Nevin remembers Neal – the ‘special’ manager who brought him to Chelsea

Former Chelsea star Pat Nevin says John Neal was a “special” man and manager, whose wisdom set him apart from his contemporaries.

Neal, who signed Nevin in 1983, died at the age of 82 on Sunday.

And the former Scotland winger says the man often credited with rebuilding the club during its darkest days deserves all the tributes that have followed.

“There was something special about him,” Nevin, now a respected pundit, told West London Sport. “A genuine wisdom is the best way to describe it. And that’s rare – not only in football, but quite rare in life too.

Soccer - Canon League Division Two - Chelsea Photocall

“He looked at me and said ‘Wee Pat, take him on you can turn him inside out’

Pat Nevin remembers John Neal

“I thought all managers would have that having been spoilt with my first couple. But I think I just got very lucky early on.

“He was softly spoken and incredibly likeable. In all my time working with him, I never had a negative word to say about him.

“I remember once being miffed after being left out in pre-season friendly because I wanted to play every game. I walked in fuming and came out calm, comfortable and happy.

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

Neal managed the Blues from 1981 to 85 and provided the nous,  calmness and steady influence to not only help save the club from financial ruin, but rebuild the team and take them to title challengers in the top flight.

The 1983-84 promotion season was a highlight for many supporters as a new-look side inspired by summer signings Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Eddie Niedzwicki, Joe McLaughlin and Nigel Spackman won the Division Two championship in style.

“Yes, he could build a team, beating and drawing against Liverpool who were the best team in Europe when only 18 months previously the team he had were a kick from the Third Division,” Nevin said.

“But he had wisdom in the widest sense To be good manager you have to understand and deal with different personalities and characters and know how to get best out of each of them and so few people can do it.

“Players are not stupid and know when a manager has just read plenty of manuals. Those who have been around a bit can smell it a mile away.”

Had it not been for Neal, Nevin’s football career in England may not even have started.

“I was living a great life in Scotland, enjoying my life and my football,” Nevin explained. “But John talked me into coming down and it changed my life totally.

“When I got down as a 19-year-old most people were not expecting me to get in the first team but I managed to get player of the year in my first season, and the main reason for that was that he totally and utterly believed in me and my ability.

“He knew this kind of scrawny, unfootball-like footballer could take pressure and play a bit. Before games, he would say ‘give the ball to Pat and he’ll win you the game’.

Soccer - Canon League Division One - Chelsea Photocall

“He was a lovely, lovely guy and a great football man.”

Former Chelsea star Paul Canoville

“That made you feel amazing. He had a feeling I could deal with the pressure and was strong enough to cope, and he had total faith in me.

“How he knew me that well I don’t know. But he must have utterly understood me.”

The bond remained strong between Neal and many of his players.

Former Blues winger Paul Canoville – Chelsea’s first black player – has described the manager who signed him from non-League football as “a lovely, lovely guy who treated people with respect”.

And Micky Thomas and Joey Jones, who both played under Neal at Chelsea and Wrexham, were also full of praise for the County Durham-born former Hull, Swindon, Aston Villa and Southend defender.

Jones said his man management was “brilliant” and he was a “great man and manager”,  while Thomas tweeted: “RIP John Neal. He gave me my chance not just in football but in life. Thanks you for the great times I had Wrexham and Chelsea.”

Nevin fondly recalls his last meeting with Neal, when he spent several hours in his company.

“I visited him about a year ago when I drove down from Scotland to his home in north Wales,” Nevin said. “His memory was playing tricks on him a bit but at times he was really sharp.

“As I was leaving I walked past a picture on wall of me on the wall and he broke out into this big beaming smile.

“He looked at me and said ‘Wee Pat, take him on you can turn him inside out’. That’s what he used to say to me when I played.

“It made me feel I was alright and could play a bit. He was special.”

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