John Neal came across as a decent man. Honest, earnest and an old-fashioned, no-nonsense football person. But in the modern era, Neal would never have got the chance to change Chelsea’s fortunes. Two lack lustre campaigns and he would have been out of the Stamford Bridge revolving door. But in his third season in charge at Chelsea, he created a team that ended a dismal period for the club playing an exciting brand of football that revived an ailing giant.
Neal, cigarette perpetually screwed into his craggy features, led Chelsea to promotion from the old second division and back into the top six of the first. After a period of steep decline, which threatened the very existence of the club, Neal gave Chelsea fans something to cheer about once more. The Chelsea of Dixon-Speedie-Nevin evoked memories of the Blues side of Osgood-Hutchinson-Hudson-Cooke.
Ken Bates will brush away a tear as he remembers Neal. It was Bates who demonstrated great faith in the former Wrexham and Middlesbrough manager after a string of managers had failed to rescusitate Chelsea . Bates didn’t appoint Neal, he inherited him when he bought the club for a quid in 1982. The straight-talking and equally no-nonsense Bates gave Neal a chance to prove himself. The 1981-82 season, Neal’s first, was an up and down affair, but the FA Cup run that included victory against eventual champions and European Cup holders Liverpool, suggested that Neal may have something in his kitbag that could change Chelsea’s fortunes. But the following campaign was near-catastrophic, with relegation to the third tier only just avoided.
Neal could well have been sent on his way, but Bates wanted to give him the resources to build a new Chelsea. It was clear that the club’s too-comfortable young players were never going to amount to much, so Bates and Neal went shopping in football’s bargain basement. Bates gave him the money – significant in the club’s austerity years, but still modest – to sign some promising and untapped talent. Players like Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, Eddie Niedzwiecki, Nigel Spackman and Joe McLaughlin arrived to build a new-look Chelsea side. It was a masterstroke and Chelsea, playing some of the most progressive football seen since the glory days of 1970, won the second division in dramatic fashion.
But while the celebrations at Grimsby, the 1-0 win that clinched the title, were in full flow, Neal was suffering with his heart. He was forced to take a back seat over the next two seasons, the second of which saw John Hollins take over as manager. Hollins, a popular player and all-round “nice guy” was not a good manager, though, and the team Neal had crafted, along with his assistant Ian McNeill, crumbled in disarray and relegation. Chelsea quickly bounced back, although they were never able to recapture the verve of the 1983-1986 period, until a decade later when Chelsea effectively “went continental”.
Neal’s earlier career deserves mention, however. Born in 1932 in Seaham, County Durham, he was a jobbing footballer with Hull City, Kings Lynn and Swindon Town before joining Aston Villa in 1959. He won the inaugural Football League Cup with Villa in 1961 but ended his playing career with Southend United in 1965. As a manager, he spent nine years with Wrexham and took the Welsh club to the last eight of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1976. He joined Middlesbrough in 1977 and four years on, was hired by Chelsea.
John Neal’s style and mannerisms belong to a different age. He couldn’t be more removed from the black-suited “mafia-managers” of the current globalised game. Not for him the “mind games” of the current profile or the petulance of the dugout. A man of integrity and endeavour. The team he built at Chelsea ended a dark, depressing decade for the club and that is how he will be remembered in South West London this week.
John Neal , 1932-2014.