A different ball game: Len Casey’s Chelsea memories

Len Casey, believed to be our second-oldest living player, recently turned 90. In this long read, he looks back with fondness at his Chelsea career, which began in the 1950s with the promise of a new suit. He recalls some of the many moments that made his time at Stamford Bridge so special, even if he did miss out on celebrating a famous triumph…

Len Casey will never forget the moment he arrived at Stamford Bridge to sign for Chelsea in February 1954.

'Oh, it was wonderland, wasn’t it?' he recalls. 'They had little offices when you went in, with ivy all over the walls.'

Casey turned 90 in May and is believed to be our second-oldest living former player, a full six months younger than the oldest, Jimmy Smith, who became a nonagenarian in December.

Speaking on the phone from his home in Essex, Len still has vivid memories of a four-and-a-half-year spell with the Blues in which he made 37 first-team appearances. Foremost among his recollections is the moment when he was invited to discuss his first professional contract with the club after shining in the previous season’s FA Amateur Cup final with Leyton.

'Does the name Jimmy Thompson mean anything to you?' he asks, taking up the story of how he came to sign for Chelsea. 'Well, he was a scout everywhere. He found Jimmy Greaves and all sorts. He was a strange, sort of bookmaker-type person, with a bowler hat and everything! Anyway, he was a right…uh, I don’t know how to describe him! He’d pick up anybody. 

'Well, my dad said Jimmy had been around asking if I’d be alright to go down to Chelsea and have a chat with them. I’d never supported Chelsea, but I thought, ‘Blimey!’

'So I wandered down there, and there was Ted Drake. He had an assistant as well, and a lady who did most of the work. Mrs Metcalfe was her name, and she was like a sort of welfare officer.'

Drake and Mrs Metcalfe were joined by the club secretary John Battersby, who had prepared a contract for Casey, and he didn’t think twice before signing it.

'I snatched their arm off!' he laughs. 'One of the key things was they said, ‘We’ll give you a new suit,’ because I came out of national service with a demob suit! They said, ‘We’ll smarten you up a bit!’ So I signed for a wage and a new suit.'

Len doesn’t recall the exact details of that first deal, but he still has a copy of the last contract he signed with Chelsea, in 1958, which states that his wage was £16 per week from August to May, and £14 per week during the close season.

'I’d have signed for nothing,' he admits, before pausing for thought. 'I wish I’d had an agent!'

It wouldn’t have made much difference if he had. At that time, there was a £20 maximum wage in place for footballers, and Casey explains that one of his Chelsea team-mates, Jim Lewis, chose to play for the club as an amateur because he could earn more by working as a flask salesman during the week than he could as a professional footballer.

Casey wasn’t bothered. He was in love with the game and Stamford Bridge held happy memories for him. As a 15-year-old he had travelled across the capital from his home in east London to watch Chelsea take on Dynamo Moscow, who were touring Britain in an act of sporting diplomacy following the Second World War.

He was one of many. The exact attendance for that game is unknown because the crowd overran the place – eager spectators spilled over the hoardings beside the pitch and even climbing onto the rooves of the stands to find a vantage point from which to see these mysterious Russian footballers in the flesh. It’s estimated there were 100,000 in the ground that day, about 20,000 more than the club’s official highest attendance.

'The crowd were right round the touchline,' Casey recalls. 'I was somewhere behind the goal, it was a bit too ambitious for me to try and get to the front. All we could see was glimpses of the game, when the ball game fairly close.'

It’s widely accepted now that – even though the game against Chelsea ended in a 2-2 draw – Dynamo were playing a brand of passing football that was far more advanced than the more physical British style at the time, but the young Casey was equally struck by their futuristic kit.

'Course, they had fancy shorts on for them days – they had ribbons round the bottom of the shorts! I just recall them being very skilful on the ball individually. I know this is jumping on ahead, but it was like when the Hungarians first came to England and showed us a new type of game, didn’t they?'

Casey is referring to Hungary’s 6-3 defeat of England at Wembley in 1953 – generally considered to be the moment when the British were forced to accept we were no longer top dogs in the football world. Eight years earlier, the Dynamo Moscow side had done something similar, and a wide-eyed Casey had craned his neck on the terracing in hope of getting a look at the future of football.

At that time, he and his mates used to play matches of 15-a-side in Dagenham’s Valence Park, using a size four ball because 'it was the only one we could get hold of!' In the end, they formed their own team, Heath United, and entered the London Minor Cup, where they drew Tudor Rose – the name Chelsea’s youth team played under in the post-war era due to a link-up with a boys’ club in Harrow Road.

'Of course, they turned up on a coach and we turned up as we were – you know, just meet up on the pitch!” he says, remembering the disparity between the setups of the park team and the top-flight youth side. “They beat us by the odd goal, but I had no aspirations of going into the professional game at all.'

As a boy, Casey followed Spurs because his dad was a regular at White Hart Lane. Len used to go over the barriers at the front of the terracing and sit near the touchline with the other youngsters, keeping a keen eye on his favourite players – Willie Hall, the fair-haired England international, and the courageous goalkeeper Ted Ditchburn. In those days, he insists, there was no antagonism between supporters of Tottenham and Chelsea.

'I can’t remember a rivalry at all,' he says. 'It was just another club. I know it seems impossible, but in those days you hardly separated the supporters of each club.'

So, when the chance came to join Chelsea and become a professional footballer, he didn’t think twice, although his dad clearly held out hope that he might sign for his team.

'My father said, ‘I thought you might go to Spurs.’ And I said, ‘I’ll go anywhere that want to sign me!’'

And so he ended up at Chelsea.

Now, you might think of player welfare as a fairly recent consideration for a football club, but Len has fond memories of the support that Drake’s assistant Mrs Metcalfe offered to him and his late wife as he adapted to his new life.

'She used to do everything for you. If you had to go to the dentist, she’d arrange that for you. All that sort of thing. A really lovely person, she was. She found a very nice house for me in Turnham Green, and when I got married she organised a present for us – I think I’ve still got it upstairs somewhere, a clock from Chelsea Football Club with a small inscription on it.'

Training in the 1950s was not the exact science it is today. In those days, the players rarely saw a football between matches – it was all about fitness. Meanwhile, the facilities left a fair amount to be desired.

'We had a training ground over at the Welsh Harp, near Hendon, and it had a terrible slope on it!' Casey says, his disbelief audible down the phone. 'There weren’t proper showers or anything – you’d just get on the coach to go back and have a shower at Chelsea!

'In pre-season, we’d get back from our holidays and we’d all have to go running over at Battersea Park. We’d all run over there, do the exercises, then run back! Then, during the season, it would just be round the track. You had to smuggle the ball out! In fact, I remember Ted saying once: ‘If you don’t see the ball during the week, you’ll be more hungry for it on Saturday.’

'They’ve got a ball each and everything now and they’re much more skilful, aren’t they? Tremendous difference. And ball control is much better, isn’t it? That’s practice.'

Casey rarely remembers Drake taking training himself.

'Nah, no – that was old Albert,' he says. 'Ted almost always had his suit on. He’d wander out once or twice and sort of see how things were going, but Albert Tennant did most of it.

'Harry Medhurst was there as well and the physio was Jack Oxberry. He used to do all the treatment, so if you got an injury or anything like that, he’d look after you, but one of things we used to laugh at is, he used to limp a bit himself anyway! If he had to get the old wet sponge, which was the thing, he would come limping on and treat you.'

Football was a much simpler sport then. Len remembers walking along Fulham Broadway alongside the fans, who would wish him well and ask for autographs as he made his way to the Bridge. Then, before they went out on the pitch to play, the manager kept his team-talks to the point.

'I don’t know if we ever talked about tactics very much,' Len says. “‘Get stuck in!’ Those were the words.'

Casey was in the reserves for the first two years after he arrived, and didn’t make his first-team debut until March 1956, over two years after he signed. When the big day finally arrived, we lost 3-0 to West Brom at the Hawthorns. Two and a half years later, he played his last game for Chelsea against the same opposition, at the same ground, and this time we lost 4-0. Talk about a bogey team!

By the time that long-awaited debut came around, Chelsea had won their first-ever league title, in 1954/55. You might expect such a seismic moment in the club’s history to have made a big impression on the young wing-half, but his only memories of the day we sealed the title with a win over Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge are of his absence from the scene of triumph.

'They arranged a fixture for us reserves to play at Colchester on the same day, so we never got to actually see them win it! It’s strange how it worked, because now they’re squads, whereas in those days it was a first and second team.'

The reserves didn’t even make their way back to west London to celebrate with the first team that evening. In fact, Casey doesn’t remember too many occasions when that Chelsea squad socialised together at all.

'We all dispersed when we finished playing,' he says. 'They were colleagues, but I had my other friends and that’s how it used to be. We used to travel up together from London, and meet on the train, but that was it. Afterwards, we were never a great social group away from the pitch, now you mention it. We never met as a group outside the game – we all had our circle of friends, I guess.'

Yet it clicked so well on the pitch for them that championship-winning season.

'They had some good players, though, didn’t they? Roy Bentley, Ken Armstrong, Ronnie Greenwood. When I first went there, I was in awe of some of the players there. I used to look at them and think, ‘Blimey!’

'Bentley was really the first of the non-battering ram centre-forwards, classy with the ball. Ken Armstrong was very much into the coaching side of it and he got me involved in that, and Ronnie Greenwood was a real thinker about the game. Sometimes, if you played in the reserves with him, he would organise the game himself – where people should play and so on. He went onto manage England, didn’t he?'

On more than one occasion, Casey admits that he never expected to make it as a top-flight footballer himself. 'Wholehearted' is the word he chooses to summarise his own game, before adding, 'not the most skilful.' A right-footed left-half, he says he would have been a ball-winning midfielder in the modern game, and he took pride in doing a job for the team.

'I would get it and give it,' he says. 'Dare I say, I’d give it to the good players! I’d say, ‘You get on with it now!’ That was mainly my role.'

Len played against some of the undisputed greats of the game during an era that is often considered the golden age of British football. There was Jackie Milburn, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews.

'I played against him at the Bridge. He used to dance past people. You’d think you were close…then he was GONE! They tried man-to-man marking with him and it was useless. He would not be in the game, then they’d get the ball to him and…blimey…he’d gone past you.'

In December 1957, Casey was part of the Chelsea team that beat Manchester United’s legendary ‘Busby Babes’ side 1-0 at Old Trafford. Ron Tindall scored the only goal of the game, but Casey remembers the game for the simple, poignant fact that it took place less than two months before the Munich air disaster in which 23 people were killed, including several members of that Manchester United squad. Among the dead was Duncan Edwards, one of the best players of his generation, who Casey admired above all other opponents he faced.

'What a player that man was!' he says of his fellow wing-half. 'He was a powerhouse…with a gentle touch as well. He wasn’t like me!

'All that Manchester United side were good, weren’t they?' he adds, before naming another who was lost in Munich. 'Oh, young Coleman. Eddie Coleman. Blimey, he was a good player as well!

'We played Preston about the week after [the disaster], and my daughter’s got a photo of us lining up before the game, in memory of them.'

Chelsea had a reputation for producing remarkably talented youngsters of their own in that period, and towards the end of his time here Casey was privileged enough to see a teenage Jimmy Greaves in full flow.

'Jimmy, he came from the same area as me – what a player! What a breath of fresh air he was. You could give him the ball anywhere and he’d make something of it.

'He was something above it. I remember him when we used to play “Home v Away” and it was just the firsts and reserves matching each other. You couldn’t catch him! He wasn’t particularly quick, but position-wise, you’d turn round and he was gone, round the goal area.

'A very modest sort of lad, though he did used to stand up for himself about working hard. Drake was serious about work rate and that sort of thing and he wanted to have a go at him one game. Jimmy said, ‘Where do you want me boss? Up the front, or left-back?!’ Drake couldn’t say a thing. He’d made his point.

'I played one game with him at Portsmouth at Christmas, and he was running rings around them.'

That particular game ended in a 7-4 win for Chelsea, on 25 December 1957, and Greaves scored four goals at the age of 17. It was the last year of an old festive football tradition that saw teams play a double-header – home and away – over Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

You can only imagine the toll it must have taken on the players, especially as they were allowed to go home to celebrate the holidays with their families on the evening between the two games. We ask Len how they used to manage it.

'Dunno, they always did it, didn’t they?' he answers, in his straightforward fashion. 'That was the norm. That’s how the fixtures used to be arranged. We beat Portsmouth that Christmas, then we met the next morning at Waterloo and got the train down there, and we got duffed up down there! They beat us 3-0, I think.'

It’s amazing what the body can withstand, we posit.

'Yes… mind you, I’m paying for it now!' he responds. 'I’ve had a new knee and I’ve had cartilage out of the other knee as well. Plus the odd pulled muscle and that sort of thing. In those days, the treatment was to sit on the trainer’s bench with one heat lamp on it, and he’d massage it a bit. Then you went outside and if you could run round the pitch, you were fit.'

Len says that being fit is the thing he misses most about being a footballer – “I was fit as a butcher’s dog when I was playing.” He kept it up in retirement too.

'I played golf up until two years ago,' he explains. 'I had a reasonable handicap as well, but it just got too much. I’d come home and my wife would say, ‘What do you do up there? You come back and all you want to do is sleep!’

'I’ve got a bike in the conservatory,' he adds, referring to the exercise bike he has been encouraged to use to keep active. 'I used to do quite a few minutes on there, depending on the pressure you put on it, but I’m having a job getting on and off the bloody thing now – excuse my French.'

Chelsea still keep in contact with him. He explains that he’s had a chat with club historian Rick Glanvill recently and that he receives regular calls from the Chelsea Foundation.

'Yes, there’s Sally and Nancy,' he says, 'They keep in touch. In fact, Nancy spoke to me just to ask how I was doing, what with all this Covid about. I had a nice chat with her. She asked me how old I was! And I said, ‘Old enough!’'

Casey moved to Plymouth Argyle in December 1958, and played for the Pilgrims for three years before hanging up his boots. Then he began a hugely successful second career as training officer for the General Electric Company.

'You might not believe this, but the skills are exactly the same for training people as for training footballers,' he says.

Len spent 30 years training staff for the GEC, and at the age of 62 he was awarded an MBE for his services. He tells the story of visiting Buckingham Palace to receive his honour from the Queen, and we ask him if this was the highlight of his professional life.

'Oh no, no!' he says, without hesitation. 'Football was.'

This article originally appeared in the matchday programme. To subscribe to the programme for the upcoming season, click here