Chelsea is one of the most successful teams in the English Premier League, and one that boasts a global fanbase. Yet compared with other long-established clubs, Chelsea’s fame and fortune has come in relatively recent times. Despite being formed in 1905, Chelsea fans had to wait a full 50 years to celebrate the club’s first major title. Since then, however, Chelsea have been making up for lost time, clinching a number of trophies in both English domestic competitions and in Europe.
Even though it is one of three major Premier League clubs in London, Chelsea is among the most supported teams in the English Premier League. In part, that comes down to their colourful history and some of the legendary stars who have worn that famous royal blue kit.
What’s in a name?
Chelsea FC came into existence as the home team based at Stamford Bridge athletics stadium in South London. As such, the choice of name is an interesting one. The stadium is actually in the London Borough of Fulham, but as there was already a football club with that name – Fulham FC is actually the oldest surviving club in London and is based at nearby Craven Cottage – the new club was named after the adjacent borough of Chelsea.
This has given rise to one of the more intriguing nicknames in the Premier League, especially to those supporters who live outside the UK. Chelsea are sometimes known as “the Pensioners.” Far from being an insult or a suggestion that the players are past their prime, it actually honours some of London’s most respected citizens. The nearby Royal Hospital Chelsea is a nursing home founded in 1682 that cares for retired members of the British military services. Chelsea Pensioners wear a distinctive red uniform and are a familiar sight at military events and remembrance services – they are also regular attendees to home games at Stamford Bridge!
A brief history of Chelsea
Chelsea’s early progress was promising – they achieved promotion to the top tier after their first year in the Football League, and played well in the 1915 FA Cup Final, one of the last games to be played before competitive football came to a halt due to the first World War. The high achieving meant that Chelsea earned plenty of support and that the club could attract some of the top players in the inter-war years. Yet although they were a constant presence at the highest level, and never looked in danger of relegation, titles consistently eluded them.
It was 1955 before all those years of dedication finally paid off for Chelsea’s loyal fanbase. This was the year they at last had something worth putting in the trophy cabinet, finishing four points clear of the chasing pack to win the League Championship. Of course, that meant more than just a trophy – it also gave Chelsea automatic qualification to play in the newly formed European Cup. However, league administrators had concerns about English teams playing in Europe, and convinced Chelsea to withdraw.
That leaves us wondering just what might have been, as Chelsea enjoyed plenty of European success in later years, overcoming Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965 and again in 1998, plus the Super League in the same year. More recently, Chelsea has won the Europa League on two occasions and picked up the biggest title of all, the Champions League in 2012.
The years leading up to those European victories in 1998 were difficult ones for Chelsea, both on and off the pitch. Financial hardship in the early 1980s meant the club had to resort to selling players in order to survive, and inevitably, relegation to the second division followed. In fact, at the darkest moment in 1983, the club came dangerously close to sinking to the third tier. However, manager John Neal made a succession of shrewd – yet inexpensive – signings, including the likes of Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin. Chelsea was back to winning ways out in the middle, and the club’s financial problems were about to be solved in a way that nobody saw coming.
The Abramovich revolution
Today, Chelsea is as famous for its billionaire owner as it is for the players out in the middle. But 20 years ago, nobody in the world of sport had ever heard of Roman Abramovich. In 2003, the Russian businessman and football fanatic swooped in and bought the companies that had a controlling interest in the club. With billionaire backing, Chelsea was at last in a position to invest, not just in players, but in the kind of commercial and brand development that would put it on an equal footing with teams like Real Madrid or Manchester United.
The result of the takeover was dramatic and instantaneous. Chelsea finished their first season under their new owner second in the Premier League table, and also reached the semi final stages of the Champions League. They lost that game to Porto, the surprise package of the year, who went on to shock all of Europe by winning the title. Abramovich was so impressed by the performance of the Portuguese underdogs that he immediately signed their manager, a certain José Mourinho, to relocate to Stamford Bridge the following year. Mourinho’s first year in charge saw them go one better and win the league for just the second time – and exactly 50 years after their first win.
Subsequent titles would not be spread so far apart. In the Abramovich years, Chelsea has won more trophies than it has in the rest of its entire history. As well as the Champions League and Europa League wins mentioned earlier, there have been five Premier League titles and five FA Cup wins – including a memorable double when they won both in 2010. Add to these achievements three League Cup wins, and Chelsea stands second only to Manchester United in terms of cup success in the 21st century.
It’s worth keeping in mind that for Roman Abramovich, Chelsea is more than just a business venture or a trophy – both accusations have been levelled over the years. Here’s a man who is genuinely passionate about football, as anyone can see. He regularly attends games and has a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve.
It will not be news to even casual football fans that Chelsea has welcomed some of the greatest talents the game has ever seen into its home dressing room at Stamford Bridge. But not all of these have arrived as a result of Abramovich’s bank balance. Let’s just take a wander through the years and meet some of Chelsea’s most iconic stars. How many of them do you remember?
- Alan Hudson – Hudson was taken to heart at Stamford Bridge almost immediately, not least because he was signed after being rejected from his boyhood club, local rivals Fulham. Clearly, manager Dave Sexton spotted something Fulham had missed, as Hudson became the main engine room of Chelsea’s midfield in the early 1970s, playing with a natural flair and finesse. In 1974, he left to join first Stoke and then Arsenal, but he never enjoyed the same success as he had at Stamford Bridge, and in the late 1970s, still aged just 28, he moved to the USA to try his luck in the indoor soccer league.
- Ray Wilkins – Better known as “Butch” to his inner circle, Wilkins grew up watching Chelsea play and was with their youth team before making his senior debut aged just 17. He was with The Blues throughout the hard times in the 1970s, and was a fan favourite – especially among the female supporters! Although his later career took him all around Europe, he later returned in a management role. The outpouring of grief and numerous tributes at Stamford Bridge when he died suddenly of cardiac arrest in 2018 tell you everything you need to know about the esteem in which he was still held some 40 years after his final goal.
- Peter Osgood – Another fantastic talent who was gone before his time, “the Wizard of Os” was a unique figure, towering over the other players yet controlling the ball with the grace and agility of a ballerina. He scored 150 goals for his club and today, his is the first face visitors see on arriving at Stamford Bridge, thanks to the superb statue at the main gate. When Osgood died of a heart attack in 2006, his ashes were buried beneath the Shed End penalty spot, the scene of so many of his magical moments over the years.
- John Terry – When a player acquires the nickname “Mr Chelsea” you know there is a special affinity between him and his club. The centre-back was at Stamford Bridge for 20 years and made more than 500 appearances. He is universally acknowledged as one of the finest defenders of his generation. He’s also one of the most versatile. He has more than 40 goals to his name, and even played as goalkeeper in one game – achieving a clean sheet in the process. Off the field, Terry can be a controversial figure. But out in the middle, he is one of those players that comes along once in a generation.
- Frank Lampard – Lampard is not so much a footballer as a force of nature. What other team can say their third highest goalscorer of all time was a midfielder? Lampard signed for the Blues in 2001, two years before Abramovich arrived, and looking back, he was the first indication of better times ahead. His 181 goals came in a Chelsea career that lasted 10 years, and they were arguably the most magical years in the club’s history. He also represented his country more than 100 times, including three World Cups. Lampard returned to Stamford Bridge as Head Coach in 2019, but was ousted in January 2021, a casualty of Chelsea’s indifferent form during the most recent domestic season.
- Didier Drogba – One of the core signings that heralded the Age of Abramovich, Drogba made an immediate impression, scoring in only his third game for Chelsea with a stylish header against Crystal Palace. Immediately afterwards, however, he was sidelined with a succession of injuries and fans were forced to wonder whether their new signing was more style than substance. Subsequent performances put their minds at rest, as Drogba became a lynchpin of the Chelsea goal scoring machine. Most important, he always had that happy knack of scoring goals when they were sorely needed. Outside football, Drogba works tirelessly in support of a number of social issues in his birthplace, Cote D’Ivoire. In 2007, the UN appointed Drogba as a Goodwill Ambassador, and more recently, he was announced as the new Vice President of Peace and Sport.
- Eden Hazard – If we were asked to explain in two words why you should never underestimate Belgium in international tournaments, we would say “Eden Hazard.” When teammates say a player’s biggest fault is that he is “too nice,” you know you have someone special on your hands. Hazard averaged more than 50 games per season during his time at Chelsea, not to mention 16 goals. His work ethic, as much as his talent, was sorely missed when he left to join Real Madrid in 2019. For Blues fans, the fact that since signing him, Real seem to have forgotten he exists makes things doubly frustrating.
Are you a Chelsea fan?
Chelsea is a club that polarizes opinions. Some are critical of the way it has found success over the past 20 years in comparison with the more traditional methods employed by other Premier League clubs. However, Roman Abramovich has done more than throw money at the club. He has also injected passion, infrastructure, a habit of winning, and perhaps most important of all, tangible results.
Chelsea has a core fanbase that has waited longer than most for this type of success. And let’s be honest, what team wouldn’t be happy to enjoy similar fortunes if the opportunity was made available to them?