Chelsea Football Club is greatly saddened to learn of the passing of Ian McNeill, our former assistant manager and one of the most significant figures in the club’s revival in the early 1980s. He was 85.
McNeill was the right-hand man to John Neal, Chelsea manager from 1981 to 1985, and during those years they oversaw a rapid rise from near the bottom of the old Second Division to the upper reaches of the top flight, with McNeill’s eye for a player especially important.
As a scout, his record is among the most impressive in the club’s history. A string of previously little-known players who were recruited went on to become major names including Kerry Dixon, Steve Clarke, Pat Nevin, Gordon Durie and Joe McLaughlin. McNeill’s scouting network in his native Scotland was particularly fruitful and his knowledge of the English lower leagues important.
He had been a player both north and south of the border before turning to management at non-league level. It was McNeill who led Wigan Athletic into the Football League in 1978 after many years of knocking on the door by the Lancashire club. He linked up with Neal at Second Division Chelsea in 1981 but the team’s form was initially inconsistent at best, with an FA Cup giant-killing of European champions Liverpool a rare joy.
A watershed moment was reached in the summer of 1983. Relegation to the Third Division had been narrowly avoided and a major overhaul of the squad was imperative. Ken Bates had not long been chairman of a financially stricken club and limited funds were made available. Wise-spending was vital and in the space of that close season one of the most impressive recruitment drives ever took place with many of those signed originally spotted by McNeill.
The improvement in results was instant and a Second Division championship win was followed by a sixth-place finish in the top division and an appearance in the League Cup semi-finals.
McNeill was the man alongside Neal on match days and had plenty of responsibility on the training pitch too. He would on occasions write the manager’s page in the matchday programme and with Neal unfortunately failing in health, his importance along with coach John Hollins in running the team grew.
When Neal could continue in his job no longer, Hollins became manager with the Neal/McNeill partnership initially retained in an ‘upstairs’ role and the latter’s scouting continued to lead to new signings, but McNeill returned to team management in his own right at Shrewsbury Town in 1987.
He later became a full-time scout and when working for Leeds, unearthed Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink who at the time was playing in Portugal. He was back scouting for Chelsea last decade and after retiring, returned to live in Scotland.
We send our deepest condolences to Ian’s family and friends.