From Chic to Cech, a world of difference for Drake's Ducklings

Replay: 23 April 1955 - When Chelsea were last kings
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The Independent Football

Exactly 50 years ago yesterday Chelsea won their one and only League title, beating Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge. Their goalkeeper that day, Chic Thomson, the Petr Cech of his time, remembers it well. "Funnily enough, there were no wild celebrations, not like there will be now. I think there was a bottle of champagne in the dressing room, but that was it. We then went to Man-chester United for the last game of the season, and Matt Busby had his team line up on either side to applaud us on to the pitch. Wonderful."

Exactly 50 years ago yesterday Chelsea won their one and only League title, beating Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge. Their goalkeeper that day, Chic Thomson, the Petr Cech of his time, remembers it well. "Funnily enough, there were no wild celebrations, not like there will be now. I think there was a bottle of champagne in the dressing room, but that was it. We then went to Manchester United for the last game of the season, and Matt Busby had his team line up on either side to applaud us on to the pitch. Wonderful."

The Busby Babes lauding Drake's Ducklings, as they were called, a team assembled from the lower reaches of football rather than the best that a Russian billionaire's chequebook can buy. Yet Chelsea were as rampant in that year as they have been this season, winning every league in which they had teams - the First Division, Football Combination, South-east Counties and London Metropolitan. They were also symbolic of an era when, in so many ways, football's grass really was greener.

The former sports minister Tony Banks, a lifelong Chelsea fan who is helping the club to set up a benevolent fund for their old-timers, says: "There was an innocence about the game which is reflected by the likes of Chic and the other players of that vintage. There was no violence, no effing and blinding. You could stand next to visiting fans and there was banter certainly, but no bile or bad-mouthing. We always made them welcome. No cynicism in the game either, no diving, no feigning injury. If you did go down there was the bucket of water and a cold sponge that could revive a cadaver."

Charles "Chic" Thomson started as a professional in Clyde in 1947 at 18, did his National Service in the Army and on his demob signed for Chelsea in 1952, having been spotted playing for the Army by Drake while he was manager of Reading. He was paid £20 a week, with bonuses of £2 for a win and £1 for a draw.

"Ridiculous when you think of the money in football today. I was talking to someone at Notts County who was saying that, from now on, no one there will be paid more than £2,000 a week. I thought, 'Gosh, I was getting £1,000 a year'. It's a different world now.

"But then it was a big shock to me coming from a small Scottish club. The training nearly killed me, it was a really harsh regime under Ted Drake. Even in those days Chelsea had a reputation of being something of a show-business club, and had been a bit of a music-hall joke, but Ted changed all that as soon as he arrived. The other thing he didn't like was the nickname of The Pensioners. He even changed the badge on the blazer.

"He was a very, very hard man," recalls Thomson. "There was certainly a touch of the Fergie about him. The strictest disciplinarian I have ever encountered. I suffered from that one day. In a previous match the other goalkeeper, Bill Robertson, had thrown out the ball to one of our defenders, Ken Armstrong, who slipped and miskicked and the ball ended up in the back of our net. Ted put up a big notice in the dressing room saying, 'Goalkeepers will not, I repeat not, throw the ball'. Unfortunately, I forgot this and did it in a practice match the following Tuesday. I was immediately relegated to an early bath and dropped from the team the next Saturday.

"What Ted said he meant; he was in your face. He instilled a certain element of fear, but that was good. Some of his half-time talks would take the paint off the walls."

Thomson spent five years with Chelsea, alternating as first-team goalkeeper with Robertson and playing the last half of the championship-winning season. "The last two weeks of that season were wonderful. Nobody could convince us that we weren't going to do it. The teams that were challenging were Portsmouth and Wolves. We played against Wolves at Stamford Bridge, and that was something else."

The official gate was 51,421, but Thomson says: "It was reckoned there were were about 70,000 there, spilling over the greyhound track, with another 25,000 outside just listening for the roars. That was the third-last game of the season, then we played Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday 23 April, and that's when we clinched it, winning the game 3-0."

Of that title-winning team four are now dead: Armstrong, whose ashes are scattered at Stamford Bridge; Stan Wicks; John Harris; and Peter Sillett. A clutch of the Class of '55 live on the South Coast: Johnny McNichol, 79; Stan Willemse, 80; Eric Parsons, 84 (one of two who played in every game that season - the other was the amateur Derek Saunders); and the former England manager Ron Greenwood, 84, who played in 21 of the 42 games.

Thomson left Chelsea two years later, signing for Nottingham Forest for £5,000. He went on to win an FA Cup winner's medal with them in 1959 and still lives in the city. At 6ft and 12st, Thomson, now 75, was relatively small by today's goalkeeping standards. "I suppose you could say that I was one of those keepers who tried to make it look easy."

He says that he greatly admires the current Chelsea team and their Portuguese manager. "Chelsea have always tried to play good football, but now they have got a bit of bite as well. There was a time when they played wonderful football, but cold February afternoons didn't suit them. That's not so now under Jose Mourinho. They really are now a team for all seasons."

In the Chelsea team of 50 years ago the only semblance of a foreign player was the fierce-tackling full-back Willemse, who had Dutch ancestry. But Thomson welcomes the latter-day Chelsea cosmopolitans: "They have bought excitement into the mix. I have never met Mourinho but he seems a hell of a character, and he's up there among the best, alongside, in my book, Ted Drake and Brian Clough, a player's man."

Of the current Chelsea goalkeeper, Cech, he says: "He's a good shot-stopper, he has a safe pair of hands and reads the game well." So is he the best Thomson has seen? "No, Pat Jennings is still the best as far as I'm concerned. He's always been my number one, because he always made it look so easy. This fellow is good, but remember that he is playing behind a tremendous defence."

From Chic to Cech. It may have taken 50 years, but it seems Chelsea have again reached their goal.

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