Chelsea Book Club: Bobby Tambling's 'Goals In Life'

Chelsea Book Club is a new series where we take a Chelsea-related book and review some of the most interesting extracts. Next up is Bobby Tambling's 2016 autobiography, Goals In Life.

A good book can be a priceless asset in this period of spending so many hours indoors, while a good Chelsea book is even better to combat the lack of football action. Previously we’ve looked back at Juan Mata and Frank Lampard’s autobiographies and the latter is also involved in this week’s selected book.

‘Bobby is a gentleman of football and Chelsea Football Club. If you want an ambassador, someone who shows what this club means and who transcends the generations, he is the man.’

Those are the words of Lampard, who penned the foreword for Tambling’s 2016 autobiography after striking up a firm friendship with the man whose club-record goal tally he surpassed.

For almost half a century, Tambling stood alone as Chelsea’s most prolific marksman, netting 202 goals for the Blues from 370 appearances. The first of those strikes, naturally, holds a special place in his heart and the best part of one of the early chapters of his book is dedicated to it.

Having moved from his family home in Hayling Island, just off the south coast, to join one of the finest youth sectors in the land, Tambling flourished under the tutelage of Dickie Foss, who was coaching our youngsters, before Ted Drake handed him his maiden opportunity in the first team.

The first of many

‘Walking out in front of over 53,000 supporters was a moment I will never, ever forget,’ he recalled of his debut against West Ham United, which came in February 1959 when he was aged just 17. ‘This is what dreams are made of. They can come true.

‘I had barely had a kick by the time Vic Keeble gave the visitors the lead a few minutes later, but I never allowed my head to drop. Enthusiasm goes a long way in football and I knew if a chance came my way I was going to take it.

‘The ball came to me just outside the box and I took a touch, which allowed the defender to close me down, but I was still able to get the shot away in the nick of time. The ball squeezed into the net at the near post and time seemed to stand still as the crowd erupted.’

The Blues went on to win 3-2, with Tambling’s best mate and fellow debutant Barry Bridges also on the scoresheet. The two of them rushed out the following morning to buy a copy of every newspaper and when they returned home, their landlord called up for Bobby to take a phone call.

‘“Oh, hello there,” began the voice on the other end of the line. “I’m Desmond Hackett. I don’t know if you’ve heard of me, but I write for the Daily Express.”

‘I’d spent many a morning reading articles by Desmond. “Hello Desmond, lovely to hear from you.” We had a lovely chat for half an hour and I was giving him the most thorough answers I could come up with. I was absolutely delighted to be doing the interview. Then he broke it to me.

‘“Bobby Tambling, you really are a bloody idiot, aren’t you? This is Peter Sillett!” He burst out laughing. “It’s a good job it’s me and not the manager.”’

Sillett was one of the elder statesmen of the team and the player whose penalty against Wolves in 1955 had famously edged us within touching distance of our first-ever league title.

After his goalscoring start to life in the Chelsea first team, Tambling returned to the junior ranks and helped our Under-18s to Youth Cup glory for the first time.

It wasn’t until the departure of Jimmy Greaves in 1961 that he fully established himself, but he then became our goalscoring talisman and shone brightly as one of Tommy Docherty’s Diamonds.

However, that exciting young team, which seemed destined to lift the biggest prizes in English football, began to unravel after one fateful night in Blackpool…

The Blackpool incident

Having lifted the 1965 League Cup following a win over Leicester City in a two-legged final, with Tambling among the scorers, the Blues were in the mix for the Division One title.

We topped the table with three matches to play, but defeat to Liverpool meant we had to win at Burnley and Blackpool in the space of three days to stand any chance of securing the trophy.

The squad travelled to the North-West early in preparation, but eight players broke curfew on a night out and were sent home to be greeted by the paparazzi at Euston Station. Or, as Tambling put it, ‘eight players being treated like naughty school kids, hung out to dry’.

‘If the reason for the early departure had been given straight away, we all felt the incident would have easily been resolved,’ he wrote. ‘That never happened. The hotel was suddenly filled with reporters all looking a nice, juicy story.

‘In that short time, the trust, spirit and togetherness had been shattered. Both sides had been in the wrong over this one, in my opinion. Cool heads would have dealt with it better, but none were to be found.’

A 6-2 defeat to Burnley without the eight suspended players ended our title bid. Some of them returned for the subsequent game against Blackpool, but again the Blues were beaten. Things would never be the same for Doc’s Diamonds.

‘We wanted to win and play well as much for the fans as ourselves,’ added Tambling. ‘But we also wanted to win as a team, as a group of friends. You couldn’t have separated us as team-mates and that bond remained intact, but something changed in Blackpool and irreparable damage had been done to the relationship between Docherty and some of his players.

‘I think he has since said he acted a little hastily. We were known as Docherty’s Diamonds and if we had won it, his name would have been immortalised in English football.’

Tambling spent five more years at Chelsea and while he set the club’s record goals tally at that time – first passing Roy Bentley’s 150 in 1966 and eventually finishing on 202 – and also netted in the 1967 FA Cup final, the League Cup was the only silverware of his career.

Simply the Best

After a spell at Crystal Palace, Tambling headed for Ireland to see out his playing days. It proved to be the best move of his life, as he met his wife Val, who he dedicates the book to and describes as his rock.

While playing for Cork Celtic he took part in the only European Cup matches of his career, scoring once, and played with and against some of the continent’s greats at that time – including the finest Northern Irish footballer of all time.

‘I’d heard a few rumours George Best might be available if the price was right,’ wrote Tambling of the, at the time, semi-retired wing wizard who was yet to celebrate his 30th birthday.

An agreement was reached for Best to play in the club’s home matches for a fee of £1,000 per game, a huge amount at that time. As player-coach, Tambling made sure he was well looked after ahead of his first game.

‘I arranged for him to stay in a hotel near where I lived in the hope he would get a nice, quiet night,’ he added. ‘He had a lady friend with him, whom he said was his secretary, and I naively asked if he wanted us to book him two rooms. I must have been the greenest tree in the forest.

‘I rang him about 7 o’clock on the evening before the game just to check if everything was okay and he asked if I would like to come down for a chat and a coffee. I took my eldest son Gary with me and we had a very enjoyable evening. Gary couldn’t believe what a normal fella he was.

‘The next day, the crowd rolled in waiting to see a player they never thought they would see live. The crowd jumped from about 1,500 to 15,000 – that’s what you call a real crowd-puller. I still get people coming up to me today saying, “I remember when Besty came over here in the Seventies.”’

After hanging up his boots, Tambling has continued to live in Ireland and after battling a life-threatening illness for three years he remains a regular fixture at the Bridge as part of our matchday hospitality hosting team.

Goals In Life was published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media in 2016.

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