1933 to 1939
On 29 March 1933 Chelsea announced that David Calderhead had retired ‘on a handsome pension after 25 years’ service’ and that Leslie Knighton of recent FA Cup-finalists Birmingham City was the new secretary-manager.
He had seen just about everything in football in his time in the Midlands and at Henry Norris’s Arsenal, and to him Chelsea were ‘London’s ‘mystery team’, with a score of outstanding players, and many internationals, yet they could not get together as a team. They were the most puzzling, yet one of the most attractive clubs that patrons ever had the agony of watching lose a game.
’It was his wife who convinced Knighton to accept the challenge (she liked the shops and theatre in the capital) but he never regretted the switch, despite the roller-coaster ride. ‘I was with them through six sensational years,’ he later wrote, ‘buying, selling, and looking after stars, some of whom, at first, were as temperamental as prima donnas. If my hair is grey to-day, there is a reason for it.’
Despite the record-breaking crowds and ‘moneybags’ reputation, Knighton found a club ‘in very low water’ financially. His natural ingenuity and internationalist outlook took him on forays around the British Isles, with many excellent recruits including Scotland international goalie Johnny Jackson and, from across the Irish Sea, including the brilliant striker Joe Bambrick and combative midfielder Billy Mitchell. He also recruited Chelsea’s first black player, the Skelmersdale-born half-Jamaican Fred Hanley who did not make a first team appearance.
Yet he inherited a sea of troubles in the dressing room and, for example, was unable to turn around the silky, sulky star striker Alec Jackson, whose name alone added thousands on the gate. The talented Irishman James Priestley dazzled for just one season.
Knighton also pioneered risqué medical approaches, including the ‘rejuvenating’ injection of ‘monkey glands’, popular in Hollywood, into his players. Nonetheless he found the riddle of the glamorous underachievers as hard to unravel as his predecessors, with finishes in mid-table or worse – maddening for supporters of such a team of talents. In spring 1939, in the shadow of war, Knighton resigned. He died in Bournemouth in 1959.