1981 to 1985
Few custodians of the Chelsea hot seat have turned their popularity round to such as degree – at least, in a positive sense – as the avuncular north-easterner who arrived, barely heralded, from Wrexham in April 1981. The coffers for improving the squad were still empty, but unlike his four immediate predecessors he at least had experience on his side.
That cut no ice with disgruntled Chelsea fans when the Blues shipped six without reply at Rotherham, just the worst humiliation of several. Embarrassing Liverpool 2-0 in the FA Cup handed little respite and ‘Neal Must Go!’ banners and terrace protests greeted the final whistle of Rotherham’s 1-1 draw at the Bridge in March the following season.
The Blues lay 20th, looking likely to play third-tier football for the first time. Fortunately Clive Walker’s goal at Bolton helped to avert the threat and the quiet, unflappable Neal survived, thanks to Ken Bates. The chairman’s unstinting support eventually took financial form: the likes of Eddie Niedzwiecki, Pat Nevin, Nigel Spackman and Kerry Dixon would be key acquisitions for the team for years to come, as would David Speedie signed a year earlier.
Thus fortified, and playing the balance of fluid attack and solid defence Neal favoured, Chelsea surged back to the First Division in 1984 with a new team spirit, and Dixon-Speedie-Nevin soon took the top flight by storm too, playing an expressive but well-organised brand of football. He also nurtured the Blues’ first black debutant, Paul Canoville, through horrendous abuse. Chelsea enjoyed a thrilling League Cup run as far as the semi-finals and finished fifth in the league – Neal had created a booming club from laughing stock.
Just as the club looked finally set on an upward trajectory the manager, a heavy smoker, suffered serious heart problems and in summer 1985 John Hollins stepped up from a player-coaching role to lead the team. Neal continued for a time as general manager before having triple bypass heart surgery. He later returned to live in North Wales where he died in November 2014, aged 82.