Chelsea fans may be used to watching their side lifting trophies nowadays after a number of prosperous years lately, but times were not always so glory-laden for the West London club. As Carlo Ancelotti, despite leading the club to their first League-FA Cup double just 12 months ago, looks set to pay the price for European failure and overseeing only the second trophy-less season in eight years since Roman Abramovich bought the club, it brings to question what the Russian owner would have made of the barren years Blues fans suffered in the clubs’ early history.
50 years past between the clubs’ foundation in 1905 and their first trophy win as English Champions and another 50 years past between that maiden title campaign and Jose Mourinho’s Premier League champions of 2004-05. Of course, these eras could not differ much more but if Abramovich’s patience with Ancelotti is waning in the face of a season lacking silverware, he could do worse than to looking back into the depths of Blues history and affording his manager time to return his side to winning ways next season as the 40th anniversary of one of the club’s most celebrated days approaches.
40 years ago this coming Saturday, the Blues were celebrating their maiden European trophy after winning the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup on May 21st 1971 in Athens, beating Spanish giants Real Madrid. Having been denied entry to the inaugural season of the European Cup in 1955 by the Football League, who took the decision to prohibit Chelsea – English champions for the 1954-55 season – from participating in order to prioritise domestic competition over European, and enjoying an unsuccessful three seasons in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup during the 1970’s, Chelsea entered the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup for the first time in the 1970-71 season after winning their first FA Cup the previous season.
Having safely negotiated the opening two rounds of the tournament, the Blues were paired with Belgian cup winners Club Brugge in the quarter-finals. Their involvement in the competition was in doubt as they travelled away in the first leg and were beaten 2-0. However, Chelsea stormed into a semi-final clash against holders Manchester City with a 4-0 victory after extra-time at Stamford Bridge. Beating City home and away secured a 2-0 aggregate win and ensured the Blues progression to Athens and the final against Real Madrid, a game that Peter Osgood’s goal nearly won before Ignacio Zoco’s last-minute equaliser saved Spanish cup winners Madrid. Two days later, first-half goals by Osgood and John Dempsey put Dave Sexton’s Chelsea in control, but Sebastian Fleitas pulled one back to ensure a nervy final 15 minutes for the Blues – a period they came through unscathed to take the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup back to London.
It would be 27 years before the Blues triumphed in Europe again as in 1998, Chelsea were the last English club to lift the Cup Winners’ Cup with UEFA deciding to bring an end to the competition as they expanded their Champions League and UEFA Cup tournaments the following season. Gianluca Vialli’s side beat VfB Stuttgart 1-0 in Stockholm thanks to substitute Gianfranco Zola’s goal just seconds after coming on to lift the cup for the second time. Memories of those successes amoung barren days can inspire even this expensively built Abramovich side for its still eluding European glory.