The Leader Board

Derek Saunders, an ever-present in our first Championship-winning team, recently celebrated his 90th birthday, and here we look back at his career in our feature detailing the stories of those who have captained Chelsea over the years…

Derek Saunders

‘Being at Stamford Bridge was out of this world. The atmosphere among the players and supporters was fantastic.’

Derek Saunders may have been one of the unsung heroes of the team that delivered Chelsea’s first top-flight title, but his was a career as varied and interesting as anyone’s in the 1940s and 50s.

Born in 1928 in Ware, Hertfordshire, he took up football at a relatively late age having been persuaded to join a local youth centre, where he also learned how to box and dance.

His work repairing tractors and farm equipment was considered essential and so he avoided National Service in the post-war years. At weekends he captained local club Ware Town at the age of just 18, and his performances at left wing-half there attracted the attention of Millwall, for whom he made a couple of appearances before signing for Walthamstow Avenue.

 Saunders (l) playing snooker with cricketer Trevor Bailey in 1952

In his time there, Saunders represented England at amateur level and captained his country in a game against France. With the maximum wage very much in effect at that time, the standard of football in the amateur leagues was not incomparable to the professional ones, something that helped Saunders when he joined Chelsea in 1953.

The summer before that he had represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, and that same year he captained Walthamstow Avenue to glory in the Amateur Cup final in front of a capacity Wembley crowd.

Many coveted Saunders’ signature, and it was due to the persuasiveness of our new manager Ted Drake that he chose Stamford Bridge as his next destination. ‘It proved to be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,’ Saunders later commented.

In Drake’s newly-modelled team, Saunders provided tough but fair tackling, great awareness and also a fine range of passing, mostly from his left foot. Eric Parsons on the opposite flank was a regular beneficiary of his pinpoint 60-yard crossfield balls, while he tackled opponents with ‘fire to match his red hair’, as one reporter put it.

For three seasons he formed a great relationship playing in front of Stan Willemse, with the pair presenting a solid and fearsome barrier down our left.

Saunders didn’t actually sign as a professional at Chelsea straight away, but Drake persuaded him to pack his job in after a few months, and he reaped the rewards, declaring that his game came on leaps and bounds as he ‘…stopped charging up and down the pitch trying to take everyone on and covering for everyone else, and concentrated on my own position.’

 Saunders (back row, second right) pictured in the 1955 championship-winning team

He made his Chelsea debut against Sheffield United in September 1953, and by the end of that campaign he had established himself as a regular in the side. Then came the club’s jubilee year and it was our best yet, in no small part due to Saunders’ consistency and quality and the management of Drake.

‘We all admired him and if he believed, then so did we,’ Saunders said. It was that belief that helped carry us to our maiden championship in a closely-contested competition.

Saunders was one of two ever-presents that season and his defensive play and constructive ideas were crucial factors in the success. He also contributed a vital goal in one of the most important victories of the campaign, a come-from-behind 4-2 win at West Brom. His long-ranger kickstarted a memorable turnaround, from 2-0 down with 25 minutes remaining, that moved us to third in the table, three points behind Wolves, and with a couple of months of the campaign remaining.

Wolves wobbled in the run-in, whereas we embarked on a 10-game unbeaten run which took us past the West Midlands side and also helped keep Portsmouth at arm’s length. Saunders and his team-mates were champions of England with a game to spare, and he received a £42 bonus, £1 for every game he had played in.

 Saunders (fifth from the right) pictured with some of his former Chelsea teammates in 2005 at the Royal Hospital, 50 years on from the 1954/55 triumph

Aside from the title victory, Saunders’ personal highlight in a Chelsea shirt was a fine individual goal he scored at Bolton, having started the move off by dispossessing the great Nat Lofthouse. One of his other nine goals for us was a spectacular 35-yarder at White Hart Lane. 

The team rather lost its way after winning the league, and Saunders was appointed club captain in 1957 to act as a wise tutor to the steady influx of youngsters – ‘Drake’s Ducklings’ - that were coming through at the club.  

After two years in that role, still as a regular, injury ended Saunders’ playing career in May 1959 at the age of 31. He had made 223 appearances for the club, over 200 of which were in the First Division. He joined our coaching staff after retiring, and was later the chief football coach at Westminster School, but it is for his contribution to one of our greatest teams that he is best remembered.

Happy Birthday Derek.