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Official Review by Jeremy Inson, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Stamford Bridge is one of the most storied stadiums in London and the United Kingdom. While Chelsea FC’s recent success has added to the history of the venue, there were times in the 1970s and 1980s when few would have guessed that it would eventually be home to London’s first European champion club after Chelsea won the 2012 Champions League. The stadium itself was initially built in 1877, long before Chelsea FC came into existence. It was owned by the London Athletic Club, who used it almost exclusively for track and field meetings. In 1904, the deeds to the ground were bought by one Mr HA (Gus) Mears and his brother Mr JT Mears, who had the intention of using the 12.5 acres as a home for a football club. Initially, Stamford Bridge was offered to Fulham FC, but when they declined, Chelsea FC came into life and have been there ever since.
The famous Shed (south) End of the stadium — where most of Chelsea’s hardcore fans go — was built in the 1930s and remained until it was knocked down and turned into an all-seater stand in 1994. There was further redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s, and the East Stand that was built in 1973 stills survives as part of a thoroughly modern stadium. In the late 70s, there were grossly ambitious plans to turn the Bridge into a 50,000 all-seater arena, but the powers-that-be had bitten off more than they could chew, and their plans almost brought the club to its knees. In the 1980s, when both hooliganism was at its height and the "Chelsea Headhunters" firm was running amok at home and abroad, Stamford Bridge was almost adorned with electric wires at the top of the fences that penned in fans. An idea of their publicity-seeking chairman of the time, Ken Bates, it was quickly put down. The final stage of development came in the early 1990s when the Shed, West, and North stands, were pulled down and rebuilt to turn Stamford Bridge into a highly-luxurious stadium that features 5-star restaurants, hotels, and numerous entertainment facilities that is a world away from the Headhunter days when rival fans would try and get away as soon as possible, if they dared go down the Bridge at all; such was the probability of violence.
With the Champions League in the trophy cabinet and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s millions furnishing the team with world stars, the plan is to go bigger yet. Sadly, not at their one and only home, which is penned in by nearby houses and businesses and thus means that the search for a larger site that can comfortably hold 60,000 or more is well underway.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Not many stadiums around the world have a Michelin-starred restaurant, but that is exactly what Chelsea have. Marco, run by award winning British chef Marco Pierre White, doesn't serve the traditional food of a pie and pint, nor does it cost what you would pay for such fare. A three-course pre-match meal with half a bottle of wine and water comes in at £70 ($113). In fact, anyone going to Stamford Bridge certainly should not be heading home without a full belly with the wide range of drinking and eating establishments near the stadium.
In the ground, there is a good range of the traditional options of pies pasties, chips, soft drinks, beer, and wine. Pints of beer or (plastic) glasses of wine go for £4 ($6.50); soft drinks are about £2.50 ($4), and pies, hot dogs and burgers about £5 ($8). Chocolate and crisps come in about £2 ($3.50) as well. Still, the quality is good and just what's needed on a cold January afternoon. Post-match there is a sports-bar, Frankies, on-site, but don't expect much change back from £20 ($35) for a round of four drinks.
Outside the ground, Fulham Road has endless dining options: Italian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, steakhouse. You name it, it will probably be an option. The main pub around Fulham Broadway station is Brogans (turn right out of the station) which serves the usual range of beer, wine, spirits, and soft drinks as well as traditional pub grub such as fish and chips and bangers and mash (sausages, mash potatoes, and onion gravy). A walk of 15 minutes or so turning left out of the stadium and the station takes you to another part of Fulham Road which is replete with bars, pubs, and restaurants. Two pubs to look out for are the Fulham Tup and The Goat in Boots.
Most rival fans will tell you that Chelsea is populated by glory-hunting newcomers who have been seduced by Chelsea's run of success in the last 10-15 years. In fact, there remain a large proportion of the crowd who remember the bad old days of the late 1970s and 80s when the club nearly went bust. As such, they are more than ready to make their voices heard and maintain the spirit of the old Shed, which was once among the most revered terraces for producing an electric atmosphere in a British stadium.
Of course, the success of the club in recent years has meant that there has been a lot of high-profile matches in which the prize of a championship or place in a final has been on the line. That, in itself, has upped the tension and featured both the team and fans playing off one another. The Shed End and North Stand are still the heart of the atmosphere and they are decked out in banners, most notably to captain John Terry and star midfielder Frank Lampard.
Chelsea is one of London's and Europe's most salubrious areas, something that is reflected in their matchday program where a local estate agent runs adverts for £2million ($3.5million) apartments within walking distance of the stadium. That said, if you're passing through it is probably one of the most pleasant areas surrounding a sports stadium anywhere in the world. Fulham Road is certainly a charming retail and entertainment street, but walk a few blocks and you reach the Kings Road, which was at the heart of London in the swinging 60s and made famous by Michael Caine, among others. Prices in the various shops, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs are more for those whose earnings match a Premiership footballer, so for mere mortals, window shopping and people watching are the most affordable options in that particular part of town.
With success and the club's location to the centre of London, there are certainly a number of day-trippers to the stadium taking in a match during their visit to London on a match day. Nonetheless, there are still vocal hardcore fans trying to keep the atmosphere lively. The chants aren't the most original, with "Chelsea, Chelsea" and "Come on Chelsea" the most noticeable. Their PA system does blast out the club's anthem "Blue Is The Colour" from time to time to keep things bubbly.
In contrast to the past when a trip to the Bridge was considered one of the most likely to turn into violence, the majority of fans are friendly and happy to chat. Besides, such is the cost of watching a match (see below) that most fans are hell bent on extracting the most they can out of their 90 minutes.
Whatever you do, do not travel to Chelsea FC by car. The roads around the stadium quickly clog up, especially on a Saturday afternoon, and there is precious little parking available nearby; what there is doesn't come cheap. By far, the best bet is the Tube. The nearest station is Fulham Broadway and a quarter-mile walk (or long clearance) away from Stamford Bridge. The stop is on the district line, which runs north, south, east, and west and is about a 15 minute ride to the heart of London's West End. There are two buses that run past Stamford Bridge: the 211 and the 414 (check Transport for London for where and when they run). For those who fancy a James Bond-esque entrance for a midweek match, there is a water bus that runs along the Thames from central London and stops at Westminster Pier right next to the Houses of Parliament before heading west to Chelsea Pier; from there, it is a just over a mile. However, it only runs from Monday to Friday and stops at 6.20pm.
Tickets at Chelsea don't come cheap. For a category AA home match against the likes of Manchester United or Arsenal, the cheapest ticket is £50 ($81), but as that is part of the family stand, the purchaser will need at least one child with him or her with that ticket costing about £20 ($32.50). Prices drop for category A and B matches, though nothing below £40 ($65) for an adult. Interestingly, tickets for the Champions League group stages are the cheapest on offer at £35 ($57). Once you're into the knockout stages, though, prices go through the roof.
Of course, Chelsea's status as one of the Premier League and Europe's top sides means you are always likely to be entertained and see some goals; the stadium is comfortable, modern, and clean; and programs are reasonably priced at £3 ($4.80). Even so, there remains the slight feeling throughout your time at the Bridge that you are nothing more than a customer who the club will happily squeeze until they have got every last penny out of you. Meanwhile, everywhere you look you are reminded of the money the club has spent, from the Copthorne and Millennium Hotels to the price tags in the club shop and the cost of dining in the restaurant.
Like all clubs, Chelsea has its own Megastore on site, next to the main entrance, with a smaller version selling the most popular goods across the other side of the stadium. Once in, you are able to purchase pretty much anything with a Chelsea badge on it, from playing and training kit to DVDs, coffee mugs and baby's bibs. Fans can also go on a tour of the stadium and visit the club museum at a pretty fair cost of £18 ($30) for the two. The tour takes visitors pretty much all over the venue and once in the museum, queues quickly form for fans to have their photo taken with the Champions League trophy.
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