Three of the men who played under John Neal at Stamford Bridge have shared their memories of the former Chelsea manager following his passing earlier this week.
Joey Jones, Mickey Thomas and Eddie Niedzwiecki all enjoyed close relationships with Neal having started their careers at Wrexham under his guidance.
The trio went on to link up with Neal once again in west London, forming part of the side which won the Second Division title in 1983/84 and finished sixth in the top flight the following season, one of the most fondly-remembered teams in the club's history.
Jones [pictured below] now works with the academy at Wrexham, a club Neal led to the European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finals during his career. The former Chelsea defender made 34 appearances in the season we lifted the Second Division title and he was full of praise for Neal, both as a man and manager.
‘If it wasn’t for John I wouldn’t have had a career in football,’ he tells the official Chelsea website.
‘He gave me and numerous other young lads – including Mickey Thomas – a chance at Wrexham. Some of us were quite a handful and a lot of other managers would have got rid of us, but he stuck with us and he was the man who gave us our big chance and looked after us. I owe him my football career.
‘I can’t speak highly enough of him and he’s one of the main reasons why Chelsea are back where they are at the moment in many ways. He took over at a difficult time and the club were struggling financially. We played the game at Bolton in 1983 which we had to win, when Clive Walker scored and we managed to stay in the Second Division. The following year he built a team and we went up as champions.
‘It was an era when the supporters really stuck by the team. They stuck by us when we were really struggling so it was nice to have a little bit of success for them once we’d gone back up. I’m so glad for the supporters who were there during those times to see Chelsea doing so well now, and I put it down to John.
‘In recent times even though he lived right near the ground he didn’t really come and watch many Wrexham games, he was a very quiet man and didn’t like to be in people’s faces. He had a lot of dignity; he’d go to the games sometimes if he was invited but he was quite shy, he didn’t like the limelight.
‘He was a great, great man. I was lucky enough to play for Bob Paisley at Liverpool and I’d put him up there with Bob for the way he managed players, they were very similar.’
Thomas [pictured below far right with Neal as he was presented with the Second Division championship trophy], like Jones, spent a significant part of his career working under the tutelage of Neal, and feels his respectful nature brought the best out of the players.
‘He knew his football inside out and was very well respected within the game,’ says our former winger. ‘When he took over at Chelsea it was a very bad time for the club and the team he assembled will never be forgotten by the fans. John gave them a side to be proud of and if you talk to anybody who watched them regularly during that period they have great memories.
‘It was a great team to play in; we played with no fear and were so dynamic in the final third. Kerry Dixon was a prolific goalscorer and he formed a brilliant partnership with David Speedie. We had the magic of Pat Nevin on the right and it was a very powerful attacking formation.
‘We also had players such as Eddie Niedzwiecki, John Bumstead – who made over 400 appearances for the club - and Nigel Spackman. It really was a wonderful team but unfortunately when John fell ill it broke up, which was majorly disappointing.
‘He treated everybody with respect and knew every individual inside out. People like myself and Speedie were quite aggressive and unpredictable, but John managed to get us working as part of a team. Everybody had a part to play. A jigsaw has to have all the right pieces, and John put those pieces together.
‘I owe John everything, not just as a footballer but as a person, he gave me a great life and I’ll never forget him.’
Neal brought Niedzwiecki [pictured below] to Stamford Bridge after signing him as a teenager at Wrexham, and the Welsh goalkeeper, who went on to make 175 appearances for the Blues and win the club's Player of the Year award, praised his former manager’s ability to get players working together.
‘John came to my house in Conway, North Wales, to sign me as a schoolboy for Wrexham, and ever since that day he had complete and utter trust in me,’ Niedzwiecki says.
‘I followed him to Chelsea in 1983 and, like any player, when your manager shows faith in you it works both ways. I owe everything in my career to him because he was the one who signed me on the recommendation of a scout in North Wales.
‘He knew the game and he was very clever. John was a man of few words but when he spoke you listened. If you look at the players that arrived at Chelsea around the same time as me, and I’m not saying this because of myself, but he clearly had a very good eye for a player. He had a great ability to bring players together and get them working well as a team; he did it at Wrexham, he did it at Middlesbrough and obviously at Chelsea as well.
‘I think our team could have gone on to be very successful. There was a great camaraderie and spirit within the group. The talent in the team was second to none at the time; we were looking strong and it was all very positive, it was just a shame when injuries took their toll and certain players left.
‘John loved Pat Nevin and he’d always say to us that we had a much better chance of winning the game if we gave the ball to Pat as much as possible, and he wasn’t wrong.
‘He’s greatly missed and I have very fond memories of him, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have played for the clubs I did so I owe him everything.’