"Going to see Chelsea tomorrow?"
"No thanks; they didn't come and see me when I was poor."
Suddenly the gags weren't quite so apposite as the realisation dawned that they could win the championship, though it wasn't until the end of March that the club surged to top of the table, bringing the prediction from their top scorer and captain, Roy Bentley: "We're there for the rest of the season."
His confidence was not misplaced, despite the proximity of the Busby Babes and other among the elite, including Aston Villa and Billy Wright's Wolverhampton Wanderers. The title was eventually won on Saturday 23 April, with the eclipse of Sheffield Wednesday. The following week, at Old Trafford, Matt Busby had his team line up to applaud the champions on, before beating them 2-1. But no longer would Chelsea be regarded as relegation escapologists, who might conjure a decent Cup run.
Forty-four years have elapsed since, during which that championship was to prove something of a freak of football nature. Now, finally, a Chelsea team has emerged capable of emulating that achievement, albeit one largely fashioned somewhere between Paris and Sardinia. Gianluca Vialli's cosmopolitan Chelsea may be a long way from the side that Ted Drake assembled, yet there is a discernible belief emanating from Stamford Bridge that history is about to be repeated.
It may all change by Easter, but, for the moment, such has been the level of underachievement in the Premiership that not only do all the "Big Four", at present leading the table, have substantial claims, but it would be unwise to rule out entirely Leeds - despite David O'Leary's protestations that his team are in no way contenders - or Liverpool either.
Manchester United remain the bookmakers' favourites, but they have failed to win more than half their matches, conceded 23 goals in the process, and have the Champions' League and the BSkyB bid as distractions. Despite a large squad, they remain vulnerable in defence whatever the formation, as Chelsea demonstrated on Tuesday, and if they do actually reach the Champions' League final and secure the title it would be a quite remarkable feat. Alex Ferguson would merit every honour they threw at him. Aston Villa, ignored like the pace-maker in a classic horserace, may yet show more endurance than many suspect and though Arsenal's first half of the season has appeared fitful, significantly they have yielded only 11 goals (and three of those in one half at Aston Villa). But doubts persist about their quality when Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka are absent.
Chelsea have drawn half their games, but on the evidence of their two recent games against United, continue to press the strongest claim, in terms of technique and movement, to securing that elusive title. Only Arsenal have a more miserly rearguard, although conversely, as illustrated by the profligacy of Tore Andre Flo and the otherwise admirable Gianfranco Zola on Tuesday night, they are too frequently pressing the "stun" button when they should be hitting "destruct". If they can regain their prowess in front of goal, which will be aided by the return of the injured Gustavo Poyet, their long overdue challenge for the title can be sustained.
In a number of respects, Drake, Chelsea's first track-suited manager, who imported half a team, instilled a new team morale after moving to Stamford Bridge from Reading in 1952, was not entirely dissimilar to the man who has become Chelsea's first v-necked pullover manager. "Before, there had been cliques among the players, but Ted turned it into a family club and created a great team spirit," recalled Bentley. "We'd have a go at each other on the field if we did something stupid, but we'd sweat blood for our team-mates. We really believed we would win something. There'd never been that feeling at Chelsea in my time before that."
The previous four seasons Chelsea had finished 20th, 19th, 19th and then, rather more propitiously, eighth. It was no wonder that as the Manchester City of yesteryear, they had been the constant source of vaudeville comics' material. "There must have been 101 jokes about us, but that was partly because we attracted a lot of the West End stars as fans," said the England forward Bentley, now 74, who had been bought to replace Tommy Lawton, and became leading scorer in eight consecutive seasons. "I remember The Crazy Gang used to watch us. In those days, Chelsea had a great crowd, and big crowds, too - the average was about 60,000 - and they always appreciated good football. That was why visiting teams liked going there. They got as good a reception as we did. Ted wanted to alter that. He wanted to make it place where opponents did not want to come."
Today, the principal concern is not so much a benign response from the fans towards visitors; more that Vialli's much-debated rotation system will self-destruct. "I'm not sure about his method of selection," said Bentley, who played in all but one game in a title season when terms like "burn-out" had yet to be invented. "Vialli seems to be handling it well, but it's when they go through a bad spell that he will be tested. It's a hell of a job keeping players happy when they're not playing."
However, he added: "Chelsea have a great chance of the championship with such a strong squad, but they must score more goals. They can't miss them like Flo was doing the other night." Someone to score 21 goals in 41 games, like Bentley achieved all those years ago. That would do nicely.
P W D L F A Pts
1 Chelsea 42 20 12 10 81 57 52
2 Wolves 42 19 10 13 89 70 48
3 Portsmouth 42 18 12 12 74 62 48
4 Sunderland 42 15 18 9 64 54 48
5 Man Utd 42 20 7 15 84 74 47
6 Aston Villa 42 20 7 15 72 73 47
7 Man City 42 18 10 14 76 69 46
FA Carling Premiership
P W D L F A Pts
1 Aston Villa 20 11 6 3 31 20 39
2 Chelsea 20 9 10 1 31 17 37
3 Man Utd 20 9 8 3 39 23 35
4 Arsenal 20 9 8 3 22 11 35
5 Leeds 20 8 9 3 34 19 33
6 West Ham 20 9 5 6 24 23 32
7 Liverpool 20 9 4 7 36 25 31