There’s two ways of looking at Chelsea’s sudden rise beginning with Russian billionaire (and $590 million super-yacht owner) Roman Abramovich’s purchase of the team in 2003, depending on where your loyalties lie. The first way, and the one most Premier League fans ascribe to, is that they are the New Money brats. They became Silicon Valley-rich-beyond-all-imagination and immediately started wrecking how clubs are supposed to operate with their global expansion and their insouciant attitude toward local history.
The second way is that Chelsea are the Premier League outlaws – ignoring tradition and doing it their own way. The Blues have succeeded despite European soccer’s institutional resistance to allowing conventional mid-table clubs to move up. Abramovich is either a ruthlessly wealthy tyrant or an admirably audacious revolutionary.
I’m not saying one of these narratives is wholly accurate; as usual, the answer lies somewhere in between. However, now that Chelsea have been title contenders for over a decade and just picked up their fifth top division championship last weekend, it makes for a good time to glance back at their other league-winning seasons. We’ll start way, way back in the 1950s, before Abramovich or Jose Mourinho were even born.
In their 50th year as a football club, Chelsea FC had still not won a league title. In fact, their first 25 years they bounced between the First and Second Division, unable to keep a foothold in the top league. Since 1930, the Blues had remained there, but routinely finished somewhere in the mid-table. In 1952, former Arsenal great Ted Drake arrived as the new manager with radical change and big promises of success. Stripping away Chelsea’s old “Pensioner” identity and stressing fitness, Drake’s Chelsea team put everything together in the ’54-55 season.
Sitting in 12th place in November, their start didn’t have anybody expecting the run they were about to make. Roy Bentley provided much of the scoring (21 goals), while 20-year-old Frank Blunstone (the original Super Frank?) and Eric Parsons (nicknamed “the Rabbit”) raced up and down the wings. Amazingly, despite being incapable of even sniffing the top of the table for decades, Chelsea won the league by four points.
Remarkably, another 50 years passed before the Blues would lift the trophy again. That’s enjoyable for those who like symmetry, but not for Chelsea fans. In his first major personnel move since buying the club in June 2003, Abramovich brought in Mourinho, who had just recently won the Champions League with Portuguese club Porto. He replaced Claudio Ranieri, who had finished 2nd the season before – this was the first sign that Abramovich would hold his managers to an almost impossible standard.
The Special One turned out to be the perfect skipper of the impenetrable Chelsea battleship. His super-defensive 4-5-1 drew criticism for its “negative football” leanings, but Mourinho’s squad simply couldn’t be scored on, and therefore couldn’t be beaten. With only 15 goals conceded all season, the center back tandem of captain John Terry (who won PFA’s Player of the Year) and ex-Porto man Ricardo Carvalho refused to bend to the attacking force of opposing teams. 22-year-old keeper Petr Cech moved into the starting role at the beginning of the season due to an injury to Carlo Cudicini. Ironically, a decade later Thibaut Courtois (age 22) replaced Cech himself this year to backstop Chelsea to another title.
They had led the Premier League virtually all season long, cruising to a record 95 points. Now the trick was doing it all over again.
While not as wire-to-wire dominant as the season before, the 05-06 squad still remained stout on defense and solid offensively. Frank Lampard was busy minting his legendary status on his way to leading the team in goals for the second consecutive season. Arjen Robben, now routinely terrorizing defenses with his skilled left foot at Bayern, had quite an influence on the left wing. Midfielder Joe Cole and forward Didier Drogba (12 goals) added to the attack, ensuring that Chelsea wouldn’t struggle to score.
They suffered a loss to Manchester United in November, but rolled out an 18-point first-place lead a couple months later. While the gap eventually closed as United crawled back, Chelsea ended their title hopes with a 3-0 late season victory over them at Stamford Bridge, ending the season eight points clear.
Although failing to win the title the next two years, this unbelievable stretch – from March 2004 to October 2008 – featured two titles and three runner-up finishes, as well as 0 (yep, ZERO) home losses. Mourinho shockingly left at the beginning of the 07-08 season, but Chelsea just kept moving forward — making the 2008 Champions League Final, winning the 2009 FA Cup. Then the next year, they finally ascended the Premier League mountaintop yet again.
This one wasn’t as easy as the previous two. Manchester United (searching for their 4th straight league title) and Arsenal provided stiff tests. However, this three-horse race was dominated by Chelsea, as the Blues won both times against both teams. The second United game, at Old Trafford, needed a late Drogba goal to propel them past Man U to the top of the table.
Yet again, the defense was stellar, even without Mourinho’s resilient presence. Right back Branislav Ivanovic started to assert his will on the Premier League, while Cech submitted 17 clean sheets. Carlo Ancelotti, now at Real Madrid, stepped in as manager and morphed them into an offensive juggernaut. Under Ancelotti, they played with more abandon, streaking up field and torching teams with six or seven goals. They scored a Chelsea record 103 goals, up from just 68 the season before. With 29 EPL goals in his defining season, Drogba was fire from start to finish.
In the end, they won the league on the last day by merely a single point over United. It was the last of three titles for that 2000s Chelsea core. By the time they were lifting this year’s trophy, Lampard had moved on to Manchester City and Cech was relegated to backup. With that core aging, Mourinho came back to inject some life into the club, infuriating opposing managers and fans again with his performance art press conferences. Hazard had become the team’s center, while additions Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were indispensable. This season, Chelsea were almost as easy to hate as ever.
Almost, because something had changed since those mid-00s days. Abramovich was no longer recklessly outspending everybody like millions were burning a hole in his pocket. Man City were the free-spending rich kids now — although Financial Fair Play has limited what even they can do — and with United and Arsenal going after big names every summer, the Blues have started to finally resemble the other top EPL clubs. Now that they appear to be stocked for the future, how many more can they win?