From the United States’ political tussles with Iran and Iraq to the personal ‘beef’ fought out between gangsters and rappers from the east and west sides of Los Angeles, there has always been a fierce rivalry between the east and the west in virtually any part of the world. And the same applies to the footballing landscape in London, England where West Ham United and Chelsea ply their sporting trade; with the former representing the east side of the capital and the latter on behalf of the west.
They are the two biggest clubs from their respective areas, but if you take a look at the current Barclays Premier League table then you will see that there is a substantial difference in stature between the two. Both their respective league positions will testify the difference between the two clubs on and off the pitch. Despite Chelsea’s recent problems, they are in small pickings compared to that of the Hammers as the gulf between them in terms of size, revenue and success on the pitch could not be much vaster in the top division at the time of writing.
But amazing as it may sound to some people, until 1994 there was not much to separate the two sides in terms of their past triumphs and their potential for future success. They had both achieved a very mild degree of affluence up to that point, but in the sixteen years since then, the Blues of the west have eclipsed anything that the Hammers of the east have achieved in their entire history. So let’s take a trip back to 1994.
It’s the end of the 1993-94 Premiership season and West Ham have just finished 13th whilst Chelsea have finished 14th. The Hammers are without a major trophy since 1980 whilst the Blues’ barren spell goes back even further; they are without a significant honour to their name since winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1971. Their respective honours stand up relatively equal to each other if you take into account the popular use of applying points to each significant piece of silverware a club has won; 10 points for winning a League Championship, 10 for a major European trophy excluding the European Cup/Champions League which is equal to 15 points, 6 for an FA Cup win, and 3 for a League Cup triumph. From this point of view West Ham are on 28 points whilst Chelsea are on 26.
Looking back at this time it seems hard to believe now, but it was not until Matthew Harding ploughed his millions into Chelsea in 1994 that they actually showed signs of improving. They reached the final of the FA Cup in 1994 and the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup in ’95, but even then they were still finishing in the bottom half of the table. And in the years before these mini-triumphs, they were the epitome of mediocrity – no major trophies won since 1971 and apart from a fifth place finish in 1990 they spent much of their time in the lower reaches of the top-flight – occupying five of their ten seasons in the 1980’s stuck in the old Second Division.
In 1982, whilst in the second tier of English football, Ken Bates bought the club for £1 thus inheriting and taking responsibility for the club’s debts of £1.5 million. This was not a club that were exactly ‘going places’, but a combination of level-headedness, in not getting ahead of themselves expecting quick-fire success, and a tightening of the purse strings meant that the club’s off-the-field matters were stabilised giving them the potential to gradually grow into the force that they are today.
It took a couple of years for Harding’s revolution to take shape. You could say the ball that is still rolling started in the summer of 1995 when, under Glenn Hoddle as manager, they acquired the services of former European footballer of the year Ruud Gullit; a winner of numerous domestic and continental honours for club and country and although they managed to finish in a meagre 11th place at the end of the 1995-96 season (one position behind West Ham which, incidentally, was the last time to date that the Hammers have finished above their west London rivals) the signing of Gullit was a sign of things to come.
Harding’s funds in helping import an influx of top continental players would be something that the Stamford Bridge faithful would become accustomed to. At the start of the 1996/1997 season, tempted by Harding’s millions and the presence of Mr. Gullit, now installed as player/manager with Hoddle appointed England national coach, they acquired the services of players such as Frank Lebeouf, Roberto Di Matteo, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli; the latter fresh from winning the Champions League with Juventus. Players of this quality would unlikely have gone to a side that had consistently finished in the bottom half of the table throughout their history, let alone the season just gone, without someone of Gullit’s stature in the game being at the club.
And it was in this campaign that Chelsea’s first real success came to fruition where, in the season that Harding tragically died in a helicopter crash on his way home from a League Cup tie at Bolton Wanderers, they beat Middlesboro to win the FA Cup whilst finishing the league campaign in a healthy sixth place. Chelsea, to date, have never finished a season outside the top-six since and this statistic will no doubt continue for a few more years yet and since that season they have won three League Cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup, four more FA Cups and of course, three league titles. West Ham meanwhile, are still without a major trophy since their FA Cup win over Arsenal in 1980.
Whereas Chelsea made use of the foundations that were laid down in the boardroom by Bates, Harding and their associates, West Ham have yet to find any. It is too early to say whether the David Gold/David Sullivan team can weave their magic wand upon the Upton Park trophy cabinet, turning its ever-occupying dust into silverware, but it could quite possibly be the start of ‘something’.
Ken Bates bought out the Blues, ridded them of their debts and gave them stability whilst Gold and Sullivan are attempting to do the same after the debacle that occurred under Eggert Magnusson’s Icelandic consortium which still leaves West Ham in a financial mud heap to climb from. There is undoubted potential for the Hammers being the only major club side from the east end, with a fan base that stretches out to the far reaches of Essex and if Chelsea can achieve all they have achieved then there is no reason why West Ham cannot do the same. The clubs were like two peas in a pod before the money came rolling in for the Blues with backing from men with a passion for the club’s well being.
The Irons have not found a man like Matthew Harding who lived and breathed Chelsea from when he was a boy and who, when given the chance, made the right investments which enabled the re-development of the infrastructure at Stamford Bridge with the building of a new stand, plus the all-important aspect of attaining the right players either by transfers or from their now much lauded youth academy. This was all Harding’s doing. The work he did for Chelsea was just as integral to their current success as the role played by Roman Abramovich has been. They were already an established top-six side when Abramovich took over in 2003 and much of that was down to Harding. The first brick laid in the construction of Chelsea’s title winning side in 2005 was planted by Matthew Harding in 1994.
Manchester City have a reasonably illustrious history but don’t forget that they were a League One side in 1999 and have often been propping up the top half of the table since they returned to the Premiership until, of course, the money rolled in giving a guile and confidence to the club. I know it’s now that matters and football didn’t end in 1994 but it’s an interesting case in point to look back and see how similar they were to each other until Chelsea were bankrolled properly unlike the shenanigans that seems to occur at West Ham each time a new owner takes over leading to the inevitable debts that engulf the club.
It’s not all doom and gloom for West Ham fans. Things can change. Chelsea were the same as West Ham are now so the latter just need to find a foundation on which to build success upon just as Matthew Harding did. Maybe the Hammers have finally found the right men in messrs Gold and Sullivan but only time will tell and that will only be confirmed when there is not a snigger to be heard when a West Ham fan says: ‘I think we will beat Chelsea.’