True heroes, modest to a man – meeting Chelsea’s 1955 champions

WHEN Chelsea won the 2005 Premier League, it was a fairy-tale for long suffering fans of the club. Those that had enjoyed Chelsea’s 1970 and 1971 triumph had to endure a 26-year period before another trophy was won and rarely, if ever, were the blues serious contenders in that timeframe. League titles were won by other clubs. The timing of that 2005 success couldn’t have been better for it marked the 100th anniversary of the club’s foundation. Ironically, it was also 50 years since their last championship success in 1954-55.

The club marked its centenary with some classy events, notably a reunion of that 1955 side at the Chelsea Hospital, home of the red-uniformed pensioners, mostly former servicemen who were given the chance to live out their days in modest and sedate surroundings. I was fortunate to buy a couple of tickets for what was an excellent evening full of nostalgia and affection.

Hosted by Jimmy Hill, and including guests such as the wonderful Tom Finney, this was money well spent. Mingling with men who had won Chelsea’s first title was an enormous privilege, players who were mostly jobbing footballers who were moulded into a consistent unit that took on more celebrated and more fancied teams. Ted Drake, their manager, who I had the good fortune to meet in the 1970s, had made improvements to the club when he arrived in 1952. Chelsea were underachieving, unpredictable, too comfortable in their own skin and too often satisfied with also-ran status. They had not won a major honour since being founded in 1905. 

Drake fancied they were a decent FA Cup team, but he longed for the club to shake off its nickname of “The Pensioners” and become more dynamic. At the time, Wolves, under Stan Cullis, and Matt Busby’s Manchester United were in the ascendancy and in 1954, the Molineux side were league champions. Chelsea’s side made progress in 1953-54, finishing eighth.

At the Chelsea hospital, 11 members of the squad that won the title in 1955 were present. Sadly, not everyone was there as the passage of time had already taken its toll: Bill Robertson (1973), Stan Wicks (1983), Ken Armstrong (1984), John Harris (1988) and Peter Sillett (1998) had all passed away before 2005. Most of the other players were there, some more chirpy than others, notably the beaming Stan Willemse.

This was a group of players who were extremely proud of their achievement, but there was no hubris, no element of arrogance whatsoever. This was a team of achievers who had cost, in transfer terms, around £ 104,000 and the highest fee – £ 23,000 – was paid for Eric “Rabbit” Parsons of West Ham United. He was there, blazered, unassuming and smiling, enjoying the company of old comrades.

Most arrived at Chelsea from smaller clubs, with the exception of Roy Bentley, the captain and talisman of the team. He cost £ 11,000 from Newcastle United. The rest came from clubs like Orient, Clyde, Brighton, Reading and Southend. There were also gifted amateurs in the form of Seamus O’Connell and Jim Lewis as well as former Walthamstow defender Derek Saunders.

It was marvellous to talk to these fellows, and I had a brief discussion with Lewis about his disputed penalty in the 1961 semi-final of the FA Amateur Cup against Hitchin, my local club. I asked him if he felt it was a penalty and his response was, “I’m going to take the Arséne Wenger approach and say I didn’t see the incident.”

Bentley was happy to talk about his career and the magnificent spirit that carried the 1955 team to the title. “We may not have been the most talented group of players, but we were certainly the best team that year,” he said as he signed my team photo and passed it among his team-mates when we were back at the Stamford Bridge hotel.

Almost to a man, the team seemed surprised by people’s interest and affection, but they were names out of old programmes, Pathe newsreels and yellowing press cuttings. There was also a little sadness that, in all probability, this might be the last time they were all together. For some, it proved just that. Since 2005, those heroes of 1955 who attended have all gone: Johnny McNichol (2007), Chic Thomson (2009), Bobby Smith (2010), Jim Lewis (2011), Les Stubbs (2011), Eric Parsons (2011), Stan Willemse (2011), Seamus O’Connell (2013), Peter Brabrook (2016), Roy Bentley (2018) and Derek Saunders (2018). Of the 20 players that appeared for Chelsea, only Frank Blunstone and Alan Dicks remain. Ron Greenwood, who started the campaign with Chelsea, died in 2006 and Rob Edwards, who made a cameo appearance, passed away in 2019.

It was a wonderful evening and the team photo of the 1955 team has a pride of place in my office. Never mind the showmanship of modern icons like Ronaldo, Zlatan and others, these gentleman (for that’s what they were), were real heroes of the people.

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