Pat Nevin: Remembering Ian McNeill
column Tue 10 Oct 2017
In this week’s column, Pat Nevin pays tribute to our former assistant manager Ian McNeill, a man who was important in his and Chelsea Football Club’s past…
The players have been arriving back at Chelsea after the usual international travels and travails. I actually came back from Ljubljana via Venice from the Scotland game against Slovenia. It was a sad night for the Scots who once more missed out by a hair’s breadth and my mood just darkened after discovering that we at Chelsea had lost one of our favourite Scotsmen this weekend. Former assistant manager Ian McNeill died after a short illness and in many ways it was the end of an era.
Along with the manager and his close friend John Neal he was instrumental in putting together a team at Chelsea that ensured some of the club’s darkest days were left behind. Clive Walker’s goal at Bolton in 1983 had famously kept the club out of the third tier of English football when Ian and John decided to go for a major overhaul. Ian was also the chief ‘star spotter’ with a small but efficient scouting team working for him.
Over the course of a summer he had helped acquire a goalkeeper in Eddie Niedzwiecki, a centre-back in Joe McLaughlin, a centre midfield player Nigel Spackman, a pretty successful striker in Kerry Dixon and myself on the right wing. All were pretty cheap and all of us quickly became first-team regulars. That is half a team acquired in a few months, that gelled immediately (first game a 5-0 win v Derby County) and went on to win promotion back to the top flight at our first attempt.
That group with a few more additions and the players they decided to keep on, such as Colin Pates and John Bumstead, were immediately battling at the top end of the top division. While we took the plaudits, Ian McNeill and John Neal were understated but privately and quietly they were delighted with their handiwork. Illness to John meant they couldn’t see the job through and it has always played on my mind. How good could the project have been had those two continued together at the helm of the club?
I am confident it would have continued and maybe even onto improved success, and I am absolutely certain that it would have been incredibly exciting, entertaining and positive football. Ian with his strong but friendly northern Scottish accent was forever willing us to attack and for me personally to go and beat players. For many it was an incredible period for the club, even though we didn’t win any of the major trophies.
In that he wasn’t the manager, Ian could have a bit of a laugh with the lads and I particularly loved his prank of challenging newcomers to a 200-yard race even though he must have been well into his fifties. Against these sharp young things he clearly had no chance, but the only stipulation was they had to drink a glass of water first. Bet agreed, Ian would fetch the water which of course he had just boiled. Handing it over he would jog away sniggering and collect the money while the stricken player tried and failed to drink the boiling water.
Ian often recalled that Ken Bates had one look at me when I was signed and refused to believe this skinny little scruff would be able to cut it. The chairman said to Ian, ‘Would you stake your job on that kid?’ Ian said he would, a brave move as I wouldn’t have done so myself! When I got announced as Player of the Year in that first season he jokingly said to me ‘Thank God for that, you just saved my job there!’
Ian was well-respected throughout the game, not just by those in the know at our club. Years later I was surprised to get a call from him, when he tried to sign me for Bolton Wanderers who were in the Premier League at the time and doing very well. I didn’t even know he was working there but they trusted him enough to let him go out an acquire players purely on his own instinct and knowledge. Not many are given that length of rope unless they are the manager but Ian was by then more than merely a chief scout, though these days it would be called ‘lead acquisitions officer’ or something else just as important sounding, with 10 per cent of the power and trust.
People will have their own stories of Ian and they will all be pleasant, told with a smile on the face. Before I paint a picture of a saintly chap, he was not a man to be crossed, and it didn’t matter that he was 5ft 5in and 30 years older than the man in front of him. He would never back down verbally or indeed physically even from a 6ft 2in pro footballer. He must have been as brave as a lion as a player in his day.
The final time I met Ian was just a few months back. I arranged with his son to meet him up in Aberdeen but I was warned that a level of dementia meant he almost certainly would not know who I was. This devastated me, but I still went to see him as I wanted to tell him face-to-face how important he had been to me. It poignantly echoed a meeting I had with John Neal just a few years before.
Ian came in bright, bubbly and as chatty as ever, but clearly there was absolutely no memory of me from him. After the fondness and history we had shared it was a bitter pill to swallow, but he was grand company and I just kept on chatting away. Ten minutes later and from absolutely nowhere, well from inside the deepest synapses of his brain, his eyes suddenly shone, his face beamed and he joyously cried, ‘It’s wee Pat!!!’ Well I can tell you someone was certainly ready to cry at that point. I turned to his wife and son and they had the same level of joy as Ian and I. He hadn’t fully gone, there was still lots of him in there, it was a beautiful moment.
I treasured that moment then and will treasure it all the more now that he has really gone. Many people have done great things for Chelsea Football Club, but there are some who did and weren’t always given the level of acknowledgment they deserved. This was often simply because they didn’t want it, they were just doing their job as far as they were concerned and that was enough. Ian did his job here extremely well and those in the know will always remember how important that was.