After the sad news that Roy Bentley has passed away, we look back on his time as Chelsea captain which included skippering us to our maiden championship in 1955...
‘Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind when you are the captain of a great club like Chelsea, but Roy never overstepped the mark, and when you were pulled up by him, you respected what he said and did your best to improve.’ Les Stubbs, fellow 1955 Championship winner
Roy Bentley took over from John Harris as club captain towards the end of the 1950/51 season, leading the team to victories in their final four league games that meant relegation from the First Division was staved off on goal average.
Four seasons later, we were champions. Bentley’s captaincy, allied with his prowess in front of goal, played a crucial role in our success. He will forever be remembered as the first man to captain Chelsea to a major honour.
Signed in January 1948 from Newcastle United for £11,000, Bentley’s career in west London actually got off to a slow start as he struggled with his fitness and physicality. Ahead of the following season, 1948/49, he converted from an inside-forward to a deep-lying centre forward, an unusual position in those days. It allowed him a degree of mobility which frequently saw him raiding down the flanks or taking up dangerous positions in the box. Soon the goals started to flow. Bentley would be our leading scorer for eight consecutive seasons before his departure to neighbours Fulham in September 1956.
The summer after Bentley had replaced John Harris as captain, in 1951, the pair went on strike. Bentley cited low wages, short-term contracts and a lack of ambition at the club as the principle factors for doing so. He had a transfer request refused. Harris joined him after a promise he was made to become assistant manager wasn’t clarified in writing.
As Bentley put it in his autobiography, ‘to lose one captain was unfortunate; to lose two was very careless.’
They did not play for eight weeks. A fire sale of players and poor performances in the league also suggested things were not right, and though none of Bentley’s demands were met the departure of long-time manager Billy Birrell in April 1952 seemed somewhat inevitable.
In came Ted Drake, but only after he had enjoyed five rounds of golf with captain Bentley and vice-captain Harris. It was a sign of the former Arsenal striker’s thoroughness. He wanted to guarantee Chelsea was the right team for him; those days on the golf course signalled the start of a special relationship between manager and captain, one that culminated with the league title in 1954/55.
That season Bentley played all but one of our 42 league games (when Harris stepped in as captain) and scored 21 goals. Most notable among that sizable tally was a brace in a crucial and dramatic 4-3 win at eventual runners-up Wolves, and a hat-trick against his former club Newcastle in another 4-3 victory. The title was sealed when Sheffield Wednesday were beaten 3-0 at Stamford Bridge. Bentley is pictured above shaking hands with Drake (centre middle) as the celebrations began.
‘My principle as captain was never to speak about my team behind their backs,’ explained Bentley, considering what role he had to play as Chelsea skipper.
‘If I had a criticism about anyone’s performance, I would always tell the player face to face before speaking to the manager about my gripes. That way I felt as though I was being fair to my team-mates.
‘There were also times that I had to tell players that they’d had a good game even when they’d had a bad one. I had to learn what made individuals tick and what motivated them to perform better. Ted Drake was a good mentor to me. He would often say that if I led by example, then it made captaining the side that much easier because the other players see how you’re playing and match your effort.’
In total, Bentley made 367 appearances for Chelsea and scored 150 goals. He won 12 England caps and became the first Chelsea player to feature at a World Cup, representing England in 1950. Later in his career he managed Reading and Swansea, and until shortly before his death at the age of 93 he was a regular at Stamford Bridge.
A version of this article was originally published in May 2015.