The next instalment in our series of interviews with some of Chelsea’s most noteworthy goalkeepers over the past few decades is Eddie Niedzwiecki, who celebrated promotion to the top flight with the Blues on this day in 1984.
Little was known about this Welsh goalkeeper outside of Wrexham when he signed for Chelsea in the summer of 1983, but soon Blues fans were singing the praises of a keeper who formed part of a new-look side which led us to promotion under the beloved John Neal.
Niedzwiecki had previously worked under our manager in North Wales and he subsequently went on to play every fixture, conceding less than a goal a game, as we claimed the Division Two title.
The step up to the top flight was a natural one for a player who would surely have won more than two caps for Wales but for the presence of Neville Southall, yet he remained a key man at the Bridge as we continued our revival.
Sadly, he suffered serious knee ligament damage in 1986 while at the peak of his game and shortly before winning the club’s Player of the Year award. Numerous operations in an attempt to come back was to no avail. His tally of 55 clean sheets and 175 appearances would have both been far greater, otherwise.
Here's the story of his time at Chelsea, as told to the club’s official magazine in March 2018.
You joined the club in the summer of 1983 shortly after we had avoided relegation to the third tier, but a year later we were back in Division One. Can you explain the remarkable turnaround?There were six of us who came in at the start of that season and we gelled straight away, both on and off the field. We beat Derby, who were promotion favourites, on the opening day and just grew from there – the snowball got bigger and bigger and bigger. The fans, as they kindly remind me from time to time, were so excited that season. It was like that for all of us.
How important was the manager, John Neal, for both you and the rest of the group?He signed me for Wrexham as a 14-year-old schoolboy, so he obviously saw something. When you’ve got someone who shows great confidence in you, you want to give that back to the manager. And he did a wonderful job at Chelsea. He was a quiet man, but when he spoke, you listened. He was very astute, very canny. He’d come down the corridor signing Ee Aye Addio! He thought greatly about the game and he loved his players, and we all loved him back.He signed Joey Jones, Mickey Thomas and me as schoolboys when he was at Wrexham. We were all from the same area, within a five-mile radius. They were four or five years older than me and very much the beacons of light in our area to get a career in professional football.
Beacons of light to you, but a pair of lunatics as far as everyone else was concerned! They’re brilliant. We still speak, we keep in touch, more so with Joey, but I always look forward to seeing them. They’re special guys. Those of us from North Wales who managed to get a career in the game – people like Neville Southall, Kevin Ratcliffe, Ian Rush, Gary Speed – would say it was because Joey and Mickey were the guys who came through. More and more scouts starting coming to watch kids in the North Wales area, which meant more of us came through and the quality of football improved.
Was the 5-0 win against Leeds United, when we won promotion in 1984, one of the happiest?It was a great day. One thing that stands out is Peter Lorimer playing for Leeds. He was a very experienced player, renowned for the power of his shooting, and I fielded one of his shots. It really was an incredible season and when I look back it makes me smile. All the characters, everything we had at that time. Just special.
Your time as a player for the Blues was all too fleeting, sadly. Less than three years after your debut, you suffered a serious knee injury which spelled the beginning of the end for your playing days. What do you remember about that night against QPR?It was obviously a very sad night for me. Someone landed awkwardly on my knee and when you do your anterior cruciate ligament, you get excruciating pain for a couple minutes and then the nerve endings in your ligament go numb and you feel nothing. So, I continued and shortly after I took a free-kick and as I planted my knee it just collapsed. After the initial injury, the fear of everything comes racing into your mind. It wasn’t a very nice experience and obviously it was one that cost me dearly in the end.
You still won Player of the Year that season, despite suffering the injury in March.Yeah, I was on crutches for it. Unfortunately the injury was 10 days before the Full Members Cup final, so I missed out on Wembley. I’ve been lucky enough to go there as a coach but that dream never came true for me as a player. But I can still remember that reception when I walked on the pitch at Wembley on my crutches, and it was tremendous.
We would never have let in four that day if we’d had you in goal!That’s a bit unkind to Steve Francis! I know you were only joking, but what pushed me to great heights was Steve being so good behind me. He was a quality goalkeeper in his own right, with a great pair of hands. And we were very lucky we were coached by one of the Chelsea greats, Peter Bonetti. We both benefited greatly from his expertise.
He was one of the first goalkeeper coaches, wasn’t he?Yeah. Bob Wilson was the very first and then it took a few years before it became common. Peter would come in part-time on a Tuesday and Thursday, and then on a Saturday when we were playing, unless it was a long away trip. It was always great to have him there. One of the great things about Peter wasn’t just his enthusiasm and his knowledge of the position, but even if you’d had very little to do in the game, we used to call it being hypercritical, so you’d pick up on the minute details. It just helped to improve us as goalkeepers. And he’s a wonderful man.
You got into coaching yourself later on. Was it an easy decision for you?When I knew I was going to have to hang up my gloves, the club were very good to me. Whenever I could, I would go with the team – I was one of those who had to be there, I missed matchdays so much. Whether it was to give support, or just help in any way, it’s what I did. That was just me – I couldn’t stand being home on a Saturday with no match.The club were very good and they offered me a three-month trial period to see how I’d get on coaching. It fell into place and that summer they offered me the youth team job. I’d lost one career, but luckily for me I was able to start another one quite quickly. But coaching or whatever will never substitute being a professional player. Never, ever. I always thought I’d play until I was 40, at least. But one incident changed that, and it’s something that can happen to anybody.
Even back then 40 was a realistic target for a goalkeeper...Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s the biggest regret – that I wasn’t able to go on. I played my last game at the age of 27 and goalkeepers typically reach their prime between 28 and into their thirties.
To a lot of those who didn’t know you were a coach here, it looks like you only spent a few years at the club. Actually, your association with Chelsea was closer to a couple of decades, and you were here for several major trophy successes.It was all about the club winning trophies again. Once we won one, we won loads. There was the FA Cup, then a special night in the Cup Winners Cup, when Gianfranco [Zola] came on in Stockholm to score the winner. And playing at the San Siro in the Champions League, when Dennis [Wise] scored his famous goal that the fans sing about. I still remember the reception Marcel Desailly got from the Milan fans the night, it was absolutely incredible.
How wonderful that you saw the club’s journey from Division Two all the way up to the Champions League.It’s just a great journey. And you see how the club continues to grow. The expectation is a lot higher than when I was there, but success both demands and breeds that. When you are there, you have to handle the pressures of dealing with that. They’ve managed to get a trophy most seasons and you look at the success of the youth team as well, which has continued under Jody Morris. He used to stay out on the training field, hitting long-range passes, and I’m sure he’s passing that enthusiasm and knowledge onto the kids in a real positive way.
The first part of this series explored the modern history of Chelsea goalkeeping and the mentality needed to make it as the last line of defence. That was followed by an interview with Kevin Hitchcock, the perennial back-up keeper who played a big part in maintaining dressing room harmony. We’ll be back next week with the thoughts of another former Blues goalkeeper.