John Neal’s passing brings feelings of pride and nostalgia as well as sadness

John Neal’s death brings deep sadness but, at the same time, his legacy instantly sparks feelings of overwhelming pride and happiness to thousands of Chelsea fans of a certain age.

Undoubtedly one of the most popular managers in the club’s history, Neal was only in charge for five years, but his impact was massive.

A lovely man who conducted himself with humility and class, and a wonderful football manager with an eye for a player and a brilliant awareness of how to treat people and get the best out of them.

The recent Roman Abramovich-inspired, Jose Mourinho-led success has been glorious. World-class players, incredible victories and stacks of trophies.

But the pure pleasure and satisfaction Neal’s 1981-1985 era brought tops that time for so many Blues fans in their late 30s, the 40-somethings – and beyond.

It’s difficult to explain to those who know no different; we are all spoilt, winning week after week with relative ease, racking up the trophies, worrying about finishing third in the league and getting jumpy if 25 minutes have gone by and it’s still 0-0 against a team “not worthy of challenging us”.

Watching the Blues nowadays is different. Vastly different. The domination of West Brom on Saturday was “beautiful”, as Mourinho pointed out. The trophies are wonderful. Munich – epic. Back-to-back Premier League wins – incredible. And so on.

But to anyone brought into the Chelsea bosom in the early 80s, the club that Neal helped rebuild and the exciting, vibrant young side he took back to the top flight via a truly wonderful 1983-84 season will always be special – and somehow more special than any ‘grown-up’ success if you are privileged enough to recall the troubled times.

Yes, it’s obviously much to do with misty-eyed reminiscing about your first team, your first heroes and the memories stirred when you got the football bug.

Canoville believes Salah can improve
The likes of Paul Canoville flourished under Neal at Chelsea

But it was still great. Neal’s team came back from the brink, won something, finished sixth in the top flight and by doing so qualified for Europe.

The team he had to pass on because of ill health should have won the league in 1985-86. They won at Wembley and gave about 40,000 fans – me included – a great day out.

We had oodles of young talent, full internationals and a goalscoring hero and England international in Kerry Dixon. That meant we even had club interest in the Mexico ’86 World Cup.

But it didn’t happen by chance.

Asking my dad who he supported in 1982 is my earliest football supporting memory. I lived in south London and everyone else in my class, bar one QPR fan, supported Liverpool.

Chelsea were at their lowest ebb. A famous, much-talked about win over Bolton at the end of that season in 1982/83 helped save us from relegation to England’s third tier for the first time – and it also most likely spared us oblivion.

Twelve months later and a new-look Chelsea won the Division Two title with an attacking side playing a consistently classy brand of football.

John Neal did that.

Neal’s super summer signings included Dixon, Eddie Niedzwicki, Joe McLaughlin, Nigel Spackman and Pat Nevin. And Blues legend John Hollins also re-signed in a playing and coaching role.

Kerry Dixon, Chelsea legend
Dixon, signed from Reading, went on to play for England

Existing talent was born again. David Speedie, Colin Pates, Paul Canoville, John Bumstead, Colin Lee and Joey Jones all made significant contributions and the championship was secured thanks to a Dixon goal away at Grimsby.

Before then, the nation got to see Neal’s side too.

At a time when seeing live football was a rare treat, seeing Chelsea live on TV was even rarer, and though Division Two football being shown was unheard of, the Blues got their chance to impress.

The 2-0 win at Manchester City, thanks to a fine Nevin finish and a sumptuous move that ended with Dixon emphatically heading home, was screened on the BBC.

Chelsea’s ‘Boys in Blue from Division Two’ were indeed not there that long. And the return to Division One saw that song replaced by “Chelsea are back”. An equally memorable first season followed, with the 1-1 draw away to Arsenal on the opening day getting things off to a brilliant start.

It still upsets Blues fans – of a certain age – that the Neal side never fulfilled their potential. But that’s another story. A much more painful, unhappy one.

Neal’s legacy should be, first and foremost, as a kindly, humble, gentle and hugely respected man who cared for and inspired his players in equal measure.

Players adored him: those who thrived under him speak in glowing terms, but those who were dropped or moved on are equally quick to praise his honesty, integrity and class.

But he was a darn good manager too. Anyone who saw the early to mid-’80s team he built play will testify to that.

Glenn Hoddle’s Stamford Bridge revolution was crucial in providing the platform for the current success.

But John Neal’s era dragged the club away from devastation and restored pride and excitement.

Thanks for the memories, John. Rest in peace.

Follow West London Sport on Twitter
Find us on Facebook