It was 70 years ago this summer that a seismic shift happened at Stamford Bridge. Ted Drake was appointed manager and with him came a more modern era at the club with enduring changes made, a recruitment policy in stark contrast to what preceded him, and appeals to the supporters. It ultimately led to Chelsea’s first true success. Our club historian Rick Glanvill tells Drake’s story today…
‘Everyone tells me we are going to have a good season in this, the 50th year of Chelsea Football Club, and I believe so, too,’ began the ‘Ted Drake Calling’ column in the opening programme of the 1954/55 season. ‘The spirit is here that I have always wanted, not only inside the Club but among you, the supporters that I can tell from the streams of letters already received, all of them saying in their various ways, “Good luck, Ted. We’re with you.”
‘That’s great, and that’s how it has got to be if we are to bring real success to Chelsea. After last season’s show, a tremendous lot is expected of us this time, but now that we have broken the back of our task in creating a “new Chelsea” I am confident that we can match the best. The spirit, the fire, the football are all here, and the lads are the happiest and nicest bunch I could wish to have with me.’
Drake was writing two years into his three-year plan to transform the west London club, and few bosses have had a greater or longer-lasting impact at Stamford Bridge. Plucked from lower league, he had already proved an inspired choice, with better still to come.
His predecessor, university-educated Willie Birrell, had been the Pensioners’ wartime concierge, implementing his pioneering Juniors scheme, but presiding over successive relegation nail-biters, including salvation by a mere fraction of goal average. By the end of 1951/52 the studious Scot had grappled enough with the frustrating riddle that was Chelsea, and vice versa.
Chairman Joe Mears always maintained Drake was the Board’s first choice to replace the retiring Birrell in May 1952: ‘He did not ask for this job; I went after him.’ Mears had set his sights on a manager ‘not of the bottle’, to coin a phrase, to bring generational change. Previously in command of Arsenal’s youth team, Drake had since been the enterprising shepherd of Division Three Reading.
Apart from an illustrious playing career culminating in England stardom, the former centre-forward had come to Chelsea’s attention in 1950 when he approached the Pensioners about luring little-used forward Bill Dickson to Berkshire. While Birrell was content to get rid, the board had to approve Drake’s approach. Meantime, Dickson starred in a 3-0 reserve victory over Brentford, putting the kybosh on the switch. The connection, though, had been made. A couple of crumbled promotion campaigns left the Biscuit Boys and the ambitious Drake in Division Three South when Mears came calling.
Even Birrell considered his 39-year-old successor ‘first class – in fact he’s too good for the job … I only hope he’s not embroiled by it all’ – meaning the age-old enigma that was trophyless, moneybags Chelsea. For his part, Drake was curious why his new job was widely regarded as the most thankless task in football. ‘I want to find out what has been wrong all this time,’ he admitted, ‘and shall not rest until I have put it right.’
He would become the Londoners’ third longest-serving boss, and he kick-started the revolution by managing the famously accommodating fans, delivering some jarring home truths.
Bolstering the base
With the tang of brine to his accent, the Southampton-born boss demanded 100 per cent belief and support throughout the club.
‘I have always felt that the club deserved to do itself fuller justice than it has ever done in the past,’ Drake ventured. ‘After only a few weeks here in the managerial chair I can see the real team spirit being fostered among those of us behind the scenes, and when it reaches you on the terraces and in the stands there can be no telling to what heights Chelsea will rise.
‘Here’s where our supporters come in. You folks may rightly be proud of your title “Football’s Fairest Crowd,” but for my part I would like to see not a little, but a lot more partisanship in favour of Chelsea. All too many people come to Stamford Bridge to see a football match – instead of to cheer Chelsea.
‘Please prove me wrong, but it’s my opinion that over the years too many bystanders have gone out of their way to grouse, jibe and grumble, to pull the club down rather than to say a good word for Chelsea. And for years now, the players here must have been thoroughly sick of all the music hall publicity that has gone before – sometimes deserved, often not. I’m not saying the spectators have been responsible for the failures – far from it – but I hope you see the point I am trying to make. Let’s have more people “eating, sleeping, drinking Chelsea.”
‘Let's spread the Chelsea spirit across London, and let the boys really hear you when they go onto the field. Don't tell me the crowd can’t make a difference. Other clubs count on the vocal support of their followers as worth a goal start – why shouldn't we? Lack of it has entitled the visiting team to think they are a goal up at Stamford Bridge. By all means be fair to our opponents, but you can also let yourselves go in support of our own lads.’ By 1954/55 the average attendance was the best in the land: 48,307.
Retiring the Pensioner
Some of Drake’s changes were further reaching than others and none were without risk. Fewer trappings are closer to a supporter’s heart than a sports outfit’s time-honoured nickname, but the new broom elected to sweep away a legendary Chelsea trademark. ‘That old gag, “They play like Pensioners [too]” has worn thin,’ he remarked. ‘We don’t like its implications, so we are awarding the Pensioner a well-earned and permanent rest. Let’s say he is pensioned off.’
The Pensioners – commemorating the scarlet-jacketed veterans from the nearby Royal Hospital - had been the team’s unique sobriquet since 1905, and a popular cartoon strip of ‘Percy the Pensioner’ (later joined by young scamp ‘Billy Blue’) had entertained readers for generations. Suddenly, there was no sign of the mutton-chopped veteran in the first programme, though the scarlet-jacketed gents from the Royal Hospital were still guests of honour in the main stand.
The Times lamented that ‘it will be a pity, if, in dropping the Pensioner, Chelsea in the process mislay that endearing quality of theirs to behave like a more than normally temperamental Mr Punch, bobbing up when he is least expected to give some resounding whacks to Cup-holders and Champions.’ Hundreds of supporters wrote protesting letters, including ‘Charlie of Chelsea’, who noted ‘all of us local Chelsea supporters have regarded Percy the Pensioner as our mascot. He has saved us from relegation a few times.’
Drake answered each one with a variation on, ‘He has done great service to Chelsea, but I do feel we need a modern image.’ Elsewhere, players’ smart new blazers carried a ‘CFC’ monogram, and a year later the emblem of a lion holding a crozier (based on the borough coat of arms of Chelsea) we know today would be launched.
Otherwise the young manager, the first at Chelsea to have the admin duties of club secretary handed to someone else, avoided distraction. His brief was on the field, not in fixtures meetings, and he encouraged an inclusive atmosphere, making time for every staff member. Not one for formal letters, he doubled the club’s phone bill.
‘What Ted gave us was heart, a great family feeling,’ recalled Roy Bentley, the attacking gem inherited from Birrell. ‘Nobody felt excluded. Nobody could afford to relax.’
As a player, Drake was in the mould of Chelsea’s classic headline-grabbing acquisitions, having scored seven times in one game for Arsenal in December 1935. This is the club, after all, that bought ‘Ten-Goal’ Joe Payne three years later. Now, as manager, he set about shattering that stereotype.
Building a band of brothers
For decades the Pensioners’ reputation had been for blowing money on the biggest box office players without securing the silverware to match. Dear old predictably unpredictable Chelsea played an aesthetically pleasing brand of football that for three seasons running had marginally avoided relegation. Pragmatism, diligence and endurance had hardly been the motto of a club historically addicted to glamour and goals, but those were the fundamentals of Drake’s approach.
‘When Ted Drake took over as manager, he had three major problems to face,’ remembered Bentley. ‘He could sit back and hope for things to improve; he could plunge into the transfer market for expensive stars; or he could persevere with the players on hand while building up his own stars. He chose to do the latter.’ That did not stop 14 players leaving within days of the new man having his feet under the desk of his ivy-covered office.
There was also the issue of star man Bentley and defensive leader Johnny Harris refusing to re-sign for the Blues for a second summer running.
The manager – who had mulled over the Chelsea job offer while playing golf with the same pair – publicly declared confidence they would re-sign, saying ‘All players know that if they have any problems my office door is always open to them.’
It was the pre-season transformation that convinced them. Drake was the first of his kind to introduce ball-work to daily training at the Bridge, and the routines concocted by Jack Oxbury and Albert Tennant were more intense than ever before, with sessions doubled. Clad in a maroon tracksuit, the manager joined in with gusto, despite needing massages to coddle a chronic back injury.
Once, when passing a coaching drill in his suit and tie, he stepped onto the pitch, demanded a cross, which he leapt and met with a finishing header, tumbling over in the muddy goalmouth. Oblivious to the ruined suit, he then went about his business. After airing grievances and receiving assurances, Bentley and Harris no longer wanted transfers.
‘There’s a new spirit alive today that I’ve never known before,’ skipper Bentley evangelised, ‘and every member of the team is giving his utmost to his training, his playing and his demeanour off the field. Now I’m really proud to wear the blue shirt of Chelsea, and Mr Ted Drake must take full credit for what he has achieved.’
Always rating strivers over superstars, Drake sought hungry amateurs and recruits from lower league. This was a philosophical break from the club’s traditional approach – Chelsea had only just come out of a damaging break-up with record-fee striker Tommy Lawton. The first signing of 1952/53 was inside-forward Johnny McNichol of Brighton, then a Division Three South side. The next was winger Jim Lewis, an amateur with Walthamstow Avenue.
Drake, though, always maintained his best-value buys were Frank Blunstone, £7,000 from another third-tier side, Crewe, and Peter Sillett for £12,000 from Southampton.
‘In February 1953, to sign Frank, an England left-winger-to-be, who was only 18,’ remembered Albert Sewell, the matchday programme editor at the time, ‘Ted drove up to Crewe Alexandra and took the board meeting by surprise with an offer they just couldn’t refuse.’
Drake put faith in Peter and John Sillett as he knew their father from a spell at hometown club Southampton, prior to which he had been a gas meter-reader. He and his scouts could certainly gauge a good personality.
Bentley noted a gradual transformation to a collegiate spirit from ‘the old days [when] we probably would have packed up at the first set-back and lost the match by two or three goals. There are no quitters now; no chaps throwing in the sponge. They daren’t – not with Ted Drake around.’
A player’s circumstances mattered less. One of Drake’s most surprising ‘right stuff’ successes was Seamus O’Connell, a rural cattle-dealer and swashbuckling amateur forward from Bishop Auckland. ‘He came down on the train on the Friday to play on the Saturday and he had a brown paper parcel,’ remembered Sewell. ‘And inside that were his boots. Extraordinary.’
Drake's faith in amateurs drew from an ancient well at the Bridge that, generations earlier, had turned Max Woosnam, Ben Howard Baker and Nils Middelboe into cigarette-card stars.
His new model army required roundheads, not cavaliers. Although training was vigorous and modern, Drake’s technical approach was non-nonsense: ‘Get to the ball fast and first. Tackle hard, but fairly.’ His pre-match pep-talk was an airy: ‘All the best.’ Newspapers were quickly dismissing the once-elegant Londoners as a ‘rush ‘em and bustle ‘em, bash ’em and smash ’em’ outfit. It would take two years to bed in.
‘Tactics were nothing like they are today,’ Blunstone remembered. ‘You just went out and played. We played the old “WM” [2-3-5] formation – end of story. Full-backs weren’t allowed to go over the halfway line. They were defenders; we were attackers – it was as simple as that.’ Although Drake accommodated Bentley’s innovative ‘wandering centre-forward’ concept to excellent effect, he stuck to tried and tested, no-frills approaches.
And though his decade in charge is associated with the trickle, then flood of talent from Dickie Foss’s Juniors, Bentley’s rejuvenation was at the expense of the club’s first great youth product, 19-year-old Bobby Smith. ‘I hardly got a kick because manager Ted Drake hated my guts,’ the striker later lamented.
Even future West Ham and England boss Ron Greenwood, centre-half in a prototype Chelsea Youth team in 1940, and re-engaged by Drake in 1952, felt the boss’s wrath after coolly trapping a high ball, earning coos from spectators. Drake, who drilled-in the mantra ‘we are going to beat the Chelsea joke,’ summarily dropped his defender for being ‘flashy’.
A golden Jubilee
‘When I came to Stamford Bridge three years ago I sought your co-operation from the terraces and the stands towards the building of a “new” Chelsea, and the response you have given has inspired every one of us within the Club. Your vocal encouragement has been magnificent, and because of it we can hold our heads high.’ Ted Drake
Drake’s debut season, 1952/53, showed no positional progress, but a substantial upgrade the following campaign saw the Blues finish eighth, matching our second highest finish ever (1935/36) and leading London’s challenge for the first time since 1920.
So impressive was the upturn that in the 1954/55 ‘Playfair Football Annual’ skipper Bentley pronounced his team the most improved in the First Division. And no one laughed.
Drake had asked to be judged after three years, and the opening half of the season only suggested the inconsistency of old. Then came a never-say-die comeback away to league leaders Wolverhampton, in which the dogged, relentless Blues overcame the kind of claggy conditions that regularly used to maroon them to win 4-3.
‘It was round about Christmas or just after that we started playing a bit better,’ remembered defender Stan Willemse. ‘There were about half a dozen teams in the running, but we ended up finishing quite easy.’
At West Bromwich in March, Drake’s men recovered from 0-2 at the break to win 4-2 in untypically dogged fashion. Wily forward Les Stubbs harassed the home keeper into kicking him, and Bentley’s spot-kick put the visitors ahead. It was huge moment. When, two weeks later, Chelsea disposed of Cardiff to leapfrog Wolves, Stamford Bridge was inundated with congratulatory letters and telegrams. Never before had the club been top of the table so deep into a season.
A crucial Peter Sillett penalty saw off Wolves at the Bridge in early April and two weeks later ecstatic scenes greeted the final score of Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0. Fans swarmed onto the field as wirelesses relayed Portsmouth’s failure to beat Cardiff. Fifty-year-old Chelsea had won the championship for the first time, and 40-year-old Ted Drake had become the only person to win the league title as a player and a manager.
In his title-winning speech from the first tier of the Main Stand to a pitch filled with revellers Drake declared, ‘Chelsea are the greatest club I’ve known. The people here have taken it on the chin for 50 years and always come up smiling. That takes some doing.’ The Reserves and Juniors also won their league. The joke was over, we thought.
‘Perhaps all this strange transformation can be traced to the moment three years ago when, under new management, that affectionate old emblem of the Pensioner disappeared from the Chelsea crest,’ wrote Geoffrey Green in The Times. ‘With him went the dilly-dallying of old, a Chelsea reputation for friendly and gentle, sometimes doddering artistry, but a Chelsea who was exasperated by their failure to achieve results. Now much of that old wayward charm has gone out of them and they are quite altered in character, a team if not quite without character at least without outstanding personality.’
The young ones
In March 1954 19-year-old keeper Michael Collins made his bow at Ayresome Park, where newsprint phrases usually alien to the King’s Road club such as ‘sheer, dogged persistence’ were applied to the comeback to 3-3 against Middlesbrough.
Collins had been one of five Juniors who turned professional in 1953/54, the biggest influx since Birrell launched the scheme in 1947, and with the promise of more to follow.
‘It’s a tall order, expecting five to make the grade each season,’ Youth manager Foss admitted in the first programme of 1954/55, ‘especially when one a year can be considered satisfactory, but our summer coaching sessions at [the Welsh Harp at] Hendon have been of tremendous value and we are optimistic.’
In the event, one 17-year-old debutant, winger Peter Brabrook, made vital contributions in three games, while striker Bobby Smith and Ron Greenwood, now 24, were the only other former Juniors truly engaged with Drake’s historic achievement.
Yet scouts Tom Robinson and Jimmy Thompson were already unearthing future gems such as Jimmy Greaves, Terry Venables, Barry Bridges and Bobby Tambling.
As the jet age decade closed, Drake was fielding teams almost entirely composed of ‘Ducklings’, though successors would benefit more than him. The Blues’ defence of the title in 1955/56 had been woeful – a crushing reversion to ‘type’ – and the vast quality produced for free at the Welsh Harp ground would come back to bite him.
Once a vigorous presence around the ground, Drake had become an other-worldly figure to young sprites such as Greaves. It was said he was once giving Peter Sillett a lift somewhere and pulled his car up at the lights, gazing ahead. Sillett watched the traffic system go through its motions twice before gently prodding his manager. ‘Oh Peter,’ Drake responded, dolefully, ‘I thought you were driving.’
Like politicians, managers’ careers end in failure. Drake’s demise was eventually ushered in by the loss of Greaves, his greatest discovery, in May 1961. The prolific forward’s goals had papered over problems. Now, despite an impressive start for goal-hungry Bobby Tambling, the cracks were gaping.
On 23 September 1961 the ‘all the best’ team were facing up to the worst: relegation for the first time in 38 years. After a 1-1 home draw with Blackburn the Blues sat 18th, two points from bottom.
That Wednesday, six years into a decade-long contract, chairman Joe Mears eased his old friend out of the manager’s role, citing ‘the general lack of success … especially considering the wonderful talent produced by the Juniors set-up.’ For his first game in charge at Blackpool, interim boss Tommy Docherty’s starting 11 featured 10 ‘Drake’s Ducklings’. Following relegation and promotion, Juniors would form the basis of a sizzling Sixties side in Drake’s never-say-die image.
Ted Drake died on 30 May 1995. Seventy years on from his arrival, several huge legacies at Chelsea still thrive: the cherished maiden league title, a ferocious faith in youth schemes, passionate partisans at fortress Stamford Bridge, and a rebranding few wanted at the time, but which proudly endures to this day.