Chelsea: Half a century of Europe’s bravest football stand

IN 2022, Chelsea will look back on the 50th anniversary of the start of construction of their iconic East Stand. It was in the summer of 1972 the club unveiled its ambitious and, as it turned-out, ill-timed project. It was also a doomed plan, a victim of economics and the element of the game that few provision for, a change of fortunes on the pitch. But in June 1972, the scale of Chelsea’s redevelopment scheme and its first stage, was admired by everyone.

Stamford Bridge, for all its antiquity, was a rather run-down ground. It was huge, exposed and sightlines were never good. The old East Stand, an Archibald Leitch construction, was limited and the rest of the arena was a hotch-potch of structures, from the vast and scantly-covered terraces to the off-the-peg West Stand and the strange, uncomfortably-placed North Stand. Nevertheless, the Bridge had a certain charm that people still clamour for today.

Chelsea were a club that wanted to make a noise in the early 1970s, so it was no surprise that the design of the East Stand would be something that would imply modernity, grandiosity and confidence. The architects were Darbourne & Darke, a partnership that had made its name with an innovative approach to social housing projects. 

“We believe this is the biggest reconstruction ever undertaken at a British football ground. We are not just building a new stand, but virtually a new stadium,” said proud chairman Brian Mears.

Fate conspired against Chelsea, however. Firstly, the project which began in 1972 meant the club would play in a three-sided Stamford Bridge for a season with the aim of opening the new stand in August 1973. This had an impact on the team and caused a drop in morale among the squad due to the makeshift dressing rooms. Secondly, the team was possibly passing its peak and had shown signs of complacency and ill-discipline in 1971-72. After starting the season poorly, they went on a spectacular run that took them to the Football League Cup final, the last 16 of the FA Cup and in contention for a top place in the league. In the space of a week or two, Chelsea’s season collapsed and they failed to win a major prize or even qualify for Europe. There should have been warning signs for Chelsea manager Dave Sexton in 1971-72.

Although Chelsea started 1972-73 well and reached the Football League Cup semi-final and last eight of the FA Cup, the campaign emphasised the decline of the team that had served the club so well earlier in the decade. Meanwhile, the work on the stand was delayed by industrial action and an economic downturn that reached crisis point in the 1973-74 season with power cuts, the three-day week and a sharp drop in football crowds. To make matters worse, Chelsea had problems with the relationship between manager Sexton and star names like Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, arguably Chelsea’s key assets. Both left the club after a stand-off and although the club raised around half a million pounds from the sale of its best players, the mood at Chelsea was grim. Many fans still wonder if Osgood and Hudson were allowed to leave because the club needed the cash.

The club’s attendances fell from an average of 40,342 in 1970 to 25,983 in 1973-74, a decline of 35%. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The stand, eventually completed ahead of 1974-75, had a mark of desperation about it when it opened, Chelsea needed a decent season and simply could not afford to be relegated. They also needed 30,000 at every game to make the project pay.

When the opening day came in August 1974, the crowd of some 31,000 could not fail to be impressed by the sight of the new stand, which looked like a space-age implant in an austere bowl. There were brutalist elements about the new design, all concrete walkways that had yet to be stained by the English weather. The roof hung over the ground, although as fans would later discover, you could still get wet in that lower tier. The steel was pre-rusted, but looked strangely elegant. Above all, the sheer height of the stand completely dwarfed the rest of Stamford Bridge, notably the upper tier which had a 35 degree rate of steepness.

The macro-economic situation and Chelsea’s own finances meant ambition went unfulfilled and there seemed to be corners cut within the stand itself – the holes bored into the concrete for warm-air to circulate the stand were never used, but the self-cleaning gutters were very effective. The infrastructure, such as toilets and bars had a stark, cold air about it, as if they were either an afterthought or beyond budget. A lack of natural light did not help.

Afficianados of modern architecture saw the stand as a bold gesture that reflected the optimism of the 1960s. Sadly, the project was scuppered by the reality of the miserable 1970s. There was a lack of atmosphere for a long time. Entering the top tiers meant a walk up the backside of the stand where you got a good view of Brompton Cemetry. Many times, the spectators on the terrace tried to urge the occupants of the lower tier to make some noise. It was a sedate place that only seemed to spring to life when it needed to.

The stand’s isolated appearance only served to underline what was a decade of mediocrity for Chelsea. And because the grand design was abandoned, the Shed End was still 50 yards from the action, at the very least. 

Chelsea were relegated in the stand’s first season and as the 70s became the 80s, Stamford Bridge looked downtrodden and the crowds continued to dwindle. The East Stand soon became a symbol of that slip from grace, a white elephant that took the club to the brink of financial disaster. 

Today, the East Stand is integrated in the modern Stamford Bridge in a design that is not a million miles away from what the Mears family originally wanted. The problem is, in this age of uber-clubs, Chelsea’s stadium has fallen behind its London neighbours. Stamford Bridge is a relatively small place, but is a neat, relatively comfortable home for one of the most successful 21st century clubs. You sense that Brian Mears would almost recognise the place as one that resembles the “Super Bridge” he hoped to build in the 1970s.

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