New Year’s Day 1990. I stood in the away end at Stamford Bridge and watched Graham Taylor’s imperious Villa team dismantle a tricky Chelsea side. Second half goals from Kevin Gage, Tony Daley and David Platt gave us a 3-0 win. In a memorable holiday season we’d also beaten Man United and Arsenal, scoring 8 goals and conceding just one. We stood second in the table, 4 points behind Liverpool.
Where we should be.
Chelsea? They were having a decent season and would eventually finish fifth, their highest position for 20 years. Historic underachievers, by 1990 they’d won just 4 major trophies, compared to Villa’s 18. The average attendance at Stamford Bridge was just over 21,000.
Only the most deluded blue could doubt which club was biggest.
Chelsea were a strange anomaly in those days. Located (as now) in London’s posh Kensington borough, the club attracted many celebrity fans and exuded a touch of glamour. In contrast, Stamford Bridge was a dilapidated mess and the clubs‘ hooligan following was as vicious as any northern working class town.
The early 90s encounters between the teams were fairly nondescript, a couple of wins for either side, and an end of season 2-2 draw (where Chelsea were 2 up inside 5 minutes).
Games against Chelsea were not entirely unanticipated, but definitely not major box office.
Then things changed.
It’s easy for fans of other teams to view the Chelsea revolution as beginning in 2003 with the Abramovich takeover, but in truth it started much earlier.
In an astonishing coup, Chelsea signed Ruud Gullit from Sampdoria on a free transfer. Wages and bonuses were reputed to be £3 million, unheard of at the time. Mark Hughes was also signed from Man United, a rare case of Fergie letting a player go too early. Paying for this was businessman Matthew Harding, who had pumped money into the club in exchange for a seat on the board.
The revolution quickened in 1996, with signings including Frank Lebeouf, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. The Italians above all others changed English football. They quickly dispelled stereotypical views by being hard as nails whilst also skilful and technically brilliant. More than capable of doing it on a February night at Wimbledon.
These guys were a different breed.
We at Villa could only watch. These players came at a high cost, and we knew there was more chance of an Oasis duet with the Spice Girls than Doug Ellis agreeing to that sort of investment. Besides, we were doing well, 4th in 95-96, 5th in 96-97. We didn’t need big names from abroad.
Not at first. From 95-98 results between Villa and Chelsea remained tight. Both teams won the away fixture in 95-96. The following season a cracking Andy Townsend free kick gave us the lead at Stamford Bridge in September before Chelsea pegged us back to a 1-1 draw. In the reverse fixture Chelsea triumphed 2-0 on Boxing Day, with Villa looking like they’d had too much turkey. One win apiece in 97-98 suggested not much had changed. The teams also achieved similar league standings.
Then reality struck.
Villa’s frugal approach under Ellis simply couldn’t keep pace with the quality of Chelsea’s expensive signings. 4 defeats in a row between Autumn 1998 and December 1999 illustrating the change in balance.
But how could they afford it?
In October 1996, Matthew Harding was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in Cheshire, travelling home from Chelsea’s fixture at Bolton. Regardless, chairman Ken Bates continued the policy of signing big. Between 1996 and 2002, Chelsea’s transfer deficit was approximately £98 million. A huge number even by today’s standards, and this didn’t include wages.
It couldn’t last.
In his autobiography, Frank Lampard admits the club was on the verge of bankruptcy. Only qualification for the Champions League on the last day of 02/03 saved them.
Then came Roman’s billions.
Lucky? Undoubtedly. Without the takeover Chelsea would have ended up like Leeds. Bates’ high-risk strategy had trumped Doug Ellis and his prudent running of Villa.
But what a risk he took.
Debate raged amongst Villa fans in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Should we take the high risk-high reward route? Or was Doug right to keep the club on an even keel?
Even today, I doubt you’ll find a clear majority for either side.
The impact of this on the relationship between the two clubs has been extraordinary. Since the 2000 cup final, we have lost 20 games v Chelsea, winning just 8. They’ve beaten us in 9 out of our last 10 meetings. Depressingly, they’ve also won one more trophy than us now.
It’s hard to stomach for us Villans, knowing that with a bit more investment in the mid 90s, we could have seen some of those great players in a Villa shirt, and undoubtedly had more trophies in the cabinet.
On the other hand, at least we didn’t go bust.
So where do you stand? The sensible policy of Team Ellis? Or the Chelsea way- win or bust?
Enjoy the debate.
By Rob Smith