Les Stubbs: Tenacious forward who helped Chelsea to their first League title in 1955
Wednesday 23 February 2011
Les Stubbs was a salt-of-the-earth type of footballer, short on artistry but long on strength, commitment and physical courage, sterling qualities which helped Chelsea to the League title of 1954-55. It was the first major trophy in their history and a triumph which destroyed forever the club's unfair image as a music-hall joke.
Although the energetic front-runner supplied a mere five goals in 27 appearances during the campaign and lost his place periodically to a precociously gifted young amateur, Seamus O'Connell, he proved an admirable and unselfish foil to Roy Bentley, the elegant England international marksman. Ever the stout cudgel to Bentley's stylish rapier, Stubbs typified the indomitable spirit of Ted Drake's modestly assembled but impeccably drilled combination, which defied widespread expectations that the more fashionable Wolverhampton Wanderers or Manchester United would prevail. True, the men from Stamford Bridge suffered 10 defeats and garnered what was to remain the lowest championship-winning points total (52) since the War, but still they finished the equivalent of two wins better off than their nearest rivals, Wolves.
As a teenager Stubbs had shone for Great Wakering Rovers, the club which carried the name of his home village in Essex and which still flourishes today, before joining neighbouring Southend United of the old Third Division South, in May 1948. The powerful rookie thrived at Roots Hall, weighing in with 40 goals in 83 games for the Shrimpers, a tally which attracted the attention of Drake, who was renowned for plucking talent from the League's lower reaches.
Stubbs moved to Stamford Bridge for £10,000 in November 1952, but made a slow start to life in the top flight, appearing only five times and failing to score as the Blues only narrowly avoided relegation the following spring. But gradually, as the shrewd Drake massaged his confidence, Stubbs blossomed, earning a regular place and scoring nine times as the team rose to the top half of the table in 1953-54.
That set him up for his telling contribution to the title-winning season, during which his ceaseless industry endeared him to the Stamford Bridge fans and suited the make-up of Chelsea's forward line. His fearless foraging in all attacking areas created plenty of space for Bentley and deep-lying inside-forward Johnny McNichol to exploit, while he linked effectively, too, with wingers Eric Parsons and Frank Blunstone.
Often Stubbs excelled in taxing away fixtures, such as at Sheffield United, where he struck the winner, and at Sunderland, where he registered in a 3-3 draw; but his most memorable hit came at Wolverhampton in December. That afternoon in the Molineux mud Chelsea were facing the reigning champions, who led 3-2 near the end before Stubbs eluded the England captain Billy Wright to equalise, then Bentley plundered the decisive goal in stoppage time.
Crucial though such contributions were, however, none were as spectacular as his 40-yard effort in a 4-1 demolition of Portsmouth at Stamford Bridge, where regulars talked about the raking trajectory of his shot for years afterwards. Yet just as Stubbs's star appeared firmly in the ascendancy, there came the challenge of O'Connell, who never turned professional, choosing instead to help his father in a cattle-dealing venture, and that despite scoring a hat-trick on debut in a 6-5 defeat at Old Trafford.
Despite O'Connell's refusal to forsake the family business, after the championship campaign Stubbs could never quite cement his claim to the No 10 shirt, and as the decade wore on he was engulfed by a rising tide of young talent, the likes of David Cliss, Ron Tindall, Peter Brabrook and the incomparable Jimmy Greaves.
They were tagged "Drake's Ducklings" by the newspapers, a nod in the direction of the Busby Babes, and although only one of them might have been expected to thrive with Manchester United before the Munich air crash of 1958 – Greaves would have walked into any team, in any era – the Stamford Bridge door was gradually being closed in Stubbs's face. Still, he played for a London representative side in the inaugural Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, set up in 1955 to promote international trade.
By the time of his transfer back to Southend in November 1952, Stubbs had accumulated a respectable 35 goals in 122 senior appearances for Chelsea. He remained with the Shrimpers for a season and a half before leaving the League, initially to serve Bedford Town, finally returning to his roots with Great Wakering. He played on for Rovers until he was 53, latterly in a pair of spectacles secured by an elastic band.
In 2005, half a century on from Chelsea's first League title, he was one of the survivors of Drake's team to attend the Stamford Bridge celebration of the club's second title, secured that year under José Mourinho.
Leslie Levi Stubbs, footballer: born Great Wakering, Essex 18 February 1929; married (one daughter, one son); died Great Wakering 1 February 2011.
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