John Neal: the forgotten hero who saved Chelsea Football Club

John Neal: the forgotten hero who saved Chelsea Football Club

In the years well before the whizz-bang super-duper transfer days that followed the arrival of Roman Abramovich to Stamford Bridge, the west London club was one of fairly modest ambition; staying in English football’s top flight probably the main one. It was one that was sometimes missed, and an occasional cup run was the closest thing to glory. 

Such times didn’t require the services of celebrated foreign coaches who could weld an oft unruly bunch of superstars and supposed stars into a team capable of bringing silverware to the club. In the 1980s, with the club languishing in Division Two, the requirement was for a manager who knew the domestic game, could spot talent available at a reasonable price, and knew how to develop a successful team. 

John Neal was such a manager, and Chelsea Football Club were most fortunate that he decided to take the reins at Stamford Bridge in 1981. In his four years at the club, before ill-health forced a premature retirement, he achieved promotion, provided stability and progressed the squad with astute acquisitions.

Whilst many would quote the names of Mourinho, Ancelotti and Conte as some of the greatest to have managed the club, those with longer memories than the last couple of decades may well wish to insert another name. John Neal’s profile was much less celebrated than any of the trio mentioned – who were all eventually pointed to the Exit door – but he did as much as any of them for the ultimate success of the club, and his name and record should be lauded for that. 

As with so many successful managers – and indeed players – of that era, Neal was born in the north-east of England, a child of Seaham, County Durham. Very much of the spirit of the area, he turned professional as a no-nonsense full-back who knew the value of a robust challenge, but also had the pace and intelligence to promote play on his flank of the pitch.

His introduction to the pro ranks came at Hull after they acquired him from his local Silksworth Colliery team as a teenager just as the country was seeking to revive itself from the traumas of the Second World War. It may have been the experience of growing up during the privations and struggles of the war-time years that crafted Neal’s resolution; whatever it was, his attitude in adversity and a refusal to bend the knee to circumstance would serve him well over the coming years. 

Five years with the amber and black tigers prowling the Humber were hardly brim full of success and progress. By the mid-1950s, Neal had moved on, joining Kings Lynn. Although that kind of step down in status can define many a nascent career, Neal was made of sterner stuff. It may have been that the Norfolk air suited him, or that Hull had merely been the wrong club at the wrong time for the teenage defender, but after a single season with Kings Lynn, he made the jump back into the Football League, joining Swindon in 1957.

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If things had been wrong for Neal at Hull, Swindon fitted him like a glove. His leadership qualities, as well as some sterling defensive performances, quickly saw him promoted to captain of the team, feted as one of the best defenders in the lower divisions. As is often the case in such circumstances, a bigger club will come calling for outstanding players and, after Aston Villa were relegated from the Division One two seasons later, needing to rebuild their team, manager Joe Mercer took Neal to Villa Park as part of his plans. 

The following years would see the zenith of Neal’s playing career. Villa were crowned Second Division champions in 1960 and went on to lift the inaugural League Cup the following season. The stars of the team may have been the big-name forwards, but the unassuming and quietly efficient work of Neal contributed as much to the cause as his more famous teammates.

Such relative success had come late in Neal’s career, however, and towards the end of 1962, Villa decided that it was time to replace the full-back, who was now in his 30s. A move to Southend could have been the first step in a wind down towards ending his time in the game, however, for John Neal, it would be the springboard that would propel him into the next stage of his career. 

Neal stayed with Southend until 1966, latterly working under manager Alvan Williams in a coaching role. The astute Welshman had quickly identified Neal’s potential as a leader beyond the pitch and invited him into the coaching ranks at the club. The following year, Williams decamped to take over at Wrexham, taking Neal with as trainer. At the end of the season, Williams, then 65, retired, and Neal was asked to step into his shoes. It was a move that the club would reap huge dividends from. 

Neal led Wrexham to promotion, and with a strong emphasis on developing young talent at the club, saw the likes of Mickey Thomas and Joey Jones come through the ranks and go on to success with Manchester United and Liverpool. Others followed into the Wrexham first team as the club continued to prosper. A run to the last eight of the 1975 FA Cup boosted the club’s coffers as well as raising its profile.

Dreamy forays into European competition followed success in the Welsh Cup, and in 1976, they reached the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup before losing to Anderlecht by a single goal. The Belgian club would go on to lift the trophy.

The following year brought the height of his fame as a manager in Wales. Victories over Tottenham in the League Cup and Sunderland in the FA Cup propelled the club along and promotion to Division Two was a realistic proposition until the last few days of the season, when Wrexham narrowly missed out.

Like when Aston Villa prised Neal away from Swindon as a player, success in management is also difficult to disguise, and at the end of the season, Neal was approached by Middlesbrough to replace Jack Charlton. The problem with achieving the sort of success that Neal had garnered at Wrexham, though, is that other clubs think the recipe is easily repeatable.

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As Neal arrived, players left Ayresome Park for big money as the key elements of Charlton’s team were dismantled and sold off to the highest bidder. Graeme Souness went to Liverpool and David Mills moved to West Bromwich Albion for a record transfer fee between two English clubs. 

It was hardly the sort of approach that would adhere the new man to Boro’s fans, but Neal would again on his policy of developing talent at the club. A committed adherence to attacking football soon began to woo back disgruntled followers and the club were comfortable in the top tier of the league up until Neal left in 1981.

Unsurprisingly, it was another proposed sale of one of his players that led to the manager moving on. Australian Craig Johnston was an iconic member of Neal’s vibrant young team, but the club decided to cash in, selling him to Liverpool. If they thought that Neal would shrug his shoulders and perform another little miracle, they were wrong. It would be a step too far. 

Middlesbrough sat 14th at the end of the season. The following term, with the native son of the north-east now in charge at Chelsea, Boro finished bottom and were relegated. One imagines that the money received for Johnston, which ultimately cost the club its manager, was but small recompense. By almost any measure, it had been a disastrous move, one they would have time to regret.

At the time, moving into the hot seat at Stamford Bridge was hardly the money-laden dream job of today. At the same time as Boro had finished around mid-table in the First Division, Chelsea had toiled to achieve a similar position in the league below. The club was also struggling financially. The outspoken Ken Bates had acquired the club for the princely sum of £1, with an agreement to take on their debt. It was a burden the irascible chairman was keen to be shot of. 

Perhaps in pursuit of quick fixes – when wasn’t that the case at Stamford Bridge? – the club had, in recent times, trusted in fame rather than experience to find the ideal manager. Geoff Hurst had been appointed and then quickly shown the door; before him, time under the guidance of the maverick Danny Blanchflower had been mixed, with the more sedate reigns of Ken Shellito and former terrace favourite Eddie McCreadie hardly memorable.

This was the club that Neal moved into. Chelsea were in dire need of a steady hand on the tiller. They needed someone who would come in and deliver professional performances on the pitch and sage financial management off it. They also needed a manager who could spot talent and develop potential that others had missed. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Enter John Neal. 

Conversely, or perhaps entirely predictably to any Chelsea fans of that era, Neal’s first season at the helm was a borderline disaster. A paltry 11 wins across the league fixtures meant a breathless finish to the season with the trapdoor to Division Three often no more than a hair’s breadth away for so many weeks. Eventually, the team’s ability to turn potential losses into draws, and a dogged resistance to lose games, saw them escape by a mere two points.

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Although relief would have echoed around Stamford Bridge at the release from the dire threat of relegation to English football’s third tier, this was not what the club had hoped for when taking Neal on board. Neither was it the manager’s idea of success, and across the coming term he got to work in rectifying the squad with the top, rather than the bottom, of the gable in mind. 

Some managers seek to turn teams around by adding quality to the squad, while others do so with a tactical innovation that offers the existing players an opportunity to better themselves. Neal did both on a shoestring budget, and he did it within strictly defined boundaries.

Reshaping his existing players, he picked up a number of recruits who would later enter the Hall of Fame at the club. Unabashed when convinced of his opinion, Neal went to Bates and insisted the club sign striker Kerry Dixon from Reading. Bates was aghast at the cost of £150,000, plus a further £25,000 if the player was ever called to the colours of the national team. Neal must have delivered the most persuasive of arguments, however, and eventually convinced Bates to take the plunge.

It’s unclear how many times Bates would later thank his manager for persuading him to make the purchase – knowing Bates, it was probably a few at most – but it was a deal that reaped massive dividends for Chelsea. With just a shade under 200 goals for the club, Dixon is Chelsea’s third-highest goalscorer, dropping in behind Frank Lampard and Bobby Tambling. He would also go on to form a spearhead for the Blues that was the equal of many in the top division of the game, as they were to later prove. 

Neal also brought Pat Nevin in from Clyde for £95,000, a fee that Chelsea would more than double when they sold the impish winger to Everton five years later. Nigel Spackman’s midfield tenacity and influence at Bournemouth caught the eye of Neal and, at 23, £35,000 looked like a bargain. That assessment was underlined by the £400,000 the club received from Liverpool a mere four years later.

Defender Joe McLaughlin was signed from Morton for £100,000. He would become a stalwart of the side and a rock-like presence in the club’s back line before Chelsea accepted £650,000 from Charlton for his services half-a-dozen years later. Goalkeeper Eddie Niedzwiecki had been a youngster at Wrexham during Neal’s time at the helm at the Racecourse Ground, and he swooped to take the player to Stamford Bridge, where he would play for five years, becoming a favourite for his application and daredevil displays between the sticks. 

For all that the financial success of Neal’s transfer dealings would endear him to Bates, it was success on the pitch that would define the true worth of his signings. He wouldn’t be found wanting. Just a single season after flirting with the disaster of relegation to the Third Division, Chelsea were crowned champions of English football’s second tier. In a 42-game season, they were defeated a mere four times and scored 90 goals, comfortably the highest in the league. A typical Neal team, they were full of vim and vigour, played attractive, attacking football and were extremely good value for the silverware that came their way. Relegated Middlesbrough finished in 17th. 

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Chelsea have a reputation of being a club with so many ups and downs that they would make a roller-coaster seem like a Sunday morning drive in the country, but this time, under Neal, there promised to be a time of joy and celebration in the sunlit uplands of the domestic league. As there are ups in the game, though, there are also a number of depressing downs. In the summer of 1984, with the club poised to enter Division One, Neal was taken seriously ill. At 52 he was no great age, but urgent heart surgery was required. Although few knew it at the time, it was a portent of things to come. 

In typically robust manner, Neal recovered and Chelsea went on to finish in a strong sixth in the league, also reaching the semi-final of the League Cup. For a debut season in the top tier, Neal’s team had shown they were a coming force and, a single season after gaining promotion, had established themselves as one of the top sides in the league. The future was bright and promising. It was a vision never to materialise.

Neal’s heart condition had been delayed – not solved – by the operation during the summer and, at the end of the season, he was compelled to resign, handing over the reins to coach and former player John Hollins. Understandably, the club were keen to keep his influence within the Bridge and offered him a position as director. For such a hands-on manager, whilst an entirely decent gesture, the move must have felt like some kind of sinecure, but he took it up anyway, accepting the opportunity to keep an eye on the burgeoning team he had built. 

Regardless of determination and strength of character, there are some battles where you are simply outgunned, and Neal’s health continued to deteriorate. In 1986, he had further surgery, meaning a retirement from the director’s role he’d been given. In a defiant manner, Neal shrugged aside the insistent calls of his ailing body until November 2014, when he finally conceded defeat, dying at the age of 82.

The club paid handsome tribute to him and rightly lauded him as the man who had saved the club in its hour of greatest need – and then pushed on to create a team that represented the style desired by so many at Stamford Bridge. It is, however, probably best left to the players he inspired to relate his qualities. 

Pat Nevin waxed lyrical about the man who took him from Clyde into football’s big time, recalling Neal with unabashed affection and respect. “There was something special about him. A genuine wisdom is the best way to describe it. And that’s rare – not only in football, but quite rare in life too. I thought all managers would have that having been spoilt with my first couple. But I think I just got very lucky early on.

“He was softly spoken and incredibly likeable. In all my time working with him, I never had a negative word to say about him. I remember once being miffed after being left out in pre-season friendly because I wanted to play every game. I walked in fuming and came out calm, comfortable and happy. He turned players to his way of thinking and was very, very special.”

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Nevin went on: “He could build a team, beating and drawing against Liverpool who were the best in Europe when, only 18 months previously, the team he had were a kick from the Third Division. To be a good manager, you have to understand and deal with different personalities and characters and know how to get best out of each of them and so few people can do it. Players are not stupid and know when a manager has just read plenty of manuals. Those who have been around a bit can smell it a mile away.” 

It wasn’t only Chelsea players who had fond memories of John Neal. Joey Jones, brought through the ranks at Wrexham before being granted his big chance at Liverpool, was equally effusive, describing his ex-manger as “brilliant … a great man and manager.” 

Sadly, perhaps poetically, there was a neat symmetry about the game Chelsea played after hearing of the death of their former manager. A five-goal romp against Derby echoed the result of the club’s opening game of the 1983/84 campaign, when the Blues were destined to win the Division Two title. Somewhere high above, it would’ve brought a smile to the face of the club’s former manager.

There’s a great joy in the hearts of Chelsea fans of a certain vintage who recall with fondness the times when Neal’s team jumped into the First Division with both feet, causing an enormous splash and harrying the established powers as a young, vibrant and entertaining team laid about them with hardly a care. Dixon and Speedie terrorised defences and Chelsea seemed set for a glorious future. Such joy is also tinged with regret at what might have been.

Neal’s managerial career was full of success and his adherence to a policy of positive football played by squads he had developed never wavered. At Stamford Bridge, despite being a native of the north-east, he found his spiritual home and took the club to his heart. Had he not been denied another five years at the helm in west London, who knows what acclaim he could have achieved.

For all that sadness and melancholy, though, there’s a comfort that before he left this mortal coil, he saw his club achieve a league and cup double, and the highest point for a club in European football by lifting the Champions League. If a five-goal triumph over Derby would’ve made the late manager smile, one can only imagine the grin, and lift, the victory in Munich must’ve given him.

For Chelsea fans around at the time, most of this story will already be known, but for the younger generation, there’s great value in knowing where the club once was and how it got to where it is today. John Neal’s legacy at Stamford Bridge is a major part of that tale. 

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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