Stamford Bridge stands as a monument to modesty in a London borough where grandiose excess knows no bounds. A quaint and relatively unassuming building just off of the Fulham Road, the memories it contains within its walls transcend such self-effacing descriptions. Plans for the stadium’s redevelopment remain shelved for now. But alas, some thirty years on, Chelsea remain fortunate to have ever kept hold of their cherished home. A homage to their humble beginnings.
Chelsea’s financial struggles have been well documented, with rival fans jumping at the opportunity to remind the Stamford Bridge faithful of their new money origins. Sold for just £1 to Ken Bates in 1982 The Blues were far from the opulent prospect they would later become. And with this deal came the basis of a ten-year war that raged long into the next decade.
The freehold to Stamford Bridge had not been included when Bates struck a deal to buy the club. Sold off by Chelsea’s accountant Martin Spencer in the wake of the team’s relegation to the second division in 1975, Bates would have to negotiate a separate deal to secure the future of the stadium.
Brian Mears, whom Bates had bought the club from, wasn’t quite as willing to sell such a lucrative asset, however. Despite being offered a company car and a seat in the box alongside a lucrative £450,000 cash payment, the freehold was soon sold to Marler Estates in exchange for a million shares in the company.
Not only had Mears scuppered Chelsea’s ability to take back their home of 79 years, but in agreeing to a deal with Marler Estates in 1984 the former owner now had vested interest in the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a pressing issue but Marler’s intentions were clear. They saw the plot of land on which the stadium stood as a valuable real estate opportunity.
Bates knew Chelsea may never return to Stamford Bridge if he allowed Marler to redevelop the site into a “much smaller and more compact stadium”. The new Labour-led council had already had to veto plans that would have seen Fulham merge with Queens Park Rangers to form a new club called Fulham Park Rangers. All whilst Marler, who owned the freehold to Craven Cottage, converted the stadium into luxury riverfront housing.
Time was of the essence, and with Marler offering Crystal Palace £3 million to ground share with the Blues at Selhurst Park, Bates stepped in to continually frustrate and slow the process.
With Chelsea approaching the end of their seven-year lease in 1989, Cabra Estates who had taken over the freehold from Marler served the club an eviction notice. Ultimately though Bates’s shrewd knowledge of the Companies Act allowed him to embroil the company in a series of filibustering legal proceedings.
With Bates managing to exacerbate the process far beyond the ending of the club’s lease, he was then rewarded with perhaps the single most telling development of this whole saga.
The UK economy had surged into a recession and the property market had crashed. The price of the freehold had dramatically decreased alongside many of Cabra’s other assets, and Bates was insistent on contesting the companies reevaluation of the site. Cabra, however, won the case over SB Limited’s valuation and were more than likely set to win the impending appeal claim lodged by Bates.
Fortune favours the brave though and Cabra, whose owner John Duggan had been at the centre of abuse from angry Chelsea fans, went into liquidation in November 1992. The Royal Bank of Scotland assumed control of the freehold and arranged a deal with Chelsea to renew the lease for another 20 years. The deal most importantly included a deal to buy the site outright for a fixed price of £16.5 million.
Bates was not content to leave the problem there and potentially incur the wrath of yet another property developer taking control of the freehold. So he set up the Chelsea Pitch Owner’s (CPO), an independent company that would buy the freehold before selling shares to fans. The site was divided up into 70,000 squares, with each square being priced at £100.
The CPO, and its 13,000 members, has since rebuked several attempts from prospective owners to buy the freehold. This included Roman Abramovich, who was unable to gain the required 75% majority in 2011.
With CPO consistently voting down plans to relinquish control of the freehold, Chelsea have found little option but to try and develop on the site of the stadium in order to increase the stadium’s capacity.
Chelsea’s victory paved the way for the club’s resurgence during the mid to late 1990s and Bates for all his controversies will be remembered for his willful determination to ensure Chelsea held on to their home. Whilst the surrounding bars and hotels that make up the “Chelsea Village” stand as a modern monument to Bates’s legacy and that of his lawyer in the case against Cabra Mark Taylor.