In the concluding part of this series on the early years of Chelsea’s youth development system, club historian Rick Glanvill reports on its progress and success under Ted Drake, more known for capturing the club’s first league championship at first team level.
Parts one and two of this history of the founding of Chelsea Juniors told the story of the youth team formation 80 years ago and the Tudor Rose years after the war. Those were under manager Willie Birrell but for the next chapter, a new man is in charge…
Between his arrival at Stamford Bridge in June 1952 and departure 10 years later, the no-nonsense former England forward Ted Drake (pictured top right) oversaw significant changes to the nursery club he inherited and handed first team debuts to 18 of the first 19 graduates from it (the exception being Bobby Smith under Birrell).
Those freshmen included Peter Brabrook, who made a significant contribution towards the league title triumph of 1954/55, the most prolific goalscorer in our history in terms of games-per-goal ratio, Jimmy Greaves, and brilliant stars of the 1960s/’70s teams such as Peter Bonetti, Barry Bridges, Ken Shellito, Bobby Tambling and Terry Venables. On his watch, Chelsea Juniors also won the prestigious new FA Youth Cup for the first time in 1959/60 and 1960/61.
The 1953/54 season was the Juniors’ most successful yet, with five boys signing professional forms as a result, including John Sillett. They won the North Surrey League, South East Counties Cup and the London Minor Challenge Cup (previously claimed in 1949/50 and 1951/52 under Birrell’s regime).
In 1954/55 (and in seven of the ensuing eight seasons) the Juniors claimed the South East Counties League. They also won the inaugural Southern Junior Floodlit Cup 1955/56 and were beaten finalists a year later.
By 1958 the word was out that Chelsea’s academy was a football sensation to rival Matt Busby’s ‘Babes’. Ahead of the Division One trip to Everton in November, the Liverpool Echo hailed the gaggle of well-schooled newcomers who had broken into the first team, including Mel Scott, reckoned a potential successor to Billy Wright. ‘Three days after helping Chelsea Juniors beat Millwall 8-1,’ the paper noted, ‘Scott made his league debut aged 18. He arrived at Chelsea in 1955 and was at once hailed a “Drake’s Duckling”.’ Another former Junior involved in the game, Cliff Huxford, had been recommend to the scheme by a Chelsea supporter at an engineering works in Gloucestershire, and was recruited in the summer 1953.
Fulham-born Derek Gibbs (right-back or forward) was ‘another product of the Stamford Bridge club’s well-organised junior scheme,’ while Jimmy Greaves was already ‘the most talked-about player in the league,’ having scored 22 goals at the age of 17 the season before. ‘He certainly has all the necessary attributes of speed, elusiveness and power,’ the Echo said. Ron Tindall – ‘Another of Mr Drake’s “Ducklings”’ – signed pro forms when he was 17 in 1953 and was the club’s second highest scorer last season.’ The buzz around Chelsea’s youth was huge – even on Merseyside.
With the scheme working well, the club ended the symbiotic relationship with Tudor Rose that started in 1947, and began affiliating with the best-run youth clubs around the South-East. Whether connected to that change or not, the Tudor Rose Boys’ Club closed its doors on Harrow Road for good in 1957, and a little piece of Chelsea youth history had gone.
One keystone remained: since 1949 the Chelsea Juniors centre was located on playing fields adjoining Brent Reservoir, near Staples Corner in Hendon, known universally as the Welsh Harp, from which a pub there also took its name.
In some ways it was an inspirational setting, with the imposing twin towers of Wembley Stadium abstractedly reflected in its choppy waters and showing what might be around the corner if you played your cards right. It was, though, rather rough and ready, as the novelist Bryan Stanley Johnson, a Chelsea supporter and triallist, discovered in 1950.
‘I travelled on the top deck of a trolleybus all the long way up the straight length of the Edgware Road to the Welsh Harp at Hendon,’ he later recalled, ‘where I changed in the pub and then played badly and dispiritedly on Chelsea’s practice pitch at the back. They talked to one or two of the better players, and told the rest of us we would be hearing if they wanted us. I never heard.’
He was not alone. Up to 300 hopefuls would attended trials, and just a handful were selected to attend the Welsh Harp training sessions on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, as well as summer camps.
‘The Welsh Harp training ground was a Spartan experience, particularly in the heart of winter,’ recalled Peter Bonetti, who joined the scheme in 1958. ‘It was very cold there, one of the coldest spots I have ever encountered, often very wet.’
Once recruited, Bonetti was signed up with Croydon Amateurs, one of the club’s new nursery affiliates. When they were not training or being schooled, they had to perform basic duties at Stamford Bridge that today’s Academy youngsters would find hard to fathom.
These might involve painting parts of the stadium, but more usually revolved around setting up training and matchday apparel for the senior pros. ‘Dressing room duty was to put out training kit, make sure the training boots were clean, the footballs pumped up and laced correctly,’ late-’50s Junior Ken Shellito recalled. ‘Then after the training we had to pick up all the dirty kit when the players had left, take it to the laundry room, and then return and scrub out the dressing room, and clean all the boots again.
‘Our work didn’t finish with the team on Friday as we had to prepare things for the games the following day. Before we could go home everything was inspected and once it was clear and you had your arrangements for the junior game the following day, it was time to go home … I was invariably exhausted and definitely slept well every night.’
A key change Drake made in the youth set-up was to designate Dickie Foss as the club’s first youth team manager, a position he held with distinction until 1966, when the reins were handed to another former player, Frank Blunstone. With chief scout Jimmy Thompson finding the best talent around, Foss became the Blues’ ‘Starfinder General’, and he was a diligent and generous shepherd to his young flock.
It was under Foss’s tutelage that promise soon became fulfilment, starting with the FA Youth Cup. The creation of a challenge cup for under-18s was announced by the FA in February 1952, with an initial 60 professional and amateur clubs agreeing to participate, including the Blues. Chelsea’s first forays were unsuccessful, but Foss’s team reached the semi-finals in 1954/55 and then the final three seasons later.
The 1959/60 campaign brought the breakthrough, with West Thurrock thrashed 10-0 in round one, Colchester beaten 9-1 in round two, and Ford United taken apart 11-0 after a third-round replay. Portsmouth were dispatched 2-1 in round four and Aston Villa 3-0 in the fifth. Twin 3-0 victories against Bristol City took the young Blues to the final, the first leg of which, a 1-1 draw, goalkeeper Bonetti missed though injury.
‘We were the underdogs for the visit to Deepdale, but with [Bobby] Tambling scoring a hat-trick and [Gordon] Bolland continuing his fine run (he failed to score in only one match out of 10 we played), we won through 4-1,’ the Cat recalled. With the same nucleus, including Bert Murray, and skipper Terry Venables, augmented by ever-present Ron Harris, the Chelsea youngsters retained the trophy in 1960/61. Among the next few intakes would be yet another legend – Peter Osgood.
From its tentative start, Birrell’s brainchild has now fulfilled its object for eight decades. It is ironic but unsurprising that head coach Frank Lampard – the only Chelsea player with 500-plus appearances not to have emerged from our youth ranks – is the biggest supporter of the Academy in years.
As we begin to savour the prospect of seeing our more recent Youth Cup-winners back in action, such as Tammy Abraham, Andreas Christensen, Billy Gilmour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, it is worth remembering that the 1950s/1960s generations would form the backbone of all Chelsea’s exhilarating teams from 1963 to 1973.
And those graduates included the youngest debutant and goalscorer (Ian ‘Chico’ Hamilton), record-breaking goalscorer (Bobby Tambling), most prolific striker (Jimmy Greaves), youngest ever FA Cup final captain (Ron Harris), and the club’s two highest appearance-makers (Harris and Peter Bonetti).
The following players began their senior careers as products of the Chelsea Juniors scheme 1947-67:
Bobby Smith 1950/51Miles Spector 1952/53Peter Brabrook 1954/55John Compton 1955/56Ron Tindall 1955/56Dick Whittaker 1955/56Les Allen 1956/57Mike Harrison 1956/57Tony Nicholas 1956/57John Sillett 1956/57David Cliss 1957/58Jimmy Greaves 1957/58Mel Scott 1957/58Barry Bridges 1958/59Ken Shellito 1958/59Bobby Tambling 1958/59Peter Bonetti 1959/60Terry Venables 1959/60Allan Harris 1960/61Ron Harris 1961/62Bert Murray 1961/62Dennis Brown 1963/64John Hollins 1963/64Peter Houseman 1963/64John Boyle 1964/65Jim McCalliog 1964/65Peter Osgood 1965/66Jim Thomson 1965/66Ian Hamilton 1966/67Barry Lloyd 1966/67Alan Hudson 1968/69
Read: our tribute to the late Peter Bonetti