Football: Shipperley shapes up to reach for the stars

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NO ONE should be surprised if Neil Shipperley goes on to make it big in professional football; after all it was written in the stars that he would. To be able to say that Russell Grant had a part in your discovery must point to mystical forces working on your behalf.

Mention 'star signs' to Chelsea punters however and instead of astral influences they are more likely to recall the unhappy fate of Dave Beasant and Robert Fleck. Nor has there been consolation in the shape of home-grown goalscoring talent working its way through the ranks to make a lasting impression for the club at the highest level.

Arguably the last to do so was Peter Osgood, favourite of the fans in a long-lamented halycon era. Shipperley, the 19-year-old who has served an impressive apprenticeship in the youths and reserves before making his mark in the Premiership, could just be the one to bridge a yawning gap.

As much as you can say of a youngster learning his trade in a man's world, Shipperley would appear to have a promising future. He has strength and power and shows a fair turn of pace. Goalscoring has never been a problem. And - a crucial requirement according to experienced observers who have seen other teenagers of extravagant ability wither under the fiercest spotlight - he shows a liking for the big occasion.

Russell Grant's patronage of the Middlesex Charity Cup and his friendship with the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, provided the opportunity for Shipperley to come to the attention of the club's star spotter, Gwyn Williams.

It was four years ago when Chelsea sent a reserve-strength side to face Brook House, a Spartan League outfit, in the competition. Only three minutes had passed when Williams's attention was drawn to a player on the other side.

He explained: 'The ball was hoisted over our back four and their centre-forward sets chase after it and beats Frank Sinclair for pace. I could not believe it because everyone knows Frank is one of the quickest defenders in the game. In this job you watch a lot of games and see a lot of players and little things like that stay in your mind.

'Neil was already quite big and strong and my initial impression was that he was probably about 19 and had already passed through one or two league clubs. It turned out he was only 151 2 and I thought we might have stumbled on to something special. I told our youth team manager that we had to move quickly to snap him up.'

Apart from his physical and technical attributes Shipperley had the advantage of a father who had sampled the rigours of the professional game and has been able to guide him down the right path from an early age. Dave Shipperley was a dependable centre-half for Charlton, Reading and Gillingham and Neil inherited his love for the game.

'He went training with QPR for a time and and there was also interest from Fulham but I did not push it because he was young and because, selfishly, I wanted him to train with us,' explained the senior Shipperley, who was then in charge of Brook House.

'I have tried to warn him about the pitfalls that might lay in his way. I impressed on him the need to keep working hard at his game. When he was fixed up with QPR I said that if his school work suffered or if he went around bragging that he was with a pro club I would stop him going. As it turned out, it was never a problem and it was more likely to be me doing the bragging.

'I have seen too many young players get fixed up with a club only to stop working at their game, convinced they have already made it. Fortunately, Neil's attitude has always been pretty good.

'I remember his second game for the first team came at Manchester United at the end of last season. Chelsea lost 3-0 and he was taken off. On the way home his head was down and I had to remind him that there was nothing to feel ashamed about. After all, in Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce he had just faced probably the best two central defenders in the game.'

' 'Dad,' he said, 'I'm going to get out on the training ground and work hard until I am as good as those players.' That told me there was little wrong with his attitude.'

With goals arriving frequently for Shipperley in both last season's youth team (32) and the reserves (14) the final step up was never going to be long in coming. He was given his debut against Wimbledon in April and, somewhat inevitably, marked the occasion with a goal.

This time round should have been a learning process, a few games here, a few there. Needs must, however, and injuries to Tony Cascarino and the failure of both Robert Fleck and John Spencer to make a significant impression on Chelsea's new management team of Glenn Hoddle and Peter Shreeves have ensured a strenuous winter workload.

The goal that defeated Liverpool in September gave Shipperley a national audience. Since then his progress has been steady rather than spectacular. Dad says there is still work to be done on his heading ability and his left foot is not yet as strong as it could be. But then aren't fathers always the hardest to please.

(Photograph omitted)