Chelsea Football Club is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our Life President Lord Attenborough, CBE at the age of 90.
He led a long and successful life and always found time for the things in life he loved most, one of which was Chelsea FC.
Renowned throughout the world for his work in cinema which honoured him with awards for acting, directing and producing, football - and Chelsea in particular - was never far from his thoughts.
His personality was woven into the tapestry of the club over seven decades. He was a consistent force for good at the club, even in dark times.
He was a club director during the glamorous, trophy-winning seasons of the early 1970s and a decade later helped keep the club at Stamford Bridge when our stadium came under serious threat from property development.
Born in Cambridge in 1923 and growing up in the Midlands before making Richmond in west London his long-time home, it was the acting profession that first brought the young Richard Attenborough to Chelsea FC.
In the late 1940s he had been selected for the role of young gangster Pinkie in the film Brighton Rock. Asked to improve his physical condition, he was given the choice of training with either the Chelsea players or with Fulham for a fortnight. To our everlasting good fortune he chose the Pensioners and soon became friends with Tommy Lawton, the most revered centre-forward in English football at the time, and others, and was given tickets to matches by them.
Lawton transferred to Notts County soon after but the bug had bitten Lord Attenborough and he remained a Chelsea supporter for the rest of his life.
Brighton Rock established him as a major star and many more successes followed. Few of his show business friends escaped an attempt at indoctrination at Stamford Bridge. He shared his love of the club not just with English stars such as Laurence Olivier and John Mills (pictured below right with Attenborough on a film set), but brought Hollywood’s greatest to the grandstands including John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. The Chelsea players were amazed when he introduced Steve McQueen into the dressing room at the height of his fame. The club’s indelible association with such glamour is, to a huge degree, his doing.
Richard was knighted in 1976 and in 1993 Prime Minister John Major made him Lord Attenborough – Lord A, as most people affectionately called him.
As plain Dickie he joined the Chelsea board in 1969 and stayed until 1982, those initial years marked by the lifting of our first FA Cup and our first European trophy, the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Work commitments, not least the making overseas of the Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning film Gandhi, made it difficult to serve as a director. Not long after standing down Lord Attenborough made perhaps his most important contribution to Chelsea history.
The club – and freehold for the lucrative land on which it played its football – had changed hands and in the fallout many shares fell into the clutches of property developers whose plans threatened the club’s very existence.
Crucially, Lord Attenborough’s shares did not, which eventually helped the club take back control of the freehold for the future. Chairman Ken Bates thanked him by appointing him Life Vice-President. Typically, Lord A later gently but firmly took advantage of the goodwill he had earned by securing design changes for disabled supporter areas when the stadium was redesigned. Throughout his connection with Chelsea he has remained a benign advocate for the club.
When the first Chelsea FC museum required a person to appear in a welcoming film he was the obvious and perfect candidate. He helped relaunch the current club badge in 2005, though personal tragedy had hit him hard when his daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy were killed in the 2004 tsunami in Asia.
In 2008 Lord A became Life President. On being handed a commemorative plate to mark the occasion, he said: 'I'll sweep the Oscars off the mantelpiece and put this plate right on top now. It means as much to me as any award or honour I have been given in the past.' He meant it – he adored Chelsea FC.
At club events he would share wistful memories, moist-eyed with passion, about favourite players and managers past and present, and he watched many of our recent successful seasons joyfully from the directors’ box at Stamford Bridge. The journey to his seat could take an age as he stopped to chat to well-wishers. He was often accompanied by his wife, fellow actor Sheila Sim or son Michael, until his health made it impossible.
As well as football and the world of stage and screen, Lord Attenborough devoted much of his time to charities and he continued to help improve facilities for disabled fans at Stamford Bridge.
Help A London Child, a charity he had launched, was the club’s official UK charity partner and to mark his 90th birthday in August last year, funds were collected at Stamford Bridge prior to the home game against Aston Villa for another charity he supported, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign.
Lord A was a thoroughly lovely and talented man who used his fame and influence for the good of the many causes close to his heart. We will always be grateful that our football club was one of them.
He will be greatly missed, and the thoughts of everyone at Chelsea FC are with his family and friends at this sad time.
- Chelsea TV's video tribute to Lord Attenborough can be viewed at the top of this article, subject to free registration.