Stan Willemse: Formidable defender who helped Chelsea to their first League title in 1954/55

When Tom Finney, as brave and brilliant as any winger the domestic game has known, was asked to name the most physically formidable opponent he had faced, his reply was instant and unequivocal.

The great man's verdict went to Stan Willemse, left-back in the Chelsea side which won the League title in 1954/55, a pacy, immensely brawny athlete yet also a footballer of poise and considerable quality.

Willemse tackled like a runaway tank and was the rock on which so many illustrious flankmen foundered, particularly during that memorable campaign in which the Stamford Bridge club became champions for the first time in their history.

As befitting a former Royal Marine who survived a shrapnel wound at Dunkirk, he was not a man to be carried away by sporting triumph, even cutting short his celebrations on the day the crown was confirmed by a home victory over Sheffield Wednesday so that he might watch his greyhound run at Brighton.

After shining at schoolboy level, Willemse joined his local club, Brighton and Hove Albion, and made his first-team entrance as a 16-year-old in emergency wartime competition. Then came his military contribution in France before his first senior games, as an inside-left during a quartet of FA Cup encounters early in 1946.

That summer he signed professional forms, soon after which he was converted to left-back and became a fixture in the number-three shirt, excelling even as the Seagulls finished bottom of the Third Division (South) in 1947/48, then helping them rise to sixth place in the table a season later.

Duly Willemse's consistent excellence attracted the attention of top-flight clubs and in July 1949 he was transferred to Chelsea for £6,500, the cash helping to pay for much-needed improvements to the Goldstone Ground, which had been damaged by German bombs.

Unthinkably in today's climate, most of the locally-based players were employed by the club's builders during the close season, thus going on to perform in front of a stand they had helped to erect. Willemse, delighted that his fee – the highest ever received by Brighton at the time – had proved so useful to a club which always retained his affection, scratched his initials into the wet concrete footing of the new edifice.

He took a little longer to make his mark at Stamford Bridge, at first finding himself in the shadow of veteran Billy Hughes before the Welsh international was injured. Willemse seized his opportunity, impressing in several lengthy spells for Billy Birrell's strugglers, though it was not until the arrival of Ted Drake as manager in 1952 that he claimed a regular berth.

Having survived the major changes instituted by the new boss, the tall, powerful defender began to thrive. Effective in the air and an accurate passer as well as being unceremoniously forceful at need – though it should be asserted that he was essentially fair in his application of the rules of the game – he became a favourite with the Bridge faithful and played a telling part in the Pensioners' remarkable transformation from perennial relegation battlers to champions in 1955.

Certainly, while England marksman Roy Bentley was the side's acknowledged star, the left-flank link between the full-back, wing-half Derek Saunders and winger Frank Blunstone was integral to the team's success. Willemse proved versatile, too, taking over the number-11 spot when Blunstone was injured in the spring, scoring in a win over Sunderland and acquitting himself admirably in a victory at Tottenham.

Chelsea clinched the prize with 52 points – still the most meagre total since the war, taking into account the later switch from two points for a win to three – but still the side deserved enormous credit for overcoming the likes of Stan Cullis's Wolves and the emerging Busby Babes of Manchester United.

Although Willemse never earned a full international cap, he played for England 'B' against Switzerland in 1953 and for the Football League against the Scottish League in 1954, then represented London twice in a new European competition, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (forerunner of the current Europa League), in 1955.

Willemse's lack of top-level recognition could be ascribed to the vast accomplishment of United's Roger Byrne, who had just broken into Walter Winterbottom's England set-up when Chelsea lifted their title; and by the time the Mancunian had perished in the Munich air disaster of 1958, the older man was well past his prime.

Indeed, having made 221 senior appearances for the west Londoners, Willemse had been sold to Leyton Orient for £4,500 in June 1956, but not before featuring, albeit almost indiscernibly, in one of the most famous of all football photographs. As he hurled himself into a typical high-velocity challenge on Tom Finney at a saturated Stamford Bridge, the defender was virtually submerged in spray while the "Preston Plumber" somehow managed to retain his balance. That was no mean feat given the identity of his opponent, and the resultant image was truly memorable.

Willemse, judged surplus to requirements at Chelsea due to the rise of a new generation – dubbed "Drake's Ducklings" by the press – did well for Orient, who were newly promoted to the second tier. His experience was hugely valuable as he helped them to consolidate over two seasons before he retired in May 1958.

Thereafter he was landlord of a Brighton pub, then ran a betting shop before working as a security officer for the University of London.

When Chelsea claimed their second League championship, in 2005, Willemse and his old comrade Bentley carried the trophy on to the Stamford Bridge pitch prior to its presentation to modern captain John Terry.

Willemse is the third member of the 1955 team to die this year, following the demise of forwards Les Stubbs and Eric Parsons in February.

Stanley Bernard Willemse, footballer: born Hove, Sussex 23 August 1924; played for Brighton and Hove Albion 1946-49, Chelsea 1949-56, Leyton Orient 1956-58; died 5 August 2011.

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