History

Birrell’s Babes – a history of the founding of Chelsea Juniors – part two

In part one of this series, club historian Rick Glanvill investigated the genesis of Chelsea’s first youth development programme 80 years ago and an early success in the emergence of Ron Greenwood who would much later become England manager. Today the story continues with tales of Tudor Rose, Bobby Smith and more about then Chelsea boss Willie Birrell…

With his appointment in May 1939, Willie Birrell (pictured top from that year) became Chelsea’s first ever general manager, dropping the secretary title of previous incumbents, but demanding personal control of all football matters – a condition of his accepting the offer.

A St Andrew’s-educated former inside-right, the 42-year-old Scot was regarded as ‘a sound choice for one of the most attractive offers in the game.’ A key plank of his new strategy was developing young talent from within to avoid inflated transfer fees.

‘Time was when Chelsea spent enormous sums on ready-made stars, and the published amounts of transfer fees involved brought people flocking to Stamford Bridge,’ noted the Daily Herald. ‘But he [Birrell] prefers to think of Chelsea five years hence, and is rushing nothing.’

Birrell launched a Juniors team in 1940, but war delayed its full implementation until 1947, when the board rubber-stamped a big new operation named Tudor Rose. Until now the origins of that name remained obscure. New research means we can reveal that Tudor Rose was actually the name of a boys’ club established in the Queen’s Park Meeting Hall at 576 Harrow Road, in 1946.

Nowadays, its Grade II-listed, double-height hall is the home to the All Stars Boxing Gym, and Frank Bruno is among the topliners who trained there. In 1947, though, the Tudor Rose Boys’ Club was publicly appealing for funding.

Read: Future Blues – a history of the founding of Chelsea Juniors
 

Perhaps local contacts from his QPR days tipped Birrell off about them, but the club soon found its benefactor in Chelsea FC, who sponsored their football teams to compete in the Harrow Youth League in 1947/48. There was far more to the relationship, though.

Three nights a week Stamford Bridge was opened up to any youngster, with free coaching from Chelsea players. Those showing exceptional aptitude were taken on by the club and also installed as a member of Tudor Rose. Tudor Rose ran four under-18 teams in the Harrow and Wembley League, and the top two – A and B – trained at Stamford Bridge. Trials were also held at Paddington Rec.

There were thousands of triallists (including my own father) but just 32 boys aged 15 to 17½ were taken onto the first full Chelsea Juniors Scheme, which implemented Birrell’s uniquely holistic approach. ‘If [players] have nothing but football on their minds and a perpetual vision of the same old ground,’ the Scot liked to say, ‘Saturday becomes their work day instead of their play day.’

His aim was therefore to ‘round off and brighten the lives of the lads instead of concentrating solely on football,’ so the scheme would involve academic lessons as well as expert coaching and gymnasium workouts, thought-provoking ideas as well as boot-cleaning and other chores, all under the watchful eye of senior players such as Len Goulden, Dickie Foss and Albert Tennant. Imagine how starry eyed to today’s teenagers would be with that privilege.

Beginning in the 1947/48 season, Birrell recruited an English master and a maths teacher from the London County Council to provide boys with lessons on two of the three evenings they were required to attend each week.

After a training session they showered and were each given a massage. There was strong discipline: anyone arriving late once was sent home; a second time led to dismissal from the course. Football technique was also studied in all its forms. When journalist John Grayson chatted with the Chelsea Juniors he was surprised how knowledgeable they were. ‘I mentioned numerous continental players and was surprised – but for all that heartened – to find that most of these Chelsea players of tomorrow had heard of them.’

The Juniors’ first toe in the water finished 13-0 at home to British Oxygens Seconds, followed by 19-1 against South Ruislip, and later in the season Belmont Central were thrashed 17-0. Birrell’s new Juniors lost only one match in their first season and won the Junior Cup, and he felt entirely vindicated. A year later, in summer 1949, he arranged the first ever overseas tour by a professional English club’s Juniors side.

The hosts were KB Copenhagen, whose chairman, former Chelsea star Nils Middelboe, organised the international tournament. The Junior Blues were unbeaten against KB and other Scandinavian clubs, but the boys’ chief joy appeared to be the fact that, unlike in England, there was no post-war food rationing in Denmark.

By then the new Scheme also looked to have produced its first big breakthrough star: Bobby Smith. The powerfully built 5ft 10in striker joined Tudor Rose in February 1948 from Redcar Boys’ Club. So potent were the young Yorkshireman’s talents that he was handed his senior debut on 4 September 1950 aged 17 in a 1-0 defeat at Bolton’s Burnden Park. Smith went on to score 16 times in 60 starts under Birrell, but, sadly, he proved an all too rare example of a Junior establishing himself at the top level as the scheme’s chief architect had envisaged.

At the same time, Birrell’s failure in the main part of his job took its toll. Finishing 20th in 1950/51 and 19th the following season was considered unacceptable and he was removed from this role in 1952. The new man at the helm, Ted Drake, would reap the rewards of his predecessor’s foresight. Although Smith, the Juniors’ first big success story, was eased out and left to become a star at Tottenham, his manager would oversee the introduction of a remarkable succession of brilliant youngsters promoted from within, including the remarkable Jimmy Greaves, who would be known as Drake’s Ducklings.

At the same time the FA would respond to clubs’ interest in their fledglings by introducing a brand new prestige competition in which the Blues would excel: the FA Youth Cup. Those stories will be told in our third and final part of the Chelsea Juniors story tomorrow.
 

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