Who can blame anyone for succumbing to their wildest dreams? Lampard’s binge will peal loud bells among Chelsea fans of a certain vintage. A 28-day burst of luxury transfer activity during the summer of 2004 brought Petr Cech, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho and Mateja Kezman to Stamford Bridge, and, well, four out of five ain’t bad. José Mourinho’s box-fresh team went on to win the Premier League in short order, a root-and-branch refresh paying instant dividends.
But there are no firm guarantees, and while Mourinho’s special revolution set one historical precedent, a similar gung-ho approach taken by the club in 1930 resonates altogether differently.
David Calderhead is a largely forgotten figure today, a rough deal seeing he took charge of Chelsea for 26 years and 966 matches. But such is the fate of nearly men. Calderhead’s closest brushes with success came midway through his reign: a comprehensive defeat in the 1915 FA Cup final, and a third-place finish in the 1919-20 First Division, the latter campaign fuelled by the goals of Jack Cock, star striker by day, handsome cabaret singer by night, biopic subject in waiting. We digress.
Calderhead may have been a dour Scot from Central Casting, nicknamed The Sphinx for the stone-faced front he reserved for journalists, but the man knew how to please the punters. His teams were renowned for entertaining football, although, as so often with Chelsea during their vastly more interesting pre-superclub years, plenty of time was spent slumming it in the Second Division. End product was a perennial problem; the Pensioners were all scarlet coat and no knickers.
After winning promotion in 1930 – and perhaps concluding that, at 66, he had one last shot at immortality – Calderhead decided enough was enough and whipped out the chequebook. He spent £6,000 on Alec Cheyne, the man whose last-gasp goal direct from a corner in a Scotland-England stramash gave birth to the first Hampden Roar. Cheyne was knocking them in from all angles for Aberdeen, and by himself would have appeared a viable solution to Chelsea’s constipated attack. But Calderhead decided to go large in a manner unprecedented in English football. Hughie Gallacher, the rococo inspiration behind Newcastle’s 1927 title win, joined for a reported world-record £12,000, and the big-money pair quickly got to work: on their Stamford Bridge debuts, Gallacher scored two and Cheyne three as Manchester United were trounced 6-2.
Promising signs ... had United not been at an historic low ebb, shipping 13 goals in their next two home games and losing their first dozen matches straight, en route to ignominious relegation. Chelsea’s rout thus contextualized, they were trounced 4-1 the following weekend by West Ham. Calderhead tried to regain momentum by giving Huddersfield £8,500 for inside-right Alex Jackson, who along with fellow Scotland wizard Gallacher had shoed England around Wembley two years previously. But the completion of the spending spree led to no upturn in results. Jackson barely got a kick in a goalless debut against Sheffield Wednesday. Bolton won at Stamford Bridge the week after, despite Chelsea having nine-tenths of the possession: the same old song. Chelsea were doomed to mid-table irrelevance.
The following season wasn’t any better. In an early home game against Aston Villa, Jackson scored twice and set up another. Unfortunately, Pongo Waring got four, Villa ended up with six, and everyone agreed the visitors wouldn’t have been flattered by double figures. Chelsea finished slap-bang in mid-table again. They were also rocked by a scandal after Jackson bought the team a round of drinks, the night before a match at Manchester City. Chelsea whacked him on the transfer list, an absurd overreaction that almost certainly had roots in Jackson agitating for a transfer to Nîmes, his head turned by a mountain of shiny bronze centimes. Chelsea deliberately priced him out of the market, demanding £10,000, and his career was effectively over at 28.
The goals dried up for Cheyne, whose confidence plummeted. Unlike Jackson, whose manner seemingly irritated the Chelsea board, Cheyne was deemed mere clutter and given permission to chip off. That left Gallacher, the only thing keeping Chelsea from relegation. His signature performance came in April 1933, when he scored two, set up another, and dribbled Leeds United to distraction in a 6-0 win. That display was particularly impressive given events of the night before, when two Leeds players witnessed Gallacher being efficiently dispatched from a King’s Road drinker and into a nearby gutter, where he took a restorative power nap before the big game.
That sort of carry-on wasn’t sustainable over the long haul, and in any case Gallacher was running up sizeable tabs that could only be realistically wiped clean by a signing-on fee. One morning, 10 o’clock, 1934, he heard wind of interest from Derby County; a few persuasive hours later, he was sat on the 6.25 leaving St Pancras for the Midlands. With Calderhead having been eased out the previous summer, the glory gambit in ruins, all principal actors of Chelsea’s first great splurge had gone, within four years. Chelsea had nothing tangible to show for any of it. So should Lampard decide at any point to mine the past for inspiration, it’s probably best if he concentrates mainly on Mourinho’s work ... and be thankful we didn’t also rake up 1946-47, Tommy Walker, Len Goulden, Tommy Lawton, all that.
The Guardian Sport