Derek Saunders 1928-2018

Chelsea Football Club sends our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Derek Saunders, a member of our championship-winning side of 1955, who has passed away having recently celebrated his 90th birthday.

His contribution to that first league title triumph for the club was huge. He was one of two ever-presents during that season and in total made 223 appearances between 1953 and 1959.

Saunders was signed by Ted Drake from amateur club Walthamstow Avenue where he made his reputation following a couple of appearances for Millwall in his teenage years. He had also represented and captained England’s amateur side and played for Great Britain at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

Other clubs, including Arsenal, coveted Saunders’ signature following victory in the FA Amateur Cup final at a packed Wembley, but Drake managed to talk him into choosing a move to Stamford Bridge. The recently appointed manager was reshaping the side and wanted the left-half’s reading of the game and tackling and intercepting skills to improve the defending, which he did in tandem with the imposing Stan Willemse at left full-back.

His Chelsea debut was at home to Sheffield United in September 1953 and he quickly established himself, playing 34 games that season. His first goal came in the March in a 5-0 hammering of West Bromwich Albion, the same side he scored his one goal against in the championship season that followed, and a vital one it was too.

Derek Saunders (centre) in action against West Bromwich in March 1954

On a snowy, boggy pitch at the Hawthorns in March 1955, despite Saunders saving what seemed a certain goal unknowingly with his back, West Brom were quickly 2-0 ahead and maintained the lead as the game approached the final 15 minutes. Chelsea, however, were about to begin a 10-game unbeaten run that would take us to the trophy, and the fight-back began when Saunders scored from the edge of the penalty area, followed by a deflected free-kick and penalty from Peter Sillett and a Roy Bentley goal to win the game 4-2.

Such was Saunders’ determination to feature in all 42 league games that season (winger Eric Parsons was the other to do so), he played one game despite needing stiches in a bad gash on his leg from a collision with a metal post the day before.

Also included in his 17 goals for Chelsea was a 35-yarder at White Hart Lane in 1957, and his overall consistency meant he was among the highest appearance makers each season until his retirement. Saunders was made Chelsea captain at the start of the 1957/58 season, just as the young Jimmy Greaves emerged spectacularly into the first team.

After hanging up his boots, Saunders coached Chelsea’s reserves for a period before becoming a coach and groundsman at Westminster School. He later worked at Hampstead Cricket Club in north London before retiring to the Essex coast.

- The official Chelsea website recently featured Derek Saunders in our 'The Leader Board' series. Click to read the article