John Neal: The Quiet Hero With Profound Impact

Chelsea have had a lot of managers in recent years. Many, if not most, since the appointment of Ruud Gullit in 1996, have won a trophy. Including interim managers, we’ve had 15 different managers – including two spells for Guus Hiddink and Jose Mourinho – and 9 of them have won major trophies. With such constant change, it is difficult for a manager to have the kind of profound impact that John Neal had.

John Neal: He could have been Chelsea's Ferguson. Credit |
John Neal: He could have been Chelsea’s Ferguson. Credit |

John Neal was a manager whose impact can be described as profound. There’s a strong argument that had his health had allowed, he had the potential to be Chelsea’s Ferguson – a man who built a club and took it to the top. Neal was Chelsea manager between 1981 and 1985, at about the time this writer began supporting the club.

The impact of a manager on a football club should never be measured just in the trophies they won. Especially at Chelsea, who have only become serious contenders in the last two decades, and in particular under the ownership of Roman Abramovich. There are a few managers in Chelsea’s 116 year-history who’ve had a huge impact at Stamford Bridge, but not won any of the major trophies. John Neal was one such manager.

John Neal: The Saviour Chelsea Needed

Neal as a player had been a tough tackling full back, playing for the likes of Hull City and Aston Villa. In management, he spent nine years at Wrexham, gaining them promotion from the fourth division, and taking them to the Cup Winners’ Cup and FA Cup Quarter Finals. He then went to Middlesbrough for four years, before succeeding Geoff Hurst as Chelsea manager in 1981.

Chelsea at the time were in turmoil. Ken Bates had just bought the club for £1 and taken on debts of £5m – around £19m in today’s money. And although Ken Bates was rich, he wasn’t so rich he could just pay off the debts in one fell swoop. Not only that, but Chelsea Football Club and it’s ground Stamford Bridge had just been sold – to different people. Meanwhile the team itself was in Division Two – now known as the Championship – and had been there for several years. The team was poor and needed investment, but no money was available initially.

Neal’s first full season (1982-1983) was probably one of the lowest points in Chelsea history. Chelsea finished in the lowest position in their history, 18th in division two, avoiding relegation to the third tier of English football on goal difference alone.

Nowadays that would have fans calling for the manager to be sacked. But the context was so different then.

“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. He turned players to his way of thinking and was very, very special.”

Pat nevin on john neal

John Neal: Players, Promotion and New Beginnings

In the summer of 1983 money was finally available for signings. Arriving were players who would become Chelsea cult heroes, including winger Pat Nevin, and the most significant of all, striker Kerry Dixon – who would go on to score 193 goals for the Blues. Also arriving that summer were midfielder Nigel Spackman, goalkeeper Eddie Niedzwiecki, defender Joe McLaughlin, and John Hollins returned to the club as player/coach. Neal was laying foundations for a new Chelsea side.

The next season was nothing short of spectacular. Chelsea won second division title and promotion back to the top division with 88 points, on goal difference again. Kerry Dixon top scored that season with 34 goals.

John Neal: A shrewd football mind, he signed storied Chelsea greats like Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin and Eddie Niedzwiecki. Credit | BBC
John Neal: A shrewd football mind, he signed storied Chelsea greats like Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin and Eddie Niedzwiecki. Credit | BBC

Chelsea were in the top division. John Neal was still only 52 and looked like he could be a man to build a new Chelsea team to go back to the top. But only months after promotion, Neal was taken ill and heart surgery was required. Neal resumed his post and took Chelsea to a hugely creditable 6th place in their first season back in the top flight. Chelsea were once again established in the top flight of English football, and with a young side that, it seemed, had the potential to win trophies again, playing a stylish, attractive style of football the fans loved.

But sadly, the man who had built this team and achieved so much in such a short space of time, was still struggling with his health. So at only 53, he was forced to resign as manager. He was succeeded by former Chelsea player John Hollins, who the next season finished 6th again – but something had been lost. By the end of the 1987/1988 season he had left the club and Chelsea were relegated again.

Neal had stayed on as a director until another heart operation forced him to retire completely in 1986. Forced out of the game way too young, there is every chance if he had stayed, with his eye for talent, man-management and coaching prowess, that he could have created a truly great Chelsea side. But his impact on the club was massive nonetheless.

John Neal: Forever a Blue

Neal lived to see all the success of the late 90’s and see Chelsea’s early successes under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, including the Champions League win in 2012. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 82, and was given a fitting tribute by the club.

John Neal will always be remembered as the man who provided stability at arguably the lowest point in our history, and brought us back from the brink, to become a top side again.

In a way, he was a quiet Chelsea hero. The man who kept us afloat and helped us survive at our lowest point. He laid positive foundations for a strong Chelsea team, which sadly never reached its potential.

Written by The Score (@TheScore01)

Edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05)

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