THE WREXHAM CONNECTION
Younger supporters and our good friend Johnny Come Lately would surely find it impossible to reconcile the current Chelsea with the late-70s/early-80s version, when the only thing worse than the club’s league position was its financial one. In the aftermath of chairman Brian Mears’ ambitious but ultimately disastrous East Stand redevelopment, a club that had been referred to as ‘Cup Kings of Europe’ in 1971, found itself relegated to the Second Division on two separate occasions before the decade was out.
After parting company with the excellent Eddie McCreadie in the summer of 1977, Mears’ final four years at the helm saw three different managers – Ken Shellito, Danny Blanchflower and Geoff Hurst – try and fail to restore the glory days to an ailing club. However, like McCreadie before them, all three had one thing in common: none had managed a league club previously.
The appointment of John Neal in the summer of 1981 was Mears’ last act as chairman, as within days of the new manager’s arrival, Mears was ousted from his position. That final act, however, would prove to be a significant one, as Neal became the first member of Chelsea’s magnificent Wrexham Connection to sign up for a stint in SW6.
Joining from Middlesbrough, having cut his managerial teeth during a successful spell in North Wales, Neal took the reins at a time when the club was in turmoil – he took charge of a team that had failed to find the net in 19 of their last 22 league matches! Assisted by former team-mate Ian McNeill, a fine coach and outstanding talent-spotter, Neal set about lifting spirits at the Bridge, but it was soon evident that where some of his players were concerned, he was fighting a losing battle. Within weeks of taking over, Neal had seen his side beat top-flight Southampton in a League Cup clash, only to suffer a humiliating 6-0 reverse at Rotherham three days later. Certain individuals who had stretched every sinew to defeat Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon et al on a famous night at the Bridge, plainly could not be bothered to do the same on a chilly day in Yorkshire. Later that season, Chelsea earned a magnificent FA Cup victory against European champions Liverpool, just weeks before another drubbing by Rotherham, 4-1 at home.
Aware of a lack of professionalism within his young squad, Neal began to look to the north to recruit players who would be willing to sweat blood for the privilege of wearing the famous royal blue shirt. In came Bryan Robson, David Speedie and Tony McAndrew, followed soon after by a player whose career had begun under Neal’s guidance during his time in charge at Wrexham.
Joey Jones became the second member of the Wrexham Connection to join when he moved south in October 1982. Adored by the supporters of the Welsh club and those of Liverpool, for whom he had won league titles and European Cups, the abrasive left-back was less popular at Chelsea, having dished out some rough stuff to the surprisingly well-liked Clive Walker on a few occasions previously. Within days of his arrival, Jones had received hate-mail from his own fans, and when he made his debut for the club at Carlisle a few days later, he was roundly booed by both sets of supporters. The only cheer he received from the travelling fans that day came when he was sent-off midway through the second half!
However, it wasn’t long before the supporters began to appreciate the new man’s fearless tackling and boundless enthusiasm, and after splitting his head open and refusing to be substituted in a clash with Bolton Wanderers just before Christmas, he suddenly found himself playing the role of crowd favourite. As a dreadful 1982/83 season took shape, Chelsea found themselves slipping ever closer to the relegation trapdoor, but somehow Joey managed to galvanise the entire club, bringing together the warring factions within the playing ranks, and lifting the atmosphere on the terraces with his legendary pre-match fist-clenching ritual. At the end of the season, with relegation to Division Three and a possible ticket to oblivion for the entire club averted by just two points, the player who had been booed on his debut was the overwhelming winner of the supporters’ Player of the Year trophy. Joey Jones’ importance to Chelsea Football Club should never be underestimated.
That summer, goalkeeper Eddie Niedzwiecki left Wrexham to join his old boss at the Bridge, as John Neal plundered the lower league transfer market to stunning effect. His revamped team, which now also included Joe McLaughlin, Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin and Nigel Spackman, started impressively, and hit top spot in Division Two on New Year’s Eve. Replacing overworked teenager Steve Francis between the sticks, the likeable and popular Niedzwiecki was a commanding influence on a back-four that proved hard to beat throughout that season. However, when his side did suffer consecutive defeats at the start of 1984, Neal once again turned to a player he had introduced to league football as a youngster at the Racecourse Ground.
Mickey Thomas was made for a set of supporters brought up on the likes of Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke and Ian Hutchinson. Despite his reputation as something of a maverick, the fans loved Thomas from day one, and two goals in a top-of-the-table clash with Sheffield Wednesday on his home debut simply served to cement his immediate hero status. After joining the club in early January, Mickey and Chelsea never lost another game all season. Promotion was clinched with a 5-0 win over Leeds in late-April, and Niedzwiecki, Jones and Thomas were all on the pitch as the whistle blew to confirm Chelsea’s return to the top-flight.
John Neal underwent major heart surgery at the end of that campaign, and was forced to take something of a back-seat as he recovered throughout the following season. However, the Blues made a successful return to Division One, and their top-six finish was supplemented by an exciting run to the Milk Cup semi-finals. Again, the ex-Wrexham contingent featured heavily in that season’s successes, so it was particularly galling that at the end of the campaign, Neal was replaced by in-demand coach John Hollins, and the new manager – who was accused by some players of stabbing Neal in the back – almost immediately moved Jones and Thomas on to Huddersfield and West Bromwich Albion respectively. The pathetic decision to replace Thomas with Crystal Palace’s Jerry Murphy perhaps sums up the entire Hollins era, whilst the fact that it took the manager two years to buy an adequate replacement for Jones – Aston Villa’s Tony Dorigo – simply adds to the folly of his decision to dispense with the services of the crowd favourite.
John Neal took on a short-lived consultancy role which ended little more than a year later after he publicly criticised his successor, by which time Niedzwiecki was in the process of trying to get his career back on track after an horrific knee injury suffered in a clash with QPR’s Steve Wicks. Devastatingly for all concerned, the injury occurred at a time when the Blues goalkeeper was in the form of his life. He battled back for a while, but when he suffered a repeat in October 1987 there was simply no way back. He embarked on a varied coaching career with the Blues which, even allowing for a short spell away from the Bridge as assistant manager to Ian Porterfield at Reading, lasted for more than a decade, until he was finally forced to depart when Claudio Ranieri took the helm.
Despite his Wearside roots, John Neal now lives back in Wrexham. The official line fed to the club’s supporters when he was removed from office in 1985 was that it was for health reasons following his heart surgery, yet here we are nearly 27 years later and he’s still going strong.
Eddie Niedzwiecki is first-team coach at Blackburn Rovers, joining fellow Chelsea old-boys Mark Hughes and Kevin Hitchcock on the Ewood Park management staff. He has been in much demand since leaving Stamford Bridge, and has also worked with Arsenal and for the Welsh national team during Hughes’ time in charge. In January he received a long-overdue presentation on the Stamford Bridge pitch in recognition of the magnificent service he gave to the club.
Mickey Thomas continued his nomadic travels after leaving Chelsea, and eventually ended his career where he had started it, at Wrexham. At the age of 37, the former Chelsea hero slammed a magnificent free-kick past David Seaman, as the Welshmen famously sent Arsenal packing in an FA Cup third round clash. After a spell in prison for printing his own currency, Mickey is now working in the media, and hosts his own show on Manchester-based radio station Century FM.
Joey Jones also returned to Wrexham to end his career, after a successful spell at Huddersfield for whom he was twice awarded the accolade of Player of the Year. In 2002 a heart defect was discovered and, like John Neal before him, Joey was forced to undergo a life-saving operation. He remains on the management staff at the Racecourse Ground, coaching the reserve team and, latterly, assisting novice boss Brian Carey with the Wrexham first-team.
Wrexham’s fortunes have plummeted dreadfully in recent seasons, not helped by off-field distractions. A long, hard-fought battle against an unscrupulous chairman, whose sole intention, it seemed, was to sell the Racecourse Ground to line his own pockets, was eventually won after a spell in administration, but a mandatory 10-point penalty imposed on the club for calling in the administrators pre-empted a slide down the league table which eventually saw them relegated to the bottom-flight. They are no longer in administration, but money remains as tight as ever. At the time of writing, they sit second from bottom in Division Two, and in grave danger of losing their league status.
I was recently privileged enough to travel up to the Racecourse Ground with a couple of friends for a look behind the scenes on the day that Wrexham took on Hartlepool. What I found was an incredibly friendly club, a club that the local community is rightly proud of, and one that does not deserve to be suffering its current predicament. The club that unearthed four of Chelsea’s most significant performers of the 1980s is in trouble, and how they could use a helping hand from one of football’s giants. No doubt next summer the mighty Blues will be undertaking a few glamorous pre-season fixtures to whet the appetites of the supporters for the 2007/08 campaign, but is it really too much to ask that Chelsea also consider sending a team to North Wales to give a healthy pay day to a club in need that was once very kind to them?