But he warns anyone who think that this season’s transfer ban at Stamford Bridge heralds a temporary return to those days to think again and expects Frank Lampard’s team to present the Albion with another stern test this weekend.
“First and foremost, I think there’s been an overreaction,” the former Republic of Ireland striker says. “You hear so much about Frank Lampard being forced to play the kids, but they still have a hell of a lot of good players that other clubs would love to have, especially at the younger end of the scale. So there’s a match of experience with talented young players. I think it is an exciting time for Frank to have taken over.”
Some have said that this season represents a ‘free hit’ for Lampard, who will not be judged in the boardroom by standards as exacting as those for previous coaches who were able to spend big bucks. Tony disagrees.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘free hit’ at Chelsea. They have proven that over the years. But he is getting a free hit from the fans, which doesn’t happen very often. Rumblings against a manager usually start from the fans but they are not going to be like that this season. And I think they want to see the youngsters play.
“Remember the class of ‘92 at Manchester United? I always question why Chelsea haven’t had a class of 2013, or 2014, or 2017. In seven out of eight years they have won the FA Youth Cup. Why hasn’t one of those groups come through to the first team? Chelsea fans feel like that too.
“They don’t want another big signing. They want to see some of their own talented youngsters and they will be prepared to give them a chance. Fans love to see a local boy come through or at least a player who has come through their club’s system. So I think the timing has been very fortunate, almost convenient. Frank will be given a lot of leeway, even if he has a difficult season. The difficulty for him will come after that.”
Not because the fans’ patience could wear off, but because the end of the transfer ban will present a challenge that Lampard has yet to face – spending large amounts of owner Roman Abramovich’s money. “Many people think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in line for the sack at Manchester United, but I think he has done well in one very important area. His signings have all improved the team – Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James.
“They have all worked, so if and when he asks for more money to spend in another transfer window, he has that to his credit. Frank’s biggest test will come next summer when Chelsea’s transfer ban ends and he goes and buys, and we see whether his transfers work or don’t work. That is such a huge thing in management now. If he spends £100 million and the signings don’t work, will they give you another £100 million? That will be his first big obstacle, along with deciding what he’s going to do with players like Pedro and Willian.”
There were no such issues for the Chelsea managers that Tony played for at what was then a somewhat run-down football ground at the far end of the Fulham Road. “I was at Chelsea from 1992 to 1994,” he says. “Ian Porterfield was the manager, then David Webb, followed by Glenn Hoddle. Glenn was really the catalyst for change because he demanded a lot more from Ken Bates, the owner.
“Porters was really always pressurised by Ken, who confronted him on a few issues in front of the players, When Glenn came I felt things changed. There was a different dynamic: what Glenn wanted, Glenn got - big transfers, big wages. Gullit and Vialli wanted the same sort of thing.
“I sometimes joke that I played for the last average Chelsea team. We had some good players like Andy Townsend, Dennis Wise, Steve Clarke, and a good number of others. But we weren’t a side that was going to achieve anything. We made the FA Cup final the second year I was there but lost, we finished mid-table, generally we weren’t going to threaten the rest of the Premier League at all in that period. A good, honest bunch but not much more – well behind the likes of Arsenal and probably Tottenham at that stage. Funnily enough they became a lot better very quickly after I left!”
A year after his departure for Marseilles, in came Ruud Gullit and Mark Hughes, while the club’s infrastructure was also overdue a facelift. Not only was Stamford Bridge a run-down stadium unchanged from the Albion’s last pre-Premier League visit in 1988, but the players also still trained at windswept Harlington, the coaches’ instructions all but drowned out by the roar of aircraft taking off at nearby Heathrow.
“Ken Bates called a few of us into his office and showed us a model of his vision for Stamford Bridge, which would make Chelsea the biggest club in London,” Tony recalls. “We looked at each other and thought ‘Yeah, all right Ken.’ But in many ways it has become the biggest club in London. Although Arsenal, Tottenham and maybe West Ham would argue the point, Chelsea’s league titles and their Champions League win put it in front of them.
“The difference between what they were and what they have become is chalk and cheese. You know that and I know that. When I first went there, the pitch was the worst in London. And attendances were poor. We played Southampton on a midweek evening and Ken walked into the dressing room afterwards and said: ‘There was ******* 6,800 in here tonight. In a first division game. And 700 of those were complimentary ******* tickets.” He was steaming. And look at it now.
“I’ve been to the new training ground at Cobham once. It was when Mourinho was manager the first time round and it was for an invitation game for ex-pros in the media. Abramovich was there and we met Jose and some of the squad at the time. The difference between Harlington and Cobham was probably the same as between the old Stamford Bridge and the new one. It’s another club.”
The same could be said of the Albion, and Tony was one of the first to sense that the club was on the way back up when his experiences in the world of poker brought the name of Tony Bloom to his attention.
“I knew of him because I played poker and Tony was a very well-known poker player. His family has always had an interest in the club. He is a very shrewd man and he makes very few mistakes. Yes, he sacked Chris Hughton [Tony’s teammate in the 1990 Ireland World Cup squad] at the end of last season, but I don’t judge him harshly for that because I remember that in 2016, after Brighton had just missed promotion, he gave him a new contract. This time he wanted to make a change.
“I think Tony Bloom has looked at VAR coming in and decided that attacking football is the way to go. You cannot be a conservative team any more. I’ve noticed that clubs are not looking to David Moyes, Sam Allardyce, even Jose Mourinho, to set up to stop the opposition and keep a clean sheet. They are finding it hard to get jobs. I don’t think you can park the bus with VAR involved. It is too risky, with the benefit potentially available to attack-minded teams.
“I think Tony Bloom has recognised that and that is why he went for Potter. And I think Brighton have looked good.”