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Faith, Hopeless and the 1955 Charity Shield

Tim Rolls takes a lighthearted look at our showpiece performance

The Charity Shield was not played at Wembley until 1974. Only in the past few decades has it, and successor the Community Shield, been televised live. The game had a much lower profile until the 1980s. Pre-Wembley, Chelsea played in two Charity Shield games, in 1955 (as League Champions) and 1970 (as FA Cup winners).

The 1970 game against Everton attracted a 43,500 crowd and was a highly competitive 2-1 defeat against champions Everton. It would be fair to say that the 1955 game, against FA Cup winners Newcastle United, suffered a distinct lack of razzamatazz and hype, and seemed to carry very little prestige. Rather than taking place pre-season it was played on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-September. Champions Chelsea had played seven League games at that point, gaining just four points, and languished in 19th place. Worst, they had lost their previous home game 5-1 to Portsmouth in front of 48,300 disappointed spectators. This was a deeply inauspicious start by the champions, a precursor of the struggles to come over the next few years.

This being eighteen months before floodlights were installed at Stamford Bridge, the game had to kick off in the afternoon. What was very odd was that it kicked off at 3.30pm, strange when you consider that other games played that day kicked off at 4.00pm, 5.45pm, 5.50pm, and (in most cases) 6.00pm, times designed to attract at least elements of a post-school and post-work crowd. Chelsea held a lavish 480 guest Jubilee and League Championship celebration banquet at the Dorchester that evening, which I guess may well have dictated the kick-off time, thereby showing a magnificent disregard for ordinary supporters. Whatever the reason, only 12,802 faithful shift workers, half-day closing beneficiaries, school bunkers and sicknote merchants turned up to watch. Newcastle trained for the game in Brighton, which led to a well-publicised revolt by their players’ wives a couple of days before the game, fed up with their husband’s regular absences at training camps.

Chelsea put out a full-strength side whereas their fifteenth-place opponents made four changes. A ’greatly flattered’ Chelsea won the game 3-0 with an Alf McMichael own goal, Roy Bentley and Frank Blunstone all netting after half-time. Newcastle hit the woodwork four times so the result could have been very different.

A great game it was not. Reports ridiculed both the performances and the match itself, as a selection of press comments show. As the Hammersmith & Shepherds Bush Gazette headline pointed out ‘this was no soccer showpiece’.

This Daily Herald ’Comedians’ match report was typical. It plays up to the old routine about Chelsea being a music-hall joke. Other comments, from a wide range of publications, were even more scathing. 'A ridiculous game', '12,000 fans walked away holding their ribs’, 'sub-standard entertainment', 'lack of incentive', ‘few on either side showed any fire or enthusiasm’, ‘the inevitably lukewarm atmosphere affected the players’, ‘derisive comments shouted from the half-empty stands did little to help’, ‘a series of flukes, missed chances and elementary blunders', ‘a match distinguished only by the nonsense of its football’, ‘there were plenty of shrieks from the crowd, but they were either shrieks of merriment or disgust’, ‘one long yawn’ and possibly most damning of all 'why should charity suffer this?’. Ouch. And the press today is seen as unforgiving.

Despite the dreadful game this was actually one of Chelsea’s best results in a bitterly disappointing season where they finished sixteenth, just four points off relegation. Forty-five minutes of what highlights there were shown on BBC TV that evening, which must have sent those lucky enough to have a television set off to bed early in their thousands. I have not been able to find a photograph of skipper Bentley and his team with the trophy and no TV footage survives, perhaps luckily.

Though a trophy had been won, the game was quickly forgotten as Chelsea bumbled their way through the rest of the season, eventually finishing in 16th place. By April, home crowds had halved from the early season 40,000 plus and it was clear the side was in decline, a decline that was to continue as Ted Drake’s title winners aged and were not effectively replaced.

I guess the Community Shield means more now than the Charity Shield did then, though when Chelsea play in it I tend to forget about the game, and result, by the time the season starts the following week. The 1955 match programme is a real rarity, currently on sale on eBay for a remarkable £250, a remaining legacy of a strange, underwhelming, trophy win by Chelsea that attracted little attention at the time, apart from a glut of short but uncomplimentary match reports.

Tim Rolls has written three books on Chelsea in the 1960s and 1970s. All three, including the latest, ‘Sexton For God’, are available on eBay and Amazon.


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