Eric Parsons: Winger who played a leading role in Chelsea's 1955 title win

Saturday 05 March 2011 01:00

Eric Parsons was a diminutive winger who made a colossal contribution as Chelsea became Football League champions for the first time in their history in 1955.

Nicknamed "The Rabbit" for his remarkable pace and distinctive bobbing gait, he overcame initial scorn from an over-critical faction of the Stamford Bridge crowd following his arrival in 1950 from West Ham United to become one of the Blues' most popular performers.

And well he might. During the title-winning campaign Chelsea made nonsense of the music-hall wiseacres who lampooned them cruelly and undeservedly by outstripping, comfortably in the end, the much more fancied likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United, and throughout that glorious process Parsons was a constant star. He played in every game, scoring 11 goals – including two on the afternoon the prize was secured with a 3-0 home triumph over Sheffield Wednesday – and catapulted himself from comparative obscurity to the fringes of the England team. Indeed, but for the incomparable quality of Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, he would surely have earned full caps to go with the two games for his country's "B" side which were to remain his sole international honours.

The 5ft 7in wide man was both a maker and taker of scoring opportunities. At his peak during that championship season he maintained a stream of inviting crosses on which the stylish centre-forward Roy Bentley capitalised expertly, and when the goal tallies were finalised he lagged behind only Bentley himself (21 strikes) and inside-right Johnny McNichol (14).

Parsons, a prodigiously promising athlete during his schooldays, was spotted by West Ham playing for Worthing Boys and recruited to Upton Park in 1943. After Army service in North Africa during the war he made his senior debut for the Second Division Hammers in January 1947, quickly establishing himself as a regular and not missing a match in either of the next two seasons.

As well as being quick, Parsons was tricky, intelligent and industrious, the latter quality being comparatively rare among wingers of that era, many of whom merely hugged the touchline waiting for the ball to be delivered to their feet. He was ready to chase back and assist his wing-half, even his full-back, when needed, foraging tirelessly for the ball, clearly unafraid of the consequent physical effort and risk.

After two years in the upper reaches of the second tier, West Ham fell away badly in 1949-50, narrowlyavoiding relegation, and it seemed unlikely that such an emerging jewel on the threshold of his pomp would remain with a struggling club. Duly, in December 1950, Parsons was sold to Chelsea for £23,000, an immensefee at the time and a club record for the Blues. Expectations were vastbut he didn't hit his best form immediately, partly due to a series of debilitating knee problems, and despitefrequently working himself to a standstill he was jeered by some of his new "supporters".

He was tried at inside-forward, but that didn't help. Even a return to his favoured right-flank berth did not pay immediate dividends, and it was not until Ted Drake replaced Billy Birrell as manager in 1952 that his fortunes changed. Drake nursed a high regard for Parsons and by praising himlavishly in public he massaged the winger's hitherto fragile confidence.In fairness, the fans had always recognised him as a trier, and now they warmed to his re-awakening skills, too, as in 1952-53 and the following season, as Chelsea improved markedly as a team, his personal performance level soared.

But it was in the next momentous campaign that Parsons truly fulfilled his potential, linking beautifully with his fellow forwards, particularly McNichol, whose perceptive passes inside opposing full-backs offered endless opportunities for the dapper winger to shoot or to despatch precise deliveries to the predatory Bentley. On the penultimate Saturday of the season, when the Championship was secured, Parsons was the hero, scoring against Wednesday with a smart header from left-winger Frank Blunstone's cross and a hooked shot. Afterwards, as the Stamford Bridge pitch was invaded by celebrating spectators, they feted him royally, chants of "We want the Rabbit" issuing from the same folk who had condemned him so roundly a few years earlier.

Though by then in his thirties, Parsons remained a potent operator, but after another season he gave way to the young Peter Brabrook – one of "Drake's Ducklings", as Chelsea's evolving side was now referred to in the press – and in November 1956 he accepted a free transfer to Brentford of the Third Division South. Like the dedicated professional he was, Parsons buckled down to life at the lower level, putting in four seasons of dedicated service at Griffin Park, during which he suffered a broken leg.

Having played more than 450 games and scored close to a century of goals in senior football, he moved on to non-League Dover Athletic in the summer of 1961. Later he worked as a grocer, then ran a cigarette supply business. His death came only a week after that of Les Stubbs, a fellow attacker in the Chelsea side which had made the comedians eat their words.

Eric George Parsons, footballer; born Worthing, Sussex 9 November 1923; played for West Ham United 1943-50, Chelsea 1950-56, Brentford 1956-61; (married, wife deceased; one daughter, deceased); died Worthing 7 February 2011.

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