Chelsea Football Club is deeply saddened by the passing of John Neal, one of the most significant and loved managers in our history. He was 82 years old. The club sends our deepest condolences to John’s family and friends.
John will always be remembered at Chelsea for turning the team around from our very lowest point.
His eye for a player and deep understanding of the game produced one of the most fondly regarded Chelsea teams, a side that won the Second Division Championship in 1984 and quickly climbed into the upper reaches of the top flight, spearheaded by the exciting attacking talents of Kerry Dixon, David Speedie and Pat Nevin.
Neal’s appointment in 1981, as successor to Geoff Hurst, broke with a long tradition of giving the job to new or inexperienced managers, and it was easy to understand why the board of the day decided to give experience a try.
The club was still stricken with the deep financial problems that had hampered us for the greater part of the 1970s and had been in the Second Division for two seasons.
Forty-nine-year-old Neal had managed Wrexham to promotions and in Europe and Middlesbrough from his native north-east in the top division.
Initially life remained tough at Chelsea, the team as inconsistent as it had long been, although at our best we knocked reigning European champions Liverpool out of the FA Cup in February 1982, a packed Stamford Bridge reminiscent of better times and Neal showing tactical know-how by asking young Colin Pates to man-mark Graeme Souness (a player he had managed at Boro), thereby disrupting the Reds’ swagger.
The 1981/82 season ended with Chelsea 12th but before it was out, Ken Bates became the new owner, ending the Mears dynasty dating back to our birth and suggesting a better future financially. However the 1982/83 season was one of unrelenting misery as the club dropped towards relegation into Division Three.
There were understandable calls from the terraces for yet another change in manager, but with one senior player telling Bates privately that Neal was a gem compared with others who had been in charge and urging the chairman to keep faith, the decision was taken to radically overhaul the playing squad instead.
Before then however, the club had to stay in the Second Division and stay alive, which was achieved thanks to Clive Walker’s famous goal in the rain at Bolton followed by a home draw in the final game. It was the last time in the changing room at Stamford Bridge for many, and the recruitment drive that replaced them has to be one of the most remarkable by any football club.
Money was available, but not in huge quantity, which is where Neal’s eye for a player, and that of his long-time assistant Ian McNeill proved so valuable.
They had already signed little known Speedie and former Liverpool defender Joey Jones, who had played for Neal at Wrexham, to provide steel and passion, and in the summer of 1983 they added a young Third Division striker called Kerry Dixon, Eddie Niedzwiecki, a goalkeeper who would become a Chelsea Player of the Year, Joe McLaughlin and Pat Nevin from the Scottish leagues for very small fees, and asked John Hollins to return to Chelsea in a player/coach role.
Bates later told the tale of taking Neal to scout specific transfer targets and mid-game asking what he reckoned, only to be told by his manager that instead it was a midfielder for opposition club Bournemouth who caught his eye. The player’s name was Nigel Spackman.
But there was far more to Neal’s bow than spotting good signings. A softly-spoken man, far from the sergeant-major type, he was a fine man-manager.
He realised the best use of the mercurial Nevin was simply to let the young winger do as he thought best and instructed the rest of the team to give him the ball as much as possible.
When there was initially serious friction between Speedie and Dixon, Neal brought them together and turned them into one of the most effective strike partnerships Stamford Bridge has seen.
Neal had two seasons earlier made Paul Canoville the first black player to appear in the Chelsea team and when they both suffered abuse because of it, he stayed strong and a source of support for the young man.
Neal’s new-look Chelsea got off to a flyer, winning their first game 5-0 and rarely looking back. When there were signs of a mid-season dip, the manager was again shrewd in bringing in the energetic Mickey Thomas as a boost. The new signing did not taste defeat en-route to Chelsea winning our first Division Two championship in what had been a tough league with Manchester City, a Kevin Keegan-inspired Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday our main challengers.
The thrilling attacking play Neal’s side served up for a delighted, reinvigorated Chelsea support that followed them in large numbers was in contrast to Howard Wilkinson’s physical side from Yorkshire. We beat Wednesday to the title on the final day and it was a rivalry that would continue into the top flight.
All was not perfect in the run-in to promotion however. Neal was struggling with his health and would need heart surgery.
Chelsea, back in the big time, showed we belonged with a memorable draw at Highbury on the opening day of the 1984/85 season.
That campaign produced highlights to match the previous year – another win over Liverpool, beating eventual champions Everton 4-3 at Goodison and a dramatic three-part League Cup quarter-final against Sheffield Wednesday. In the first of two replays, Chelsea were 3-0 down at half-time at Hillsborough. Neal told his players to listen to the non-stop singing from the Chelsea fans present. That was sufficient for a near-unbelievable fight back and ultimately success in the tie.
Only defeat on the final day of the season on a ridiculously waterlogged pitch denied European qualification for the first time in a generation, although subsequent events meant no English clubs competed in continental competitions the next season anyway. All Chelsea supporters were immensely proud of their team’s sixth place in their first season back.
Unfortunately, Neal’s health had continued to be an unpublicised difficulty behind the scenes so in the close season, in-demand coach Hollins took over as manager with Neal and McNeill moving into ‘upstairs’ roles.
To this day those years when the team that John built flourished remain among the very favourite Chelsea seasons for fans who lived through them. It is no exaggeration to suggest there might not be a Chelsea Football Club today had he not made such a success of dealing with crisis and getting the team back on its feet.
Club historian Rick Glanvill writes:
‘John Neal’s greatest gift was his reading of human nature. He shrewdly picked diverse players, some with demons to assuage, and moulded them into teams that were fluent, easy on the eye and dynamic in attack. A succession of novices had found turning round London’s cash-strapped former giant beyond them before Neal arrived in 1981. After a dismal two seasons, his proper old football nous would produce two years of unforgettable drama and togetherness in the middle of a troubled decade and a half. Had his reign not been cruelly curtailed by illness, genuine silverware looked highly possible.’