In this week’s column, Pat Nevin looks at some of Chelsea’s more diminutive players down the years, some unsung and some less so…
It has often been said to me that Chelsea fans have a special place in their hearts for small, creative, attacking flair players. From Charlie Cooke through to Eden Hazard the line includes Juan Mata, Gianfranco Zola and a few have been kind enough to throw my name in there, as we each won the Player of the Year trophy at least twice.That line may one day extend to Billy Gilmour and there are a few other candidates to join the gang such as the idolised David Speedie and Dennis Wise who also weren’t the tallest. The combative attitudes of these two probably put them in a different category anyway to the more purely creative types first mentioned, though I reckon Joe Cole gets into the gang.He might only have won the Player of the Year once, but he did have some extraordinary players vying with him at the time to be fair! If John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba are around then it was amazing to win that gong even on that single occasion. Those big beasts really started to become legends in 2005 up at Bolton.The 15th anniversary of that game is being celebrated on Thursday and it is being shown in full on this website, and I have helped out with a spot of analysis.
But before that anniversary we shouldn’t forget some of the little guys’ efforts.We tend to remember the pocket-sized players mentioned above with fondness, although you are probably all pretty fed up with me by now, but there were other diminutive creative types who were similarly loved in their time. How about a couple of other ‘wee’ Scotsmen in John Spencer and Kevin McAllister?Kevin had a very good career at the club that overlapped with my time but he did often find himself on the bench or out of the team while I was playing. That was harsh on him but as there were similarities in our styles, it was often an either-or-decision between the two of us, and at the time I wasn’t complaining too much at getting the nod, even though I liked and admired ‘Crunchie’ a great deal.When I left for Everton he finally got his chance and had his best period in a Chelsea shirt for a year or two after that. In retrospect I feel a further pang of guilt that I also got in his way on the international stage as he was never given a chance for Scotland while I was around. If you ask real football fans in Scotland, who is the best Scot never to get an international cap, Kevin McAllister regularly comes back as the answer.There were glory times. I particularly enjoyed playing on the left wing at Wembley with Kevin over on the right when we won the Full Members’ Cup in 1986 with David Speedie up front. Were there too many small Scots playing for us that day? Speedo scored a hat-trick so maybe not.
Kevin was a talented player and kept playing professionally until he was in his forties, which is an incredible achievement for any player, particularly one who was hard-working as well as skilful.Kevin was and is a bubbly character but in comparison with John Spencer he would have been considered a shrinking violet. Then again, most characters would lurk in the shadows in the company of the effervescent Spenny. There is a saying in Scotland: ‘You couldn’t give him a brass neck (red face) with a blow torch.’ And that summed up Spenny, he was incorrigible.His huge character was matched by his ability as a striker and some of his goals for Chelsea were top quality. The pitch-length run against Austria Vienna in the Cup Winners’ Cup being a particular stand-out.
Part of his problem at Chelsea was that we went through a whole bunch of managers during his years at the club and although Glenn Hoddle trusted his ability, Ruud Gullit clearly felt that he needed an upgrade and the arrival of Gianfranco Zola’s was the final straw for Spenny.Like many of the players who, if not forgotten, are less well remembered than others, it can be because the player who was directly before or directly after them had such a huge impact. Zola was just such a player; he was as talented and as lovable as anyone who has ever worn a Chelsea shirt and as such we immediately think of him over Spenny.During Spenny’s time at the club there were many big characters, but I would loved to have watched both him and Dennis Wise together in the dressing room above all others. Hiding in the corner quietly probably wasn’t an option with those two around, the personalities and their combined presence would have made it a lively old place and you had better stand up for yourself under that sort of onslaught.
After leaving the Bridge, Spenny had successful spells at QPR and Everton before I finally bought him for Motherwell in the top tier in Scotland. I was the chief executive there as well as still a player at the time, an odd combination I admit. Spenny had an immediate impact on and off the field. His presence not only lifted the dressing room but also the stadium for an admittedly fairly brief time. His personality was definitely needed as much as his ability and I knew everything would be fine on his first day at training.
He sauntered into that dressing room full strangers and let loose at all around him with his coruscating wit, oblivious to the fact that it was one v twenty. He took most pleasure in ‘hammering’ the chief executive, yours truly, showing absolutely no respect for that position. He couldn’t have chosen a better target as far as I was concerned. I needed to be ‘one of the lads’ in the dressing and his fun-filled abuse showed the lads that when I was there with them I was fair game and could give and take with the best of them with no repercussions.
Maybe it was a little different when the players came into my office later with any problems, but they understood the demarcation lines. Spenny whether or not he knew it, helped me a great deal in that grey area.He later went into management over in the US and soon enough the ultra-lively lad had turned into an almost unrecognisable ‘Captain Sensible’, not unlike the transformation that happened to Duncan Ferguson at Everton when he went on the coaching staff there.It was time to grow up and act in a more mature manner, but to be fair I really missed the hyperactive adolescent character. Once you met him you could never forget him and any Chelsea fan who came into his company probably felt the same. We should remember not just what he did on the field but also the effect he had in the dressing room during what were sometimes pretty hard times before the real glory days started.