It’s quite rare these days when a club has played its entire existence at a ground, but in the case of Chelsea and Stamford Bridge, it’s been a marriage that has lasted since the club was formed in 1905 and continues to grow even to this day.
‘The Bridge’ has been around longer than the football club. Opened in 1877 it was originally laid out for athletics. The name of the ground also leaves one with some curiosity. Most people associate Stamford Bridge with a small village in Yorkshire where an Anglo-Saxon King called Harold fought and won a famous victory, apparently he is buried in Waltham Abbey which is not a million miles from the London Stamford Bridge. However, it’s felt that the name of the ground has nothing to do with this famous battle. Just behind the East Stand and still buried very deep under what is now a railway line is Stanford Creek what is now known as Counters Creek and if you’re ever standing at West Brompton station, you may even be lucky to catch a glimpse of it on Platform 4. Anyway, the creek crosses the Fulham Road and this small bridge that carries it over the Fulham Road at some stage in its life was seemingly called Stamford Bridge, which then in turn leant its name to the stadium.
In 1904, Gus and Joe Mears saw Stamford Bridge as an opportunity, with athletics over they wanted to create a stadium to out-rival Crystal Palace and become the venue for the FA Cup final and England matches. They also offered ‘The Bridge’ to Fulham, but, they were turned down. With this knock-back and rising costs, Gus Mears elected to sell the Stadium to the Great Western Railway, but before this of course; he went to see his friend Fred Parker. Parker sowed the seed of Chelsea FC in the mind of Mears and the rest as they say is history. The club played its first fixture at the ground in September 1905 and have been there for the past 115 years.
But, there is much else about the Bridge that perhaps many Chelsea fans did not even know. Mears did get his wish of taking the FA Cup final away from Crystal Palace (albeit with the 1915 final which did involve Chelsea being sandwiched in at Old Trafford). Post War From 1920-1922 ‘The Bridge’ was home to English football’s greatest showpiece with Aston Villa, Tottenham and Huddersfield (their only ever cup win) all winning finals at the Bridge. It was only the desire of the Football Association to have their own national stadium that led to Wembley being built and thus taking the FA Cup final away.
The FA Charity Shield (now Community Shield) found its original home at Stamford Bridge, with the first winner in 1908 being Manchester United in a replay against QPR. In fact the stadium held all the Charity Shield matches until 1911, with further games in 1923, 1927, 1930, 1950, 1955 and 1970. Aside from Wembley, ‘The Bridge’ has hosted the Charity Shield more times than any other stadium. Alongside hosting the 1965 League Cup final first leg Chelsea against Leicester, this means Stamford Bridge has hosted all of English football’s major showpiece occasions. Only Wembley, Old Trafford and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium are grounds that still exist today and have hosted all three of England’s major finals. Curiously though, the ground has not hosted an England international since 1946.
The Bridge has done the lot when it comes to sport. The All-Blacks visited to play a Rugby international in 1905, Rugby League in 1908 and Baseball in 1914, welcomed the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox. Speedway arrived in 1928 and lasted until 1932, however, their one was moment of tragedy during this four year period when 19-year-old junior rider Charlie Biddle was killed in a racing accident. Greyhound racing took over from speedway in 1933 and lasted until 1968, with the old shed terrace roof being built for on course bookmakers. Cricket came and went in the early 1980s with the Lambert and Butler Cup (possibly an equivalent to today’s Twenty20) the Final held at the Bridge saw Lancashire beat Leicestershire. NFL briefly joined the list in 1997.
There is no doubt the stadium had lots of idiosyncrasies until its major redevelopment in the late 1990s. Who remembers the little stand in the corner of the North end of the ground? Demolished in the 1970s, it used to rattle as the District line passed behind the North Terrace and British Rail behind the East Stand. Who also remembers the cars that used to park in front of the Shed End during games? For those watching the early days of the Premier League, you would be shocked if you watched footage of games on YouTube now to see cars parked in front of the Shed circa 1992-1994, quite a lot of trust in forwards of both sides! And finally the view across to Brompton Cemetery in the early 70s whilst the East Stand was being built stirring memories of journeys walked to and from ‘The Bridge’, especially on those crisp autumn and winter days. And of course the founder of Chelsea FC and pioneer of Stamford Bridge Gus Mears sleeps eternally in Brompton cemetery overlooking ‘The Bridge’ and his club.
I am sure he would be proud.