With six league titles, eight FA Cups, and two Champions League titles to their name, Chelsea FC are a side that has become synonymous with success in the sport of football – especially in the Premier League era, where they have been one of the ever-present sides. However, things weren’t always this way for Chelsea and, especially if you’re new to the game, you may be surprised to hear that they have been relegated from top division no fewer than SIX times!
Working their way up
In 1904, a businessman named Gus Mears acquired the Stamford Bridge athletics stadium in Fulham which he wanted to turn into a football ground. Existing club Fulham FC turned down the opportunity to lease the ground, so Mears instead founded his own club, naming it Chelsea after the nearby borough since there was already a team named Fulham.
Like many sides over the years and like any club founded today, Chelsea didn’t get to simply start at the top of English football. The club was successfully elected into the Football League but began life in the Second Division. They didn’t have to wait long though to taste First Division football for the first time: whilst Football League members denied them election to the First Division after their 3rd-place finish in their first season, their 2nd-place finish in 1906/07 was enough for them to make it to the top division just two years after being formed.
The First Relegation
Chelsea’s first relegation came in 1909/10 – just their fifth season in the Football League and after being promoted to the First Division in their second. Relegation came after Chelsea finished 19th of 20 teams, but with 11 wins and 7 draws – a record that would be good for 40 points in today’s league (and was worth 29 points at the time, with a win being worth 2 points and a draw 1 at the time).
Chelsea fans of the day were left to rue the lack of a proven goalscorer in the side – Jimmy Windridge was the club’s top scorer with just 6 goals. Thankfully, Bob Whittingham, signed during the relegation campaign, was to emerge as a consistent goal threat for the side over the following two seasons and helped ensure that in 1911/12 the club was promoted back to the First Division, making this stay outside the top flight a short one.
After seven relatively successful seasons back in the top division, Chelsea suffered relegation again in the eighth, finishing 21st of 22 teams in 1923/24. Again goalscoring was a problem – the club scored just 31 times in 42 games, and didn’t have a 10-goal-a-season striker for the first time since the previous demotion.
This was a slightly longer spell in the Second Division than previously, as Chelsea weren’t able to return to the big time until a second-placed finish in the 1929/30 season.
Relegation after 32 seasons
After securing their promotion back to the top flight in 1930, Chelsea remained there until 1962/63, a spell which also included the first silverware in the club’s history as they won the 1954/55 league title and then the following season’s Charity Shield match against FA Cup winners Newcastle United.
1962/63 saw Chelsea endure a dismal campaign, finishing 22nd of 22 teams in the First Division and a distant five points clear of safety – much further than it looks by today’s standards with a win being worth only 2 points at the time. The club’s goal average – used at the time instead of goal difference and calculated by dividing goals scored by goals conceded – was also worse than the clubs in 19th and 20th, although on this occasion Chelsea’s problems were more at the back of their team with 94 goals conceded in 42 games.
Chelsea wouldn’t be gone for long, however, bouncing back quickly from this relegation with a 2nd-place finish in the Second Division a year later to return to the top flight.
Financial woes and two more relegations
Whilst the 1970s saw a few English sides enjoying their glory days in European football, for Chelsea they were a more tumultuous time. The club was relegated twice during the decade, first dropping into the Second Division in 1974/75 after a 21st-place finish in the First Division, and then after bouncing back in 1976/77, the club was relegated again
in 1978/79 and would remain in the Second Division until 1983/84.
These on-the-field results were the consequence of financial troubles for the club, a lot of it resulting from an expensive redevelopment of their Stamford Bridge ground. The financial difficulties led to selling star players which in turn had a big impact on the club’s results. The extent of the club’s debts were such that it was acquired by Ken Bates from Brian Mears (great-nephew of club founder Gus Mears) for just £1 in 1982.
The Latest Relegation
New owner Ken Bates and manager John Neal masterminded a transformation of Chelsea which helped them return to the top division in 1983/84. Some of the famous names in Chelsea folklore including Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, and Nigel Spackman were brought in, all for relatively low transfer fees that helped rebuild the side without repeating the club’s financial woes. The team won promotion back to the First Division, mounted an unlikely challenge for European qualification in 1985 that was eventually rendered moot by English clubs being banned following the Heysel disaster, and began to establish Chelsea’s reputation as a strong Cup team.
After two strong 6th-placed finishes in 1984/85 and 1985/86 – the latter particularly encouraging as Chelsea topped the First Division table as late as February – their form began to slump again and manager John Hollins, who had taken over from Neal after the latter’s bad health, fell out with key players including David Speedie and Nigel Spackman in the wake of the side’s 14th-placed finish in 1986/87. After Speedie and Spackman were sold, the club’s form dipped even further, Hollins was sacked in March 1988, and the side didn’t recover, finishing 18th at the end of the 1987/88 season and then losing to Middlesbrough in a playoff that had been introduced to decide relegation and promotion at this time.
Things looked rough for Chelsea when they began this latest stint in the Second Division by failing to win any of their opening six games, however their form soon changed and driven by the goals of Kerry Dixon who they had retained despite their relegation, they were able to finish as Second Division champions with a whopping 99 points, returning to the top flight where they have remained ever since – particularly good timing with major financial changes due for the top flight of English football just a few years later in the early 1990s.