FROM LEFT WING TO B-WING – A TALE OF A CHELSEA LEGEND
It’s January 1984. Chelsea, after four years of Second Division mediocrity which almost culminated in relegation to Division Three just a few months earlier, have enjoyed an unexpectedly good first half of the 1983/84 season, rising to the top of Division Two, albeit briefly, on New Year’s Eve 1983. However, December wasn’t a good month for Chelsea, who were beaten at home twice and held to a 2-2 draw by Portsmouth at the Bridge also. And January hasn’t started any better, with defeat at Middlesbrough in the league being followed by an FA Cup third round loss at Blackburn. John Hollins is looking tired and leggy at right-back, the majestic Pat Nevin having to stifle his silky skills somewhat to cover for the 37-year-old behind him, while on the opposite flank, young Paul Canoville’s fine early season performances have given way to a spell of erratic form which has seen Peter Rhoades-Brown come into the picture for the left wing berth. Fortunately for Canners, Rhoades-Brown has yet again been unable to find any consistency, and soon drifts back into the reserves. But the service from the wings has dried up, leading to frustration for the previously prolific front-men, Kerry Dixon and David Speedie.
The experienced manager, John Neal, sensing a loss of momentum that could prove costly to the club’s promotion ambitions, moves swiftly to counter the problems. With a crucial match at Derby County on the horizon, Neal recalls Colin Lee, who had begun the season alongside Dixon in attack, in place of Hollins at right-back. The versatile Lee, though signed in 1980 as a striker, has previously figured at full-back, centre-back and in midfield for the Blues, to good effect. For the remainder of the season, and for the next couple of years, Lee offers sterling service behind Pat Nevin on Chelsea’s right.
The problem of the left flank cannot be rectified from within, so Neal persuades his chairman, Ken Bates, to go back in for Stoke City’s Mickey Thomas, who the Chelsea manager had tried to sign some 18 months earlier, only to be thwarted by his chairman’s cack-handed negotiating skills.
I joined Chelsea from Stoke, but before I went to Stoke I was playing for Brighton. I’d done a deal to go to Stoke when I got a call from Ken Bates. He was going “My name’s Ken Bates, I own this and I own that. My manager wants to sign you but I’ve been told not to touch you by a lot of people. Anyway, meet me in Piccadilly and we’ll do a deal”, so I said OK. Then I thought, ‘no way am I going to let someone talk to me like that’. I’d shaken on the deal to join Stoke so I stuck to it. To cut a long story short, I played for Stoke for a while but then Chelsea came back in for me and I wasn’t going to say no again. I thought they were the right club to re-ignite my career, and they certainly did that, that’s for sure.
I liked the name Chelsea and everything that went with it, the likes of Charlie Cooke in years gone by, so I already had a soft spot for them. Even though I’d played for so many clubs, Chelsea were the one club I’d always wanted to play for and as it turned out, they were the best I ever played for. I had the most enjoyable time of my life while I was with them. I loved Chelsea.
Neal, of course, knew exactly what he was doing. He had cut his managerial teeth to great success at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, and had given a young Mickey Thomas his league debut for the Welsh club. Better still, he also had two of Mickey’s great friends plying their trade at Stamford Bridge, Eddie Niedzwiecki and Joey Jones, both of whom had come up through Wrexham’s junior ranks alongside Mickey, and were now established as firm favourites amongst the Chelsea faithful. And Mickey was the type of player who was just made for a club like Chelsea, with its history and reputation for maverick characters and lovable rogues. A marriage made in heaven.
Mickey was 29 years old when Chelsea became the sixth club of his tumultuous career, which had included spells with Manchester United and Everton. On the very day that he moved to West London for £75,000, Neal incredibly managed to recoup his entire outlay by offloading Peter Rhoades-Brown to Oxford. No disrespect to Rhoades-Brown, but Mickey T was in a different league altogether, and the Blues supporters were salivating at the prospect of witnessing the skills of Nevin on one wing and Thomas on the other.
Mickey made his debut in freezing conditions at Derby, as the Rams were beaten 2-1. A week later came his home debut, against league leaders Sheffield Wednesday. Howard Wilkinson’s side went into the game with a three-point lead over Chelsea, who had also played two games more. The title already appeared to be heading for Hillsborough, but the Blues would not give up without a fight.
As home debuts go, Mickey’s wasn’t bad. By half-time, Chelsea led 2-0, and Mickey had scored them both, first when he raced through at the North Stand end of the ground to calmly beat Wednesday’s Martin Hodge in a one-on-one, and then with a neat finish as he stretched to toe-poke a bouncing ball past the visiting keeper. Those goals would prove crucial, because after Nevin had given the Blues a seemingly unassailable three-goal lead, Wednesday rallied late on to score twice.
My home debut was against Sheffield Wednesday… I scored two goals and the rest is history. I’d been told that Gate 13 was where all the lunatics were, so when I scored my first goal I ran straight over there. I did it again when I scored my second and this guy came out of the crowd and jumped all over me. Joey had my marked my card. I loved all the lunatic Chelsea boys though. I think when you get off to a start like I did the supporters quickly take you to their hearts, and I could do no wrong in their eyes.
Incredibly for a club that had suffered so many ups and downs in recent years, Chelsea finished that season unbeaten from Mickey’s debut onwards. That statistic alone tells you all you need to know about the Welshman’s influence on the team, but it doesn’t tell the full story, because so impressive was the Blues’ form throughout the final four months of the season that they even managed to overhaul Sheffield Wednesday’s lead at the top of Division Two, clinching the title on goal difference from their Yorkshire rivals. Mickey, who Pat Nevin described as being two players rolled into one – a left midfielder and a left winger – came to the fore once again as the big games came to pass in the final weeks of the season. He scored the opening goal at Fratton Park, where a win over Portsmouth would have clinched promotion, but the home side clawed back a two-goal deficit to snatch a draw. However, four days later, a 5-0 win over Dirty Leeds saw the Blues seal their place in Division One in emphatic style – and again it was Mickey who opened the scoring.
I scored the first goal against Leeds when we won 5-0 to clinch promotion. I ran into the crowd and I was wearing a gold chain, and as they [the supporters] yanked my shirt off, my gold chain went. I realised I’d lost the gold chain and I was like ‘oh no’, but everybody was just celebrating around me and it took about ten minutes just to get back out of the crowd. I thought, ‘I’ll never do that again!’.
The fans came on at the end of the game and they took my shirt off me, then they took my boots and my socks but I never used to wear anything under my shorts, and they were trying to get my shorts off me and I’m shouting, “NO, YOU CAN’T”.
As Chelsea made an impressive return to the top-flight, Mickey’s experience, guile and all round quality shone through, and no more so than throughout a thrilling League Cup run that should have taken them all the way to Wembley, but actually ended in semi-final defeat by Sunderland. That run, though, will always be fondly remembered for a quarter-final trilogy against old rivals Sheffield Wednesday, which was won in the very last minute of the third match, when Mickey rose to head Paul Canoville’s corner-kick into the back of the Wednesday net. However, that goal – scored in front of a heaving Shed – did not secure the biggest cheer the Welshman received throughout those three gargantuan ties with the Yorkshire side, and neither did his equaliser at Hillsborough after the Blues had trailed 3-0 at half-time [the game eventually ended 4-4]. No, the biggest cheer Mickey got from the Chelsea fans throughout those ties came earlier in the game at Hillsborough – and is the stuff of legend amongst all those who witnessed it to this very day.
We were losing three-nil and I thought we were going to lose the game, and this guy, [Sheffield Wednesday midfielder] Andy Blair, said something to Nigel Spackman. I said to him, “Leave it out, you’re winning three-nil”, so he said something about my missus. I said to Nigel, “He’s just said something personal so I’ll have to knock him out”. I didn’t mind people kicking me but I wasn’t having that.
It was a full house and we had about 8,000 lunatic Chelsea fans behind the goal that night, so I told him I was going to do him and he was like “oh yeah?”. Anyway, we got a corner so I said to Nigel, “You watch the referee, I’ll watch the linesman”, and as we were standing on the edge of the box I just hit him and knocked him spark out. The thing was, nobody saw it. The Wednesday players knew what I had done and they were all round me going, “You punched him”, and the referee came running over and actually said to me, “Did you hit him?” As he’s asking me the question, all the Chelsea fans behind the goal are singing ‘There’s only one Mickey Thomas’ and I’m going to them ‘shhh’. Anyway, I got away with it.
Sadly, that 1984/85 campaign would be Mickey’s last at Stamford Bridge, but what a swansong it proved to be, and it has to be said that few players have left their mark so succinctly on a club’s supporters than Mickey did during his 18-month spell in SW6. That summer, John Neal was pushed aside and replaced in the managerial hot-seat by John Hollins, who decided to do things his own way. Unfortunately, Hollins’ way was, more often than not, the wrong way. When Mickey – who, when not sleeping in the Stamford Bridge physio’s room, had travelled to training with his great pal Joey Jones from their North Wales homes – refused Hollins’ order to relocate to London in the summer of 1985, the new manager wasted no time in selling the Welsh star and replacing him with… wait for it… Jerry Murphy. It was an early sign of the disastrous times that would soon follow under Hollins’ stewardship.
I loved it at Chelsea, I loved the ride I was on and I really didn’t want to come off it, but I was my own worst enemy in the end. John Hollins took over and said, “If you don’t move to London you won’t play for Chelsea”, so I said, “I won’t be playing then”. I had no option but to leave, really.
But I never gave less than 100% for the club, and I can’t believe the recognition I still get from the Chelsea fans nowadays. I went down the King’s Road a couple of years ago and there were all these blokes on a bus singing my name. I don’t mind admitting that it nearly brought a tear to my eye, I couldn’t believe it.
That’s one thing about Chelsea, though, the fans are amazing. They are absolutely amazing. They travel in their numbers and I can’t imagine one player getting an ovation like the one I got [at West Brom] after I left. I couldn’t never play against Chelsea again after that, every time I came here I just got emotional and I couldn’t perform.
Mickey left the Bridge to join West Bromwich Albion for £100,000, and eventually racked up a total of eleven different Football League clubs before calling time on his career. His first club was also his last, Wrexham, and who will ever forget his stunning free-kick past David Seaman as, at the age of 37, our former wingman helped the Welsh side to a memorable FA Cup win over Arsenal. But age doesn’t seem to have diminished Mickey’s skills, as he showed in one recent televised Football Masters tournament when, at the age of 50 and in the colours of eventual winners Chelsea, he won the Player of the Tournament award, despite being the oldest player on show.
Of course, Mickey’s post-football troubles have been well-documented, with a spell in prison for distributing forged tenners being considered newsworthy enough to put him back on the front pages of a nation’s tabloid press. But such tribulations have done nothing to diminish the popularity of one of football’s most popular personalities – on the contrary, he is in more demand than ever these days, whether as a TV or radio pundit, or as one of the football world’s most polished after-dinner speakers, and in September of this year, his autobiography, Kickups, Hiccups, Lockups, will be published, which I am reliably informed will make particularly pleasant reading for supporters of the club Mickey Thomas openly admits were, “the best club I ever played for”.
Kelvin is the author of Celery! Representing Chelsea in the 1980s