for Kerry Dixon and David Speedie, anchored by John Bumstead and Nigel Spackman in midfield, Chelsea’s attacking play was breath-taking at times. Chelsea scored 98 goals that season: Kerry top scoring with 34 and Pat Nevin and David Speedie weighing in with 14 and 13 respectively.
Pat proved to be one of the most talented players we’d seen at the club and the Dixon-Speedie strike partnership arguably our best double act. Eddie Niedzwiecki was a rock at the back; the Captain, Colin Pates was calm and assured and ably assisted by Joey McLaughlin in central defence; Johnny B and Spackers were imperious in midfield and Colin Lee, Joey Jones reliable as full backs.
They served up some of the most iconic matches in the club’s history. For anyone who was lucky enough to have been there that season, they trip off the tongue…
Derby at home; Brighton away; Fulham away; Newcastle at home (with Pat Nevin’s run); Swansea at home (with Canner’s hat-trick); Cardiff away; Portsmouth away; Leeds at home; City and Grimsby away.
And, of course, I missed it all! As an 18 year old I was still studying for A levels in Winchester and would not make the life affirming journey up to London (and Chelsea) until the summer of 1984. But while I might have missed the iconic 83/84 season, Chelsea’s return to Division One happily coincided with me moving to Chelsea.
With hindsight and a fair amount of reflection, an argument can be made for the 1983-84 season being one of the most important seasons in Chelsea’s history.
We had truly been sh*t for the previous 5 seasons and in fact not much better for the previous decade (the Eddie Mac season apart). The club’s future and parlous financial position had led to a real possibility that we might either lose Stamford Bridge or go out of existence. We had been served a diet of awful football with average players. And don’t forget the rampant hooliganism, racism and general decay and malaise of the stadia and indeed the country during this period. These were dark times, but especially so for Chelsea.
All of this seemed to be waved away by the joy of the 83-84 season. Bates was slowly but surely providing stability and a brighter future. John Neal with his knack of getting quality players on the cheap, putting some fight in to them and allowing them to play free flowing attacking football was worth his weight in gold as a manager.
Chelsea was most definitely back and with the best players we’d seen in a generation. Bona fide legends in Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin, cult heroes like Mickey Thomas and Joey Jones. Home grown bastions like Colin Pates and John Bumstead and quality throughout with the likes of Eddie, Spackers and Speedie.
I would argue that Chelsea was not only back but the 1983-84 season represents a re-birth. Chelsea has always been a big and well supported club, deserving to be up there with Liverpool, United, City, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton. We just didn’t have the silverware to show for it.
Going back to Division One as Champions in 1984 led to a residency in the top flight to this day, apart from farcically being relegated via a play-off in 1988. We bounced back as Champions the following season and finished 5th in Division One the next season as if to prove a point!
Chelsea finished the 1984-85 season in 6th position and did so again in 85-86. We were back where we belonged and mixing it until our progression was stalled by John Neal’s retirement due to ill health. But be under no illusion, the days when Chelsea were genuinely sh*t had been consigned to history and all due to John Neal’s leadership, recruitment and that wonderful 1983-84 season.
Many of us like to say that the arrival of Glen Hoddle and the signings of Gullit, Vialli and Zola heralded the Chelsea we know and love today. I would argue that it really began with the 1983-84 season and Chelsea’s return to the topflight. Remember, it could so easily have gone the wrong way at that time, and we could have ended up being a great club, fallen on hard times never to return.
The 1983-84 season for Chelsea was, to quote Winston Churchill “not the end. It was not even the beginning of the end. But it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
What it represented for the supporters was a licence to dream again. No more fear and loathing that success in the topflight would forever be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Simple Minds clearly understood this when they produced their brilliant ‘New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)’ album in 1982. Just substitute ‘Gold’ for ‘Blue’ and you’ll understand what the 1983-84 season meant to Chelsea and the supporters.
First published in cfcuk fanzine May 2023