One of the last decade’s most remarkable football success stories, Chelsea FC have been transformed from top-flight also-rans into one of Europe’s strongest outfits. And perhaps appropriately for a club residing in one of the wealthiest parts of West London, the story boils down to hard cash.
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea in 2003 changed the face of the English game, as millions were pumped into transforming Stamford Bridge and sending for the world’s finest players to play in it. Suddenly, a side that had been gradually strengthening and picking up FA Cups (1997 and 2000) became genuine league challengers.
Under the charismatically brilliant Jose Mourinho, Chelsea lifted back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006, tripling their total of top-flight titles. Players like Frank Lampard and John Terry epitomised Chelsea’s hard-working – but also brilliantly talented – spirit, while the goals of Didier Drogba and midfield dominance of Michael Essien wowed West London.
Those players remain at Chelsea, but the picture has skewed slightly since Mourinho’s departure in 2007. Managers have come and gone (Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti) without quite living up to Jose’s high watermark. While Man City’s spending power now outstrips them off the field, Man United’s revival has overshadowed them on it – notably when pipping them to a Champions League win on penalties in Moscow in 2008, to the horror of the watching Abramovich.
Indeed, the Russian's desire to make a real impact on Europe's premier competition hangs like a sword of Damocles over every Chelsea manager's head. The latest contestant, Carlo Ancelotti, won it twice as AC Milan manager (and twice as a player) and is expected to do so again. In his first full season, Chelsea roared to the league-and-cup Double, banging in the goals – but losing in the Champions League last 16 to Inter Milan, coached by that man Mourinho.
On their day, they’re an incredibly powerful side, a joy to watch, and Stamford Bridge can whip up a decent atmosphere. Their superb football spine – Petr Cech in goal, Terry, Essien, Lampard and Drogba – is fleshed out by the brilliance of Ashley Cole, Florent Malouda, Nicolas Anelka and record-breaking £50m signing Fernando Torres. And with Abramovich still at the helm, further titles and European tilt look inevitable, provided he can resist tinkering with his managers too much.
The area, meanwhile, is well worth a visit in itself if you’ve got a few hours to kill. Misleadingly situated in Fulham (rather than neighbouring Chelsea & Kensington), the club is a short hop from the shopping-and-eating paradise of the King’s Road – although for that it might help if you’ve got an Abramovich-sized budget.
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Chelsea’s only home since the club's establishment in 1905, Stamford Bridge has come a long way since (the Shed End, remember, was named such because it originally looked like a giant corrugated iron outhouse.) Now a modern complex incorporating two hotels, apartments, restaurants and a megastore, it’s a truly modern site that maintains a decent atmosphere, especially for derbies and games against Liverpool, with whom a rivalry developed under Mourinho that has only been intensified since the Blues signed Fernando Torres. Stamford Bridge seats 41,841, and although plans are afoot to increase capacity to 50,000 it's not impossible to get a ticket for games, particularly the less attractive cup ties.
Driving is strongly discouraged, but be our guest and type SW61HS into your sat-nav if you fancy a try. Come off the M25 at Junction 15 onto the M4, which then becomes the A4 and Hammersmith Flyover and head in towards Earl’s Court – a better bet for parking than near the ground, where it’s pretty much impossible on matchday.
The nearest Tube station is Fulham Broadway, a short hop from the ground along the Fulham Road, while the nearest mainland train station, West Brompton, which connects with major hub Clapham Junction, is a 15-minute walk. Riverboats from Putney Pier and Blackfriars Pier run Monday to Friday, if you want to arrive in style midweek.
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