Right-hand man

Football, in some respects, has changed beyond all recognition over the past few decades, but the importance of the assistant manager perhaps remains unchanged.

Actually, if anything, the value of the role has increased over time, so much so that many teams, Chelsea among them, split duties among several men.

Once upon a time, the assistant manager had to be the jack of all trades. Tactically astute and possessing a keen eye for talent; willing to get involved with the nitty-gritty, be it putting out the cones in training or jumping in the car at the drop of a hat to travel up to Scotland on a freezing December evening to watch a player on little more than the whim of the manager. Most importantly, however, the ideal number two acts as the bridge between the playing squad and manager, retaining the trust of both parties.

Ian McNeill, who passed away last week at the age of 85, ticked all of these boxes during his spell working under John Neal and between them the pair were vitally important in the rejuvenation of Chelsea Football Club after the dark years of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties.

It wouldn’t be too outlandish to suggest no Blues assistant manager has played quite as active a role in player recruitment as McNeill did in the summer of 1983.

Although the manager deserves his fair share of credit as he was the one putting his neck on the line, McNeill was pivotal in taking a shoestring budget and crafting the finest squad in the Second Division as the Blues earned promotion as champions.

 Back row: Eddie Niedzwiecki, Joe McLaughlin, Nigel Spackman, Kerry Dixon. Front row: Pat Nevin, John Hollins

Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon, Joe McLaughin, Eddie Niedzwiecki and Nigel Spackman arrived in that same summer of 1983; each would go on to become a Chelsea hero in his own right.

'Ian used to raid the lower leagues, and Scotland in particular,' said Doug Rougvie, who joined the following year.

'Ian was a great talker and he convinced me to come and sign for Chelsea, as I'm sure he did a lot of other guys.'

Joey Jones had previously signed for the Blues under the Neal-McNeill partnership and he believes they were the perfect double-act for the club at that time.

‘They complemented each other as manager and assistant, and they both had a great eye for young talent. At the time, I wasn't that young, mind, as I'd been to Liverpool and back to Wrexham, but think of some of the youngsters: Pat, David Speedie, Kerry and big Joe McLaughlin.

‘Joe is sometimes forgotten about at Chelsea, but what a great signing he was. Give John and Ian credit. They all became legends at the club.’

 McNeill (left), John Neal (left of trophy) and Mickey Thomas (far right) celebrate the Second Division title win

Mickey Thomas, another fans’ favourite at the Bridge, played for some huge clubs in his career, including Man United and Everton, but the Welshman felt the side Neal and McNeill manufactured had just the right mix.

‘They were a great combination, they played off each other well,’ he said. ‘I played in some great sides during my career and that Chelsea team had all the ingredients to be successful – John and Ian got the recipe right.’

Blues fans even owe McNeill for a player who joined the club almost 20 years after his departure!

‘Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was one of my best buys as a manager,’ said former Blues striker George Graham, who signed the Dutch striker for Leeds United.

‘And it was Ian, my chief scout, who recommended him. He was a fantastic judge of a player and it was his great eye which helped us get in a few that same summer.’

 

- Check out chelseafc.com on Tuesday to read Pat Nevin's weekly column, where the former Blues winger pays tribute to McNeill.