1939 - 1952
The 42-year-old tweeds-wearing, pipe-smoking Scot, Billy Birrell, arrived at Stamford Bridge from QPR on 19 April 1939 with ‘a reputation as one of the shrewdest and most capable managers in the game’ (Press Association).
A native of Anstruther, Fife, and former player and manager at Raith Rovers, he took over one of the most attractive offices in the game but as the club’s first manager exclusively (Harold Palmer, son of former assistant secretary Bert, stepped up from the assistant role to club secretary).
Birrell was a no-nonsense kind of fellow. He summarily removed the three incumbent trainers, including loyal former players Jack Whitley and Jack Harrow and prepared a new vision for the club, eschewing the big transfers of the past. His Big Idea was the Chelsea Juniors scheme, but he would have to wait to implement it as football battened down the hatches for war a few months after his arrival.
Even in the reduced, regionalised version of the game up to 1946 he showed remarkable resourcefulness. He led the Pensioners to two consecutive Football League South Cup finals in 1944 and 1945, beating Millwall 2-0 in the latter in front of 90,000 spectators, including the future Queen Elizabeth. More bizarrely, he defused an incendiary bomb that fell on terraces by himself. In peacetime his modernistic youth scheme, dubbed Tudor Rose, began in 1948 – though the fruits would benefit managers further down the line. Pragmatically, Birrell reverted to Chelsea type, splashing out on big name strikers to draw the crowds: Tommy Lawton, Len Goulding and Tommy Walker, then a genuinely enduring signing: Roy Bentley.
Still the Pensioners could not produce a sum greater than their parts and relegation from the top flight was avoided only on goal average in 1951. This was a difficult year for Birrell on and off the field, a damaging dispute with popular players Roy Bentley and Johnny Harris and a fire sale of other players puzzling supporters. The league performance was dreadful and soon after the Pensioners were turfed out of the FA Cup by Arsenal on 9 April 1952 it was announced the Scot was leaving ‘by mutual agreement’, after 13 years in charge. Birrell had ‘more than once expressed a desire to leave the game,’ was chairman Joe Mears’s valedictory, adding that he was held in ‘great affection.’
The departed manager said he would be ‘glad of a rest from football’ – he became secretary of the Hartsbourne Country Club in Hertfordshire a year later. Birrell died on 29 November 1968 aged 71.