It was 80 years ago this month that the first proper match took place involving what would be called these days the Chelsea youth team. In a three-part series being today, club historian Rick Glanvill tell the story of the start of that project and its first two decades which culminated in back-to-back FA Youth Cups and a generation that would go on to serve our men’s first team brilliantly…
Today, we take it for granted that a Premier League club has an academy, nurturing promising individuals from as young as eight, and competing in prestigious competitions such as the FA Youth Cup, Under-18 Premier League and UEFA Youth League.
Chelsea’s dominance of those tournaments in recent seasons is testament to the great work done at the Academy base in Cobham, but the roots of this success stretch back eight decades, starting with the vision of a pipe-smoking, professorial Scottish manager, Willie Birrell, who is one of the club’s great unsung heroes, and continued under his successor, 1955 title-winner Ted Drake.
Told for the first time, this is the history of the founding of Chelsea’s groundbreaking youth scheme.
The concept of a dedicated nursery club of the type we know today was only just coming into vogue in May 1939, when Birrell made the switch from Queen’s Park Rangers to Stamford Bridge with the promise of shaking things up.
A keystone of his plan was investment in youth. At the time, teams had scouts to unearth the best youngsters, of course, but there were no real provisions within the professional game specifically for 16-to-18-year-olds to learn their trade.
A London Minor Cup (‘minor’ meaning under-18) had been around since 1905, but that was only for amateur clubs. Professional sides, though, blooded young talent in a variety of competitions, such as the Mid-Week League, aimed at shoppers, which took place on a Wednesday or Thursday depending on when ‘early closing’ was locally. Even then, teams comprised recuperating first-XI players and senior reserves as well as teenagers – a sort of third team.
Chelsea had won the Mid-Week League in 1938/39 under Leslie Knighton but one of Birrell’s first pronouncements after he took the helm in May, emphasising its importance in his philosophy, was that the Pensioners would no longer enter a team but would look instead to form a ‘nursery’ version of the club.
He would not divulge the exact nature of the youth scheme or any third party to be involved: ‘I haven’t had time to look around yet,’ Birrell relayed. What he did know was that he wanted a sea-change at the Bridge, placing a much bigger emphasis on youth. This was partly to avoid what he described as spiralling transfer fees, and partly because he wished to school a player in his philosophy while they were young and open to ideas. ‘View the game with the eye of student,’ one of his maxims went, ‘and not merely as one who has an hour-and-a-half to put in.’
The story handed down through the decades was that when war intervened a few months later, Birrell abruptly delayed his Juniors scheme for the duration, only picking things up again in 1947.
New research, though, suggests he actually soft-launched his big idea as early as 1940, and also sheds fresh light on Tudor Rose, the name of the youth system introduced in the late 1940s. As a result, one of the biggest names in late 20th century English football can now be claimed as the first former junior to make a senior Chelsea start.
We now know that the first proper Chelsea Juniors match took place 80 years ago this month on 25 May 1940, with Birrell’s old club QPR the opposition. That pioneering Chelsea line-up was: H Blackburne; H Holder, L Clatworthy; C H White, R Greenwood, A E Wharton; A Friend, A N Other, Arthur Smith, V D Winn, T H Young.
At least three of this first batch of youngsters went on to play for the first team during regional wartime football: Les Clatworthy, Bert Friend and, of course, future England manager Ron Greenwood.
Greenwood’s autobiography ‘Yours Sincerely’ offers a unique insight into the early days of ‘Birrell’s Babes’. Born in a Lancashire village in November 1921, the teenager arrived in north-west London with his family in the early 1930s and represented Alperton schools at football.
On 20 April 1940, his Alperton side faced Chelsea Boys’ Club in the semi-final of London Federation of Boys’ Clubs Cup. Greenwood had already had a trial with QPR and received an offer, but the word was out that Chelsea Football Club scouts would be at the semi-final and he delayed responding. Alperton lost a well-contested tussle 4-2, but clearly impressed those watching.
‘Remarkably, Chelsea invited nine of our side for a trial and again, despite a few nerves, I played well enough to catch their eye,’ Greenwood related. ‘It was Norman Smith, their trainer, who invited me to sign. “Yes, thank you, I’d be very happy to,” I said. It was all very brief and formal.’
The trial process was more slick than the Rs’, but there was more to Greenwood’s decision than that. ‘Chelsea’s traditions and style appealed to me,’ he wrote, ‘and I knew that because of the war they were forming an under-19 side, instead of the usual reserve-team mixture, to play in the London Combination. That was the start of the famous Chelsea youth scheme, and I was one of its first products.’
Greenwood remembered Birrell as ‘a university man’ and decent inside-forward in his day. ‘He was solidly built, always neatly dressed, and a quiet chap who thought before he spoke,’ Greenwood noted. ‘He had an easy, natural authority and most people respected him. He was an astute businessman, setting [Chelsea] squarely on its feet at a difficult time, but he also knew his football.
‘Birrell believed that a quick mind is as important as quick feet, and that football is as much about skill and improvisation as strength and pace. He always wanted players to use their natural gifts rather than attempt things outside their range. He encouraged them to be true to their own God-given ability. It was a philosophy I agreed with then; and I still do, fervently. First beliefs are often lasting ones.’
A few months later, Birrell’s faith in youth made real the cliché ‘if they’re good enough, they’re old enough’ by elevating teenage centre-half Greenwood to the first team at Christmas 1940.
‘I was at Fulham with Chelsea’s reserves,’ he recalled, ‘when the message reached me that the first team were a man short for their home game with Aldershot, and that I was wanted to fill the hole. I scampered out of Craven Cottage, jumped into a taxi and shortly after reaching Stamford Bridge I was stepping out onto the pitch. I remember feeling fairly nervous as I walked out and then becoming very nervous when I realised the quality of the opposition.’
Packed with stellar Army guests such as Joe Mercer and Stan Cullis, lowly Aldershot were a force during wartime. Experienced winger Dickie Spence calmed the debutant’s nerves, saying: “If you get into trouble, son, just find me on the right wing and I’Il take over.” Greenwood earned fine reviews, and the Pensioners won 6-0.
Fellow first team graduates from the first Juniors match in May 1940, Friend and Clatworthy, would both probably be far better known had they broken new ground during peacetime.
Clatworthy, a farm lad from Somerset, born in September 1922, soon found himself partnering George Hardwick, a brilliant guest player on secondment from Middlesbrough, at full-back. However, he was conscripted into the RAF and went on to leading formations of fighter-bombers, earning a Distinguished Flying Medal.
Friend was born on 21 April 1923 in Chelsea into a big family. A two-footed inside-right and lifelong Blues fan, he left school at 15 and was a trainee draughtsman aged 17 when he signed as a Junior amateur. He figured several times for the first team in regional competitions, including a 3-1 victory at home to Arsenal in April 1941.
His family were bombed out of three homes in west London by the Luftwaffe, though, so he decided to join the war effort. He chose the Royal Navy and was whisked away for training in Scotland, as one of many letters sent by Birrell attests.
The correspondence also gives an insight into the Chelsea manager’s continued determination to pursue his youth scheme, despite the obvious constraints. ‘The Junior side too has come into its own,’ Birrell wrote to Friend in November 1944. ‘Several bright youngsters are striving to win their spurs and although playing all their games away from home, they have earned 12 points in seven games and have yet to meet defeat.’
Unlike Greenwood, who helped Chelsea win our first league title in 1954/55, Clatworthy and Friend did not return to football after the war (although Friend’s son Barry did later play for Fulham alongside Bobby Moore).
However, the peace dividend for Birrell was being able to launch his Juniors Scheme in earnest at last. To do so, it now looks like he used his old Loftus Road connections once more.
Part two tomorrow looks further at Birrell’s young Chelsea sides.