Champions in black and white

Exactly 50 years ago today, Chelsea won their first League title. With the club about to emulate that feat, Phil Shaw talks to Frank Blunstone, a key player in that side, about the difference half a century can make
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As the run-up to the general election converges with the run-in to the Premiership title, meet the left-winger that John Major calls his hero and the true Blue who is idolised by Tony Banks.

As the run-up to the general election converges with the run-in to the Premiership title, meet the left-winger that John Major calls his hero and the true Blue who is idolised by Tony Banks.

They are one and the same man. Frank Blunstone was to Chelsea's first and only championship success, 50 years ago today, what Arjen Robben or Damien Duff have been to the second that is now almost within their grasp.

Blunstone's touchline trickery and pin-point crosses were important factors in Chelsea's triumphant 1954-55 campaign, catching the eye of two aspiring politicians much as Robben and Duff have done this season.

But there the similarities end, as demonstrated by the 70-year-old former England player's recollections of his remarkable dual existence. It is not hard to imagine Frank Lampard and John Terry playing before a 75,000 crowd. Yet Blunstone did so the day after cleaning toilets on National Service duty.

The world of post-war rationing and the maximum wage in football was light years from today's multimillion pound salaries, flash motors and diamond earrings. When he joined Chelsea in 1953 from his home-town team, Crewe Alexandra, Blunstone received a £10 signing-on fee and £12 a week (reduced to £10 in the summer). His bonus for winning the championship was £20 or two suits.

In digs, he actually had to share a double bed with Bobby Smith, later of Tottenham Hotspur's Double-winning side. The squad did not own a car between them. They walked to a "milk bar" to spend their 3s/6d (17 1/ 2p) luncheon vouchers, or played snooker and darts in the games room at Stamford Bridge.

The day Blunstone married Doreen - his rock throughout his subsequent roles as Chelsea's youth coach, Brentford's manager and Tommy Docherty's assistant at Manchester United - summed up the chasm between the eras. There was no lavish bash in the King's Road, no hitting the town in soon-to-be Swinging London.

"I've never had a pint of beer in my life and in those days we didn't have enough money anyway," he recalls, nursing a glass of red wine. "We were wed at 9.15am and I was training by 10, though we had to be off by 11 when the whistle blew for the greyhound trials that were held at the ground."

It would be a mistake, however, to assume Blunstone resents the lifestyles of Jose Mourinho's team, or the prizes awaiting them in Chelsea's centenary season. "I always thought I'd be jealous if another Chelsea side won the League," he admits. "But I've found I'm not. I've been blooming cheering them on."

He may have been half a century too early for £90,000-a-week wages, but his memories are priceless. They stretch back to a childhood with eight brothers and five sisters in his parents' terraced house, close to Crewe's ground and a five-minute drive from where he and Doreen live today.

"When I was nine I worked in a cattle market, milking and washing. While the cows were drying, we'd have a mass game of football. It could be 20-a-side. My uncles worked there and they were big, tough blokes. They hit you hard and knocked you into these iron pens. I learnt to ride bad tackles there."

When Blunstone was 18, Ted Drake, the Mourinho of his day, paid £7,000 to take him to Chelsea. "I didn't hesitate. With hindsight, I'm amazed I did it. I was very much a local lad. I went down by train, got lost on the London Underground but signed OK."

The week of his debut, his brother John was killed on his motorcycle. "I was in shock," he says, eyes still watering at the thought. "Ted let me go home. The funeral was on Thursday and he rang that night saying: 'I've picked you to play at Tottenham on Saturday. It's up to you'. Mum and Dad said John would have wanted me to play. Alf Ramsey marked me, we won 3-2 and I got the winner."

He was 19, "the baby of the team", when Chelsea's Golden Jubilee season dawned. Incredibly, he spent much of his time at an Army camp near Aldershot. Blunstone often travelled up by bus, train and Tube to join his colleagues before games. Sometimes he played for his depot 24 hours before turning out for his club.

"You'd be playing somewhere like the Isle of Wight, thinking: 'I'll go easy today because we're at Arsenal tomorrow'. Then someone kicked you, thinking they would sort out this big-time footballer. I had my pride and played like a madman. I played over 100 games for Chelsea and various Army teams that season - ended up with shin problems."

In November 1954, with Chelsea floundering in mid-table, Blunstone became available for a run of games. "I'm not being big-headed but someone pointed out that our results picked up then. It was because of the balance of the side. Jim Lewis, an amateur, had been playing on the left, but Jim was right-footed."

His impact attracted the England selectors. The colonel called him in and informed him matter-of-factly of the honour. He was ordered to be "back in this camp by 8am on Thursday", 10 hours after completing his first international, on the opposite wing to Stanley Matthews against Wales at Wembley.

Chelsea, meanwhile, were making up ground in the First Division. Shrugging off an incredible 6-5 home defeat by Manchester United, they hit the summit for the first time in 18 years on 23 March 1955.

Blunstone identifies a snowy midweek afternoon at West Bromwich as a turning point. "Albion were FA Cup holders, a strong side, and we went 2-0 down. But Les Stubbs kept getting in front of their goalkeeper to stop him kicking, which you could do then. Eventually, the keeper kicked the ball and booted Les up the backside. The ref saw it. We scored from the spot and went on to win 4-2."

Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United remained title favourites, though several clubs were still in contention in the final weeks. "We didn't think we could win it," admits Blunstone, "until we suddenly found ourselves top with a few games left."

On Easter Saturday, Chelsea met their main rivals, Wolves, at Stamford Bridge. "The previous season they'd beaten us 8-1 at Molineux. We finished with nine men because of injuries, yet their manager, Stan Cullis, was urging them to go for 10. Ted Drake wasn't happy with that. So it was sweet when we beat them 4-3 away in December '54, and now we were meeting in almost a title decider."

The visitors' captain, Billy Wright, conceded a penalty that Peter Sillett, 22, nervelessly converted for the winner. The double over Wolves was decisive: Chelsea would beat them to the championship by four points (it was then two for a win).

Already an international, Blunstone was, at 20, on the verge of the principal honour in club football. Yet he was still dividing his time between mucking out the loos in the sergeants' mess and taking full-backs to the cleaners. "The Army gave the footballers the lowliest jobs," he explains. "We were away so much that they couldn't afford to give us any responsibility."

In their penultimate game, Chelsea beat relegated Sheffield Wednesday 3-0, their 17th win in a 25-game charge that featured just two defeats. Portsmouth's failure to overcome Cardiff City that day meant Drake's men were champions.

"We were in the bath when the Pompey result came through," chuckles Blunstone. "We stuck bathrobes on and went back up into the stand because the crowd were calling for us. Roy Bentley, as captain, said a few words. So did Joe Mears, the chairman, whose father founded the club. There was no trophy there, no champagne, no lap of honour. After the fans dispersed, I had a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich with my uncle and auntie, then went home."

According to Blunstone, the title was a triumph of Drake's motivational powers. "When Roy missed a header in training, the manager came on in his suit and got me to cross the ball. Ted nodded it in, saying: 'That's how you do it.' He was covered in mud. That's how he was. He certainly wasn't a tactician.

"But he was a gentleman, even if he did clip me round the ear once. Me and 'Snoz' [Peter Sillett's brother John] were rooming together in Manchester and we kept hearing this toilet flush. It turned out it was flushing itself and we cracked up laughing. Ted came in and asked what was going on. I tried to explain and he cuffed me - told me to get to bed, like I was a naughty boy.

"I didn't mind. He was like a father to me. When he went north to watch a player, he often got off at Crewe and walked round to our house. There was Mum and Dad, and all the kids, and there was the Chelsea manager. They sent round to the chip shop for his tea. Somehow I can't imagine Mr Mourinho doing that!"

Yet he believes Drake broke up his champions too soon, dispensing with the experience of men like John Harris, a non-swearing Scottish lay preacher and "hard-as-nails" defender. Chelsea slumped to 16th the following season, never came close again under his stewardship and were relegated by 1962.

Frank Blunstone was 29 when injury forced his retirement. He long ago auctioned off his medal and memorabilia to help support his wider family. His comrades from Chelsea's only championship-winning squad have halved in number. But the blue remembered thrills of that glorious Stamford Bridge spring live on.

Frank talking...

... on the champions elect 2004-5

I'm impressed by their work-rate, togetherness and organisation. There's a similarity between Jose Mourinho and our late manager, Ted Drake (both pictured below), in that he has got players from diverse backgrounds pulling together. But Mourinho is a better coach and I like his fanatical emphasis on not giving the ball away. I'm also pleased to see him using real wingers. The way Arjen Robben goes past people is a throwback to Tom Finney and Stan Matthews, and Damien Duff also causes havoc.

... and the changing face of Chelsea

I don't know anyone there now. Chelsea haven't acknow-ledged us down the years and I don't expect Roman Abramovich (below right) has heard of me. When Ken Bates (below left) was chairman, he didn't want to know anyone from before 1982. But Tony Banks (the former Sports Minister) is trying to persuade the club to let us parade the trophy, which we never did. Stamford Bridge has changed completely. There used to be a huge uncovered terrace and dog track. Now there's a hotel and nightclub.