Whilst pondering what to write about Chelsea’s dismissive 2-0 win against West Brom at the weekend, extending their unbeaten run to a record 12 games in the process, I heard some very sad news which took me back to a very different time in Chelsea’s topsy turvy history.
The news that John Neal, Chelsea Manager from 1981-1985 had died put a dampener on an otherwise fun packed and celebratory weekend. The subsequent outpouring of grief on social media from Chelsea supporters of a certain age appropriately summed up the feelings we had for a Chelsea of our youth, and it can be argued that without John Neal as manager at that time we simply would not have the Chelsea (or the support) that we have today.
John Neal, a warm-hearted but tough character from the North East, arrived at Chelsea in the summer of 1981. Chelsea were in meltdown both on and off the pitch thanks to the laughable financial mismanagement following their early ‘70’s glory years, and the even more comical management on the pitch by Danny Blanchflower and Geoff Hurst. Neal took over a side with little appetite for the fight, that had finished 12th in Division Two and which had failed to find the net in 19 of their last 22 league games.
Things would get far far worse before they got better. Neal’s first year in charge saw some of the most infamous defeats in Chelsea’s history – the 6-0 league defeat at Rotherham; the 4-2 defeat to Wigan in the League cup and the 3-0 defeat to Burnley which put Chelsea in the relegation zone of Division 2 for the first (and only) time in their history.
But John Neal was a fighter and he slowly began to instil these qualities in to the Chelsea side he was shaping. The turning point came on 7th May 1983. Winless in nine matches, Chelsea were plummeting towards relegation to the Third Division and with it probable extinction. They faced fellow strugglers Bolton needing a win to stay up. The game was petering out to a 0-0 draw and relegation for Chelsea when Clive Walker received the ball just outside the penalty area and lashed a shot into the top corner to secure what was arguably one of the most important wins in Chelsea’s history.
Having avoided relegation to Division 3 Neal got rid of the dead wood at the club and with the help of new Chairman Ken Bates built a team that could take Chelsea back to where they belonged or as the terrace chant at the time aptly put: “Come along, come along, come along and sing this song, we’re the boys in blue in Division 2 but we won’t be here for long!”
And this is really where the respect and love that Chelsea supporters of my vintage have for John Neal and his mid-‘80’s team began. His shrewd dealing in the transfer market brought players such as Joey Jones; Mickey Thomas; Eddie Niedzwiecki; Nigel Spackman; David Speedie; Pat Nevin and Kerry Dixon to the club, players who are still loved and revered to this day.
The team had a great balance of hunger, desire, aggression and a fierce will to win. Added to this was the flair of Pat Nevin and the devastating strike partnership of Dixon and Speedie. They played some great football but most of all they played like a team that gave everything on the pitch, and as supporters that’s all you really want – 100% commitment.
Neal’s Chelsea romped to the Division 2 title in 1984 with Dixon scoring 34 goals and were followed by a huge travelling Chelsea support – often packing out most of the oppositions ground such was their fervour to support a team they now completely believed in. Arguably the most memorable match in the Neal era was the first match in Chelsea’s return to the top flight after an absence of five years on August 25th 1984 at Highbury against Arsenal. 20,000 Chelsea supporters were in Highbury that day, and Kerry Dixon scored what he claims was his favourite Chelsea goal in a creditable 1-1 draw.
Chelsea were back, and that really was John Neal’s great legacy. He rescued us from the depths of possible extinction; put us back together and put us in a position to challenge with the elite once again. Anyone who supported the club before Neal’s arrival and during that time had their passion for Chelsea signed, sealed and delivered. Neal achieved 6th place in Chelsea’s first two seasons back in Division One, and Chelsea would have been competing in Europe had it not been for the ban on English clubs at that time.
The bedrock of Chelsea’s hard-core support still come from that era – just look at how many season ticket holders at Stamford Bridge are in their late 40’s and early 50’s – and there is no doubt that an unbreakable bond was forged at that time between the team and the supporters. But the gratitude we have for John Neal should not be underestimated. You could argue that without John Neal we would not have had the Hoddle, Gullit and Vialli years; and without them there would be no Abramovich or Mourinho.
Those of us who enjoyed the sumptuous football on offer, particularly during the first half at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, would do well to remember that. They would also do well to remember that Chelsea playing attractive, winning football was not invented this season – there have been other seasons where we have had a wizard of a winger and a monster of a striker banging the goals in for fun way before the Abramovich era – and for a lot less money!
John Neal’s legacy at Chelsea was undoubtedly helping to forge the strong bond between the supporters and the Club – one that exists to this day – but more important, he made us believe again. He made us believe that we belonged with the elite and could challenge at the top once again. He also serves as a great reminder that beating all and sunder with alacrity is not a given. You have to work hard; give 100 % in commitment and treat the opposition and competitions with respect. It also serves as a timely reminder that Chelsea have not always had it so easy or so good – we don’t have a divine right to walk all over everyone and it is important to remember where we have come from!
I think Jose Mourinho would have liked John Neal. There seems weirdly to be a similarity in approach – mixing flair with aggression and an uncompromising will to win. On Saturday, Jose made two statements of great import. He pointed out that for all of the beautiful football and domination Chelsea have had so far this season, they have won nothing yet, and that it will count for nothing until they have the trophies to vindicate it. He also apologised to the supporters for criticising their lack of effort recently.
John Neal, a real gentleman and manager who never once criticised the Chelsea supporters (even though they called for his head early in his tenure) would no doubt have approved of that.
At the end of the season, if we win the Premier League, I hope John Neal looks down on us with a smile – after all he played a significant part in our history, and perhaps, just perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are now without what he did 30 years ago.
First published in International Business Times UK Sport