Pat Nevin: Why did it not work out at Chelsea for my hero?

In his series of columns reflecting on players whose contribution to the Blues is less celebrated than others, Pat Nevin this week turns to a compatriot whom he followed from an early age and ended up feeling unjust to have surpassed…


One of the most common questions I am asked has nothing to do with football at all. With a life-long love of music that has been more of a passion than a pastime, people often ask me who my favourite band is.

In fact they ask that more often than the other more obvious questions. Who was your favourite team you played for in your career? Chelsea obviously. Who do you really support now that you have retired? Chelsea and Hibernian. It used to be Celtic but I changed, it’s a long story. Who is your favourite player who doesn’t play for your own club? David Silva and Andres Iniesta.

The answer to the music question is often taken as me being deliberately obscure. Although my choice changes from day to day, none of the bands generally have chart hits but that is just my inclination. It is not musical snobbery, just an honest preference. Today the answer is The Go Betweens seeing as you were thinking of it, but it will be a different answer tomorrow.

A while back I was asked who my favourite Chelsea player was when I was growing up and the answer again could be taken as being deliberately obscure, but it wasn’t. It was just honest. When I was a kid living in Scotland I knew who the entire Chelsea team was. Everybody did, because they were that famous, that good and that stylish. Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke, David Webb, Alan Hudson and Peter Bonetti were all household names, but none was my favourite because they weren’t the team I followed at the time.

Back in Scotland my team had a player who went on to sign for Chelsea and I adored him. That man was David Hay and he fits perfectly into the list of players I have been looking at lately. Players that Chelsea fans may have unfairly but understandably overlooked over the years.

He was one of the best footballers I ever watched, particularly because he had the ability to play brilliantly in any position in the defence or midfield with absolutely no problem whatsoever. I watched him play alongside Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain at Celtic and there is no doubt in my mind that he was world class, just as those two were.

Every week I would go to see Celtic and nobody ever got by him but he was also ultra-classy when he was on the ball. That left foot was as cultured as any and like all the very best players he always seemed to have time on the ball and the vision to know what he was going to do with it.

He was also as hard as nails. When you got tackled by Davie Hay, you stayed tackled, usually in a crumpled heap on the ground. He wasn’t dirty in the slightest, but I never saw anyone come out of a 50-50 tackle with him not aching from some part of his body or indeed most of it. In short, apart from goalscoring he had everything you would want as a top international footballer.

So why isn’t he prominent in the pantheon of Chelsea greats? This is mostly because he signed at a difficult time in the club’s history and he was plagued by injuries. A broken leg and a serious eye injury put paid to the entire second half of his career which was a tragedy.

In the first half he won five titles with Celtic, became a mainstay in the Scotland team back when it was very good, as well as winning three other domestic trophies. At the 1974 World Cup he was chosen in centre midfield against Brazil and was one of the best players on the field. Everyone in the game trusted him to do just about any job. He played in the European Cup final when Celtic lost after extra-time to Feyenoord but in the following seasons when Ajax became one of the greatest teams in European history, the genius Celts manager Jock Stein had Hay marking a certain Johan Cruyff. David was the only player he trusted with the onerous job of stopping the best player on the planet at the time.

The football world had noticed by then that Hay was top quality and when the time came to move south, everyone was after his signature. Hay turned down Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester United to sign instead for the Blues. Like Kenny Dalglish going to Liverpool a few years later from Celtic, in Scotland we all knew that the English fans had no idea how good a player they were getting, these were club legends in the making. Dalglish did become a Liverpool legend, but Hay though not forgotten had nowhere near the same impact.

Was he simply not as good as Kenny? Lou Macari from that same Celtic team went to Manchester United and also had a huge impact, so was I really just seeing one of my favourites through rose-coloured glasses? Was David not as good as I remembered? Over the years I asked around those who played with him and they all agreed, Hay was right up there with the very best, world class and these were players of the time who were top class themselves.

I do not think I was biased in his favour. It was just the unfortunate circumstances I mentioned above that stopped Hay. Sometimes you just get unlucky and there is little you can do about it. I am convinced that with a few breaks and a fair wind, today we would be talking about David Hay the way we do about many of the legends who have their posters up on the back wall of the Shed End. He really was that good.

He went on to have a fine career as a manager and did that job with integrity as well as ability. In the end he only got 27 caps for his country, one less than me. Now that is an injustice that even I feel acutely. I wish there was more footage of him in a blue shirt. I didn’t get to see enough of him at the Bridge as I was still a kid in Scotland. Then again, I don’t think any Chelsea fan really got to see enough of him. He is another name partially lost in time within the club, but it is through no fault of his own.

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