Bobby Tambling made a goalscoring debut for the Blues against West Ham United, our opponents at the London Stadium later this weekend, and here he looks back on his time as a Chelsea player.
Tambling, who until 2013 was the club’s all-time highest scorer before being surpassed by Frank Lampard, remembers that debut against the Hammers and a famous FA Cup win at Liverpool, as well as speaking about his affection for the Chelsea supporters.
Tell us about how you came to sign for Chelsea?
Being a Hampshire man, I was right next to Portsmouth and everybody thought I was going to sign for them. I was playing for England schoolboys but there was no interest from Portsmouth at all. One or two other clubs from further afield came in. Wolves, who were one of the main clubs at the time and had just won the championship, were the first ones to come on the phone. I spoke to them, they said they were very interested, but that interest only lasted until the next game because I had a stinker. The game after that, they said it was a mistake and they did actually want me, but by that time Chelsea had shown interest in me.
Jimmy Thompson was the chief scout at the time and what a brilliant guy he was. You can see how much he meant to the club just by the players be signed, the likes of Peter Brabrook, Jimmy Greaves and a host of the 1960s side. He gave the club a tremendous advantage and he was a great character, you couldn’t help but like him. He was the one who took me to the club and when you walked through those big blue gates for the first time you knew you were joining one of the better clubs and I’ve never lost that thrill. That’s how I came to be a blue boy.
What were your immediate impressions of the club?
There was a fantastic atmosphere at the club and it had everything you could only ever dream about as a young boy. In those days we were commonly known as the lower part of the staff, the ground boys. We had to work between training sessions and we’d have to sweep down the stadium after a big game and look after the gear in the dressing room.
What it meant was that we never lost sense of where we were at that time. We knew our place and we knew we had to work hard to improve. We also got to know the senior players and that was good fun. We used to have a laugh and a joke with them and it made you feel part of it. It didn’t matter what you were, you were part of Chelsea Football Club.
What about Stamford Bridge itself?
As juniors we played a few floodlit matches there and that made you realise what a stadium it was. Barry Bridges and myself made our debuts together. The week before I’d played at Hendon for the juniors, in front of about 12 people, and the following Saturday I was playing in front of 45,000 against West Ham at Stamford Bridge.
It was what you dreamt about as a youngster, playing for a big club in front of a big crowd. The fans have been fantastic right through time. They always made me feel at home and they still do now. That gives you a tremendous feeling.
What do you remember about the backing the team received from the fans, both home and away? Any particular games stand out in terms of atmosphere?
At home the fans were always right behind you, there was a tremendous roar when you came out onto the pitch. It didn’t matter how you were doing, they would always pick you up and give you a lift. People always like to thank you for what you did for the club, but I like to return the thanks to the fans because without the supporters, especially in those days, football probably wouldn’t have existed. It was the fans who kept clubs in existence and kept us in a dream job. Now when you meet fans you just want to spend time with them because they gave us such a great life.
They were fantastic to play for. We went abroad and there would be 19- and 20-year-olds there. If the players had relations that weren’t coming out to the game, we would give the tickets out to those fans who had given up their time to come to watch us.
A game that I can really remember for atmosphere was when we played Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup at Anfield in 1966. They were the cup holders and we won 2-1 after going behind. The fans that day were absolutely fantastic. When you play at Liverpool you have to be making a fair bit of noise just to be heard, but they really lifted us. In those days you’d travel up and down on the train with the fans and they were never anything but fantastic. Sometimes I wonder if the fans realise how much they encourage the players because it really gives you a lift.
Of the managers you worked under here, who had the biggest influence on you, your game or your career?
Tommy Docherty because we’d only just gone down when he took over, he brought Dave Sexton in as coach and the pair of them made a bunch of raw youngsters into a half-decent side. They had a tremendous influence on our spirit and style of play. For me personally, they were the biggest influence, but it’s nice to see the influence of different managers nowadays, how the different types of personalities get the best out of their players. It’s good to see Chelsea bringing the best managers in and the success we’ve had under some of them has been unbelievable.
Tell us about some of the most memorable games you played in…
I have to be honest and say the first one, against West Ham, because that was the start of the road for me. To score in your very first game, when I was still really a kid, in a 3-2 win was unbelievable and the atmosphere in the dressing room afterwards was great.
The senior players kept asking me what I was going to do with my bonus, which was about £4, but that’s how the club was, it was fun, and I think that came across to the fans when they met us. We would have a beer with them after the game and they’d want to know how we felt and that type of thing.
We were so close to real success. To get to the 1967 FA Cup final was fantastic for all of us, the fans and supporters, but to be quite honest I’m afraid to say as a team we never really performed. There was a real feeling of disappointment. I was fortunate enough to get picked for England three times and if you ask any youngsters who are interested in football now what they want to do, they would say play for England, or play for the country they’re from, so to be able to do that was very enjoyable.
Were there any opposition teams or players you particularly disliked facing and, if so, why?
Yes, there were always bogey teams, but we loved playing at Highbury in the 1960s, we had a good record over there. Arsenal were always a big, physical side but we enjoyed playing there and got some good results.
Halfway through the 60s we were getting hammered at Manchester United but we managed to turn that around and even to this day we still get decent results there. The atmosphere at Old Trafford was always great. Their fans obviously lifted them but we always had great travelling support as well.
Any result you got at Liverpool, like we did in the cup that year, was always well-earned. What was disappointing when we knocked Liverpool out of the cup in 1966 was that we then beat Leeds in the fourth round, so we’d knocked out two of the best teams, we thought it would be our year but it wasn’t to be sadly.
How do you look back on your time at Chelsea overall? Is there anything you would change or do differently?
I thoroughly loved the part of my life which Chelsea occupied and I said in my book that it was a dream come true. Would I have done anything differently? I just wish we would have been able to win more trophies for the fans, and I wish I could have stayed a bit longer, but decisions are made at clubs and I was a little bit unfortunate with injuries at the time.
I moved on, and then moved to Ireland, where I am now, and I just didn’t want to be seen as one of those players who was just hanging around. Even though I on was on the outside, to the fans I was still one of them and that’s what you want in life, you want to feel a part of it.
What are your thoughts on the current team?
They’ve been brilliant so far. The manager has done really well to get them playing how he wants and the lads have started in red-hot form. That’s what the fans want to see.
You have to give a lot of credit to the club because when you think about the amount of trophies we’ve won over the last 15 years or so, it’s unbelievable. We hope this manager will help us win some more silverware.