CHAPTER 3 - Sowing the seeds of success
‘The moment to remember, the one that had been awaited by many for 50 years, came at last as the minute hand on the clock showed five minutes to five. At that precise point news came from Cardiff that Portsmouth had failed. Chelsea were champions. And the so, 50,000 that had spent most of the afternoon giving advice freely – sometimes cynically, often wittily – to their heroes, stood to cheer as history was made. Well, how have Chelsea done it? Mostly by team spirit, fitness, and direct play, unlike the old dreamy Chelsea in the days of the Pensioners.’
- The Sunday Times (24 April 1955)
Saturday 23 April 1955 was the climax to five decades of hope and expectation postponed. Finally Chelsea, again the best supported club in the land, had the league title to crown such status. Eric ‘Rabbit’ Parsons had knocked two past Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge and a Peter Sillett penalty made it 3-0, with the crowd flowing onto the field from all directions. The wait was finally over and the music hall jokes were flung back at the Londoners’ detractors.
‘From the tear-dimmed supporters worn with the years of waiting for this moment to the youngest Chelsea follower came the call for the players and the man behind the players,’ the Blues’ great chronicler Albert Sewell wrote of the moment.
With the pitch invisible beneath the jubilant mass, a microphone was hastily rigged up on the upper tier of the East Stand. Chair Joe Mears was first to thank those present for their unerring support, before handing over to an emotional Ted Drake, flanked by his team. ‘This is the happiest moment of my life,’ the manager said. ‘I congratulate all the boys and every one of my staff – office, training and playing. Right throughout they are one and all CHELSEA!’
The players, captained by top scorer Roy Bentley, were offered a championship-winning ‘bonus’ of £20 or a tailored suit (many chose the latter) but the glory was inestimable, and they knew who was responsible for delivering it.
In June 1952, the former Arsenal and England striker had sat in his new office at Stamford Bridge and predicted it would take three years to turn lovable, underperforming Chelsea into champions of England. At the beginning of the 1954/55 campaign, like a certain ‘Special One’ half a century later, he had even predicted this was the season.
Drake lands at Stamford Bridge
When he arrived, fresh from steering Reading to runners-up in the third tier, it was said Drake ’approaches the game of management as he did the game of football – strong, virile, a little bluntly and above all, with soaring enthusiasm.’
The manager himself – bronze-skinned, with fashionably slicked-back, centre-parted hair – noted there was ‘not much difference in class throughout most of the First Division teams. The teams which win success are the teams which work hard at the game, and fight on and hold on when the little extra effort is needed. Only high club spirit produces this burst.
‘Let’s not kid ourselves. What I personally want here are results. That is the only yardstick by which any manager is judged, anywhere.’
He accepted he had ‘the backbone of a really useful side’ but they had narrowly avoided relegation twice (once by a minuscule amount on goal average).
Having assessed the catch he inherited, and especially liking Bentley and defender Johnny Harris, Drake cast his net wide for players with the right mentality as well as talent. He earned criticism for recruiting talent from Division Three, such as Brighton’s rugged defender Stan Willemse and inside-forward Johnny McNichol, and saw off half-a-dozen rivals to sign 18-year-old winger Frank Blunstone from Crewe – whose boardroom meeting Drake interrupted in person to deliver ‘an offer they couldn’t refuse’. He signed Peter Sillett in part because he had played with his father at Southampton, and always rated the defender among his most important acquisitions.
The new boss retained his predecessor’s experienced assistant manager Stewart Davidson (a former Scottish international but, ironically, now of pensionable age) as well as redoubtable personal secretary Esther, known to all since joining Chelsea in 1940 as Mrs Metcalfe. Other than that, everything had to change, including the club’s public image.
Drake started by urging more partisanship from the Stamford Bridge crowd, renowned as the most cosmopolitan and laid-back in football.
Drake wanted less of a soft touch and more hostility towards visitors from supporters who ‘lived and breathed’ Chelsea. Still in the first few months of his tenure rugged defender Stan Willemse was booed by his own fans for going in too hard on a Wolves winger who had returned to the field with a bandage.
He must have winced at every joke: ‘Football fan to convalescing friend: “Seen Chelsea lately?” Friend: “No – they didn’t come to see me when I was bad”.’ And he must have hated the annual newspaper photo of the Chelsea-supporting Chalk Farm cafe owner putting up his plaque offering free meals when Chelsea won the cup, or another airing for Norman Long’s 1930s comical ditty ‘On The Day That Chelsea Went And Won The Cup’, describing a host of other, equally implausible events unfolding. The laughter had to stop.
‘Remember the proud old pensioner with the little round peaked cap, who used to sit placidly in the middle of the Chelsea programme cover?,’ wrote the Daily Mirror in August 1952. ‘Muffle the drums for the proud old soldier. For the last time, he has fought the battle of Stamford Bridge. He has lost his place in the line.
The club has a long and colourful association with the Chelsea Pensioners
‘Filling the gap, temporarily, will be the club’s blazer emblem, the shield bearing the silver, entwined letters “CFC” on a bright blue ground. In time, the club will have a brand new coat of arms to take the place of the shield.’
Drake had summarily decided to put Percy out to pasture. ‘I don’t suppose we will ever lose the tag “Pensioners”,’ he admitted, ‘but we don’t like its implications and we want to lose it. The old gag “Yes, and they play like Pensioners” wears a bit thin.’ From then on, frustrating comedians everywhere, Chelsea would be known as The Blues.
Still, crowed the critics, leopards would change spots quicker than ‘dear old Chelsea’ could become winners. Yet the truth is the roots of Drake’s success in 1955 really lay in huge upheaval and renewal at the club two decades earlier.
Youth will have its day
In 1935/36, a succession of sudden deaths of key figures at Stamford Bridge had rocked the club. Secretary since 1907, Bert Palmer, founding directors JT Mears and Claude Kirby (the club’s only chair), and another board mainstay, Charles Pratt senior (briefly successor to Kirby) all died within five months of each other. The club was also £12,000 in debt.
Over the next few years that immensely experienced and well-connected board was succeeded by new brooms determined to sweep the Pensioners out of their blissful slumber.
The next-gen decision-makers were Joe Mears, his brother Leslie, Claude Kirby’s protégé, Jack Budd, a 6ft 8in-tall water polo Olympian, antique dealer ‘Bill’ Pratt, and Henry ‘Jack’ Boyer, haulier, entertainment promoter and proprietor of the nearby Granville Theatre, who was also the Mears’s cousin. All were in their thirties.
The only elder member of the directorship, Colonel Charles Crisp, who made his vast Sussex estate at Lewes available for summer parties where the players let their hair down, would be followed as chair in 1940 by Joe Mears, who became a towering figure at Chelsea and the wider world of football.
David Calderhead’s successor as secretary-manager in 1933, Leslie Knighton, seemed a good conductor for the coming revolution. He looked far afield for talent, and was particularly successful across the Irish Sea with centre-forward Joe Bambrick a hit alongside the more classic novelty signing of ‘Ten-goal’ Joe Payne.
Knighton also recruited Chelsea’s first ever black player, teenage forward Fred Hanley, in 1938 proclaiming ‘Some clubs have a colour-bar. But Chelsea have always been broad-minded. Provided the talent is there, so long as the player can be expected to behave reasonably, Chelsea will stand against any form of bias.’
The Pensioners’ eighth-place finish in 1935/36 matched the second-best in the Londoners’ history, and the aggressive, attacking football attracted a remarkable new Football League record attendance of 82,905 for the 1-1 draw with Arsenal on September that season. By the time Knighton left, the coffers had been enriched by £30,000.
Still London’s ‘mystery team’ proved unfathomable. ‘One day they would play like men inspired, and the strongest opposition would go crashing down before them,’ Knighton later wrote. ‘The next day they would perform like a village side, with missed passes, wild kicks, perhaps scoring through their own goal.’
As his replacement in 1939, the board turned to a University-educated Scottish former inside-forward, Willie Birrell, and the revolution really began. Birrell’s big idea was a scheme that would end the roundabout of transfer fees: Chelsea Juniors. He designed it as a holistic football education, producing thinkers as well as players, but World War Two scuppered these far-sighted plans.
Although a pioneering Chelsea Juniors team featuring future England manager Ron Greenwood played a friendly against QPR in 1940, the project began in earnest in 1947. Birrell had to deal with disrupted, regionalised football until war was over, and took the Pensioners to successive Football League South Cup finals at Wembley in front of huge crowds (Chelsea remain holders after a 2-0 victory over Millwall in 1945).
It is the link forged with a Harrow Road youth club, Tudor Rose, however, that is his remarkable legacy to the club. Senior Chelsea players worked with aspiring youngsters at the Bridge three nights a week, and the best of were signed up to be coached in Tudor Rose teams at the Welsh Harp sports ground in Hendon. The first talent to make it into the first team from this source was Yorkshire striker Bobby Smith, who made his bow on 4 September 1950 aged 17 and would figure four times in the 1954/55 title-winning side, for whom another Junior, winger Peter Brabrook, also played. By the late 1950s this production line would become unstoppable.
Around the same time, in keeping with the focus on youth, six years before the Pensioner’s passing, the cartoon strip fronting the first postwar Chelsea matchday programme of August 1946 introduced a young pal for Percy, ‘Billy Blue’. ‘Billy Blue is the symbol of all good sportsmen and loyal soccer fans,’ ‘Percy’ said by way of introduction. ‘He represents that great army – the spectators. He represents YOU!’ The aim was to bring everyone together to achieve the longed-for success.
Even though Birrell could not make the senior players gel – his teams never finished higher than 13th, despite signing brilliant players such as Tommy Lawton for fees he had pledged to consign to history – Chelsea was the ‘in’ place to watch football again.
Although the official attendance on the day did not break the club record, in November 1945 around 100,000 turned up to watch a friendly match against the Russian side Dynamo Moscow. After the deprivation and sacrifice of the war years the nation was desperate to be entertained, and in the glamorous footballers of our wartime Soviet allies, they found what they were looking for.
A total of 74,496 people paid to get in, some of them paying touts up to £5, the average weekly wage at the time, for a 10s (50p) ticket. The remainder of the crowd found their way in through gaps in the ground perimeter and inevitably thousands burst over the barriers and moved across the greyhound track.
The momentous day Dynamo Moscow came to town...
Director Jack Boyer’s Granville Theatre advertised in Chelsea match programmes, and his showbiz connections led The Stage eagerly to report the latest constellation of Variety stars spotted in his company in the East Stand, often eight a time.
In August 1948, it reported, ‘[Singer] Bud Flanagan took [famous US songwriter] Hoagy Carmichael to see his first football match at Chelsea on Saturday, when the home team beat Middlesbrough. Jack Boyer, the Chelsea director, enjoyed explaining the rudiments of the game to Mr Carmichael.’
By then, young actor Richard Attenborough had been allowed to train with Birrell’s squad in preparation for his role as ‘Pinky’ in the gangster film ‘Brighton Rock’, and dragged his Thespian pals along to games over the ensuing decades. After the death of Labour MP A V Alexander in 1965, the famous filmmaker succeeded him as vice-president of Chelsea Football Club, and became a director four years later.
‘I think I took Frank Sinatra once [to the Bridge],’ he later recalled. ‘I certainly took Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Johnny Mills, Kenny More, Jack Hawkins, Ava Gardner – she was a great pal of my wife. I think I took “Duke” [John Wayne] one time. On one occasion, though, Steve McQueen wanted to meet the players. At that time Steve was a god. So all you’ve got to do is say is, “Steve McQueen would like to meet the players”.’
The video below, made in 2014, tells the story of Lord Attenborough's long association with the club...
Lord Attenborough at Chelsea
For Birrell, relegation near misses in 1950 and 1951 prompted retirement when his contract expired. Even with Drake at the helm, the Chelsea ship took some turning, finishing 19th before rising to eighth in 1953/54.
Champions at last!
By the following season Drake was told he had finally built a team capable of winning a cup. No, he replied: the championship.
Like any athletics race, the final 10 yards are the hardest, and it took the arrival of a no-nonsense achiever with a dogged determination to jolt the players out of accepting it was okay to be in the trailing pack. The Blues – no Pensioners, these – were as relentless as he demanded, collecting 24 points from the last 32 available to seal the title.
Roy Bentley and Frank Blunstone recall winning the league in 1955
Those celebrations on the pitch in April 1955 were the culmination of 20 years of preparation rather than planning, as is often the case in football, but the club was not able to build on that success.
Birrell’s legacy, the Chelsea Juniors scheme, continued to deliver a succession of splendid talent, including the peerless Jimmy Greaves. They were dubbed ‘Drake’s Ducklings’ and their namesake was given a 10-year contract in November 1957. He would see out half of it; football tactics had changed and that was not his strong suit. By September 1962 relegation threatened and the Drake era was abruptly brought to a close. Like politics, even the greatest football careers always end in failure.
There is one final footnote to this period of regeneration and forward-thinking. Infuriatingly, despite club secretary John Battersby’s enthusiastic presence helping set up the inaugural 1955/56 European Cup (now Champions League), the Blues’ board were strong-armed into rejecting the invitation by the Football League over spurious ‘fixture congestion’ concerns. How differently our history might have turned out had they taken that great leap into the future.