Chelsea Football Club wasn’t the original plan when businessman and sports enthusiast Gus Mears acquired an old sports ground in west London that was home to the London Athletic Club.
At that time, professional football had not caught on in London in the same way it had over the previous decades in the midlands and north of England, where the dominant clubs were based. Until Woolwich Arsenal were promoted to the top flight in 1904, there had never even been a club from the capital in the First Division, let alone one that had been crowned champions.
Most of the earliest FA Cup winners in the 1870s had been from London or the neighbouring south east, but they were strictly amateur clubs in an era when professionalism was viewed dimly by the wealthy elite who initially developed the sport as public schoolboys.
Once the professional era took hold and the Football League was launched in the latter stages of the 19th century, the power shifted to Lancashire, the west midlands and north east.
But with hunger for professional football starting to develop in London with the emergence of a handful of teams – Tottenham won the FA Cup in 1901 and 1902 without even being a member of the Football League, for example – Mears spied an opportunity.
Stamford Bridge had been opened as a sports facility in 1877 and was primarily an athletics venue for more than 25 years. But when Mears and his brother, Joseph, acquired the site, the plan they had was to develop it into a top facility for professional football.
The ground was offered to nearby Fulham, who had been playing games at Craven Cottage since 1896. But the club refused the chance to lease the Stamford Bridge site from the Mears brothers over a disagreement about the finances involved and instead redeveloped the Cottage, hiring famed architect Archibald Leitch – he also worked on designing Stamford Bridge.
At one stage, the football vision of Gus Mears had looked like it was in danger of petering out and it is even thought that he considered selling the land at Stamford Bridge to the Great Western Railway Company and giving up altogether.
Legend has it that a business partner by the name of Frederick Parker still supported the venture and had tried without success to get Mears to reconsider. That was until Parker was bitten by Mears’ dog one day, an incident that Mears chose to view as proof that he could trust Parker’s judgement because he had ‘taken the bite so well’.
However, with no club to fill Stamford Bridge, Mears opted to create his own instead.
A meeting was held on 10 March 1905 at The Rising Sun pub opposite Stamford Bridge – that pub is still there today, although it now goes by The Butcher’s Hook instead, and is a significant part of Chelsea history. Mears and his fellow founders needed to come up with a name that day, with options like Stamford Bridge FC, Kensington FC and London FC among those discussed.
They settled for the name Chelsea FC in recognition of the area of London they were in.
Just 10 weeks later, at the end of May 1905, Chelsea were remarkably elected into the Football League without a ball having ever been kicked. They then took their place in the Second Division in the 1905/06 season and had made it into the top flight by 1907.
Gus Mears sadly passed away in 1912 at the age of 39 and is buried in the nearby Brompton Cemetery next to Stamford Bridge with his son, who was killed aged 18 during the First World War.
Chelsea still remained under the control of the Mears family for generations. Joseph was initially the dominant force at Stamford Bridge after his brother’s untimely death, with his son Joe and grandson Brian both later serving as Chelsea chairman.
With the club in debt, struggling and well past the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, it was the latter Mears who eventually sold the club to Ken Bates for just £1 in 1982, while current owner Roman Abramovich completed his takeover in 2003.