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.

Ken Shellito, the England regular that never was

KEN SHELLITO never had the best of luck. As a player, he was cut down in his prime, turning out for his last competitive game in December 1965 at the age of 25. As a manager, he had the misfortune to take over from his former team-mate, Eddie McCreadie, who had become a folk hero as he took Chelsea to promotion in 1977.

Ken Shellito died on October 31 2018. He had been missing from the UK football scene for some time, working and settling in Asia. In some ways, he had become something of a forgotten man.

Shellito was seen as a quiet, respectable individual, but he never had the chutzpah of his predecessor when he became manager of Chelsea in 1977. While McCreadie was bold in his predictions and his appearance, Shellito was more reserved, less prone to making statements. His appointment was arguably the only thing cash-strapped Chelsea could have done when McCreadie resigned over a contractual dispute. The club knew Shellito and the former full back knew Chelsea only too well.

Newly-appointed  Chelsea manager Ken Shellito at Stamford Bridge. Photo PA.

Many of McCreadie’s promotion side had come through Chelsea’s youth system and Shellito had worked with most of them, so there was a certain logic in putting him in the hot seat.

But in many ways, it was too tough a challenge for a man who had been in the backroom since retiring from the game as a player. He was on a hiding to nothing, just like another Chelsea favourite John Hollins in the 1980s. Shellito could only tarnish his image with the club’s fans while McCreadie departed with his legend intact.

Shellito was an outstanding defender, one of the first overlapping full-backs in the modern game. He was capped once by England in May 1963, playing alongside Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton in a 4-2 win against Czechoslavakia in Bratislava. He might have been a member of Alf Ramsey’s 1966 squad if he had remained fit, but his career effectively ended some six months before the World Cup, although he went through agony for some years trying to salvage his playing days.

As manager of Chelsea, Shellito took a very young side into Division One in August 1977. With no money to strengthen his squad, he had to rely on the players that won promotion under McCreadie. It was a steep curve for both manager and team. After losing the opening-day fixture at West Bromwich Albion, he had to admit that, “we were raw” and he kept urging for patience as he told Chelsea fans, “We are learning all the time.”

Chelsea’s dilemma was that they needed to put faith in youngsters, but they also didn’t have the time to let them develop naturally. In the top division, they were frequently found wanting and this made life very difficult for Shellito. His task was simple – to keep Chelsea up as his young players matured.

There were high spots, however, notably the 1-0 win at Manchester United in September 1977 and the now legendary 4-2 FA Cup win against European champions Liverpool in January 1978. Chelsea stayed up, virtually securing their place with a 2-0 win at doomed Leicester City and Shellito was delighted. “Survival is the only thing that matters, no matter how bad this game was,” he said afterwards. “The tension was almost unbearable.” Incredibly, survival was confirmed a couple of days later, after a 6-0 drubbing at Everton.

Shellito pointed out that Chelsea would need to spend to ensure they didn’t go close to relegation in 1978-79. “I know the men we want,” he said. But despite spending for the first time in four years, Chelsea could not compete the following season and Shellito, by now losing confidence and faith, was coming to the end of his time as manager. With just two wins in 18 league games, the Blues were rooted to the bottom of the table. After a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa, Chelsea chairman Brian Mears, who had been courting a number of people with a view to bringing in help for Shellito, decided to relieve him of his duties. Nothing much changed in terms of Chelsea’s fate as relegation was confirmed well before the end of that dreadful season.

Although he had a brief spell with Cambridge United, Shellito spent the last years of his life in Asia, where he passed away after a brief illness, aged 78.

Undoubtedly, he will be remembered as a great clubman and as a decent man who took on what was an uneviable task in a troubled period for Chelsea. And but for that injured knee, who knows what he would have achieved on the field?

Photos: PA