Home and Away: Joe McLaughlin
feature Sat 4 Nov 2017
With Chelsea at home this weekend, we continue our series of interviews with former players by talking to 1980s defender Joe McLaughlin about his Stamford Bridge days…
When Chelsea famously recruited half a successful team in one fell swoop in the summer of 1983, Joe McLaughlin was the defender brought in. Young, tall and domineering, the Scottish centre-back played a major part in lifting the Blues out of the doldrums and into the upper reaches of the top division, forming a much-admired partnership at the back with Colin Pates.
He was a Chelsea player for six years and now three decades on, he talks to the official Chelsea website about his Stamford Bridge years…
Take us back to how you came to Chelsea. Was assistant manager Ian McNeill a big part of it?
It was Ian, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago, who brought all the Scottish guys down to Chelsea at that particular time. I believe he had spoken to Craig Brown and got a recommendation from him. I was playing in the Premier League for Scotland with Morton and I was playing with Scotland Under-21s but he had not actually seen me play, so it was a kind of gamble but maybe he knew it would be okay because of where I was playing and I was young and playing with the national Under-21 team. Pat Nevin, myself, Doug Rougvie, Gordon Durie, Steve Clarke - basically all the Scottish guys who ended up at Chelsea had a connection to Ian McNeill with the scouting network he had up here.
I owe Ian McNeill and [manager] John Neal a lot for taking me down to Chelsea. I was supposed to sign for Celtic at that time and that fell through, I had spoken to Billy McNeill there and it had all been agreed and then for whatever reason he got the sack. I knew Chelsea were interested and that came back on the table again so my wife and I went down to London and I signed a four-year deal.
It all worked out very well and I was delighted for the opportunity and I loved being down there. There were one or two moments I would have changed but that is football, and I gave Chelsea probably the best part of my career and played almost 270 games. I feel a lot of affinity for the club even though I rarely come back. Chelsea was the highlight of my career down south and on reflection I should never have left but hindsight is a great thing.
The club was in big mess before the summer you signed and had nearly been relegated to Division Three. Did you need a bit of persuading it was a wise move for you?
Chelsea was the English club I supported as a boy and it was the first kit I ever got and that was to do with the 1970 FA Cup final when they played Leeds. Not many games were televised then and watching Chelsea, I just loved the kit and the game itself and even when I played, Chelsea-Leeds was full of battles and that old animosity and rivalry. The 1970 final was the first big game I can remember and was why I wanted a Chelsea kit for Christmas. I got it, so it was great to be part of that. In a way, it was a kind of risk going down to Chelsea in the Second Division but they were such a big club and John Neal and Ian McNeill had sold it so well. They said we are buying players and it is all going to be a new team and I wanted to be down here.
That team which straightaway won promotion and then did well in Division One is still such a fondly remembered side…
Chelsea were on rock bottom and they had come to the end of the old brigade of players who had been there, seen it, done it and were moving on. They brought in myself, Pat, Eddie Niedzwiecki, Nigel Spackman, Kerry Dixon, Dave Speedie a year before, so there were six or seven new guys which is a big risk but it worked out well and we had some fantastic times, playing against top players and in stadiums like Old Trafford and none of us were phased by it. That was the main thing.
We were disappointed we did not win back-to-back titles. We had won the Second Division title and we actually thought we were going to win the First Division, that was how we thought about it. Nothing was going to stop us and at one point people were talking about us being the second team after Nottingham Forest to win the Second Division and the First Division in consecutive years. We were thinking about winning every game, that was the mentality of the guys I played with. They were all amazing players and great characters and that is why we had such a good team and great times.
Let’s talk about some of the best home games, including the fantastic start the team made on your debut against highly fancied Derby…
In the pre-season build-up to that game I was in the starting line-up so I knew from way back I would play, and that game was a great start and we built from that. I remember playing against this guy upfront for Derby called Bobby Campbell. He was a brutal monster of a guy and was about 35 and like a boxer. Every time I went to the ball he battered me, but we won 5-0 and it was a great day.
You very quickly made a big impression with how many headers you won, a command of that aspect of defending we had not been used to for a while…
That was my strong point, I was always good at winning balls in the air. You see guys now who don’t want to head the ball or clear their lines but back in those days every ball was in the air and I was attacking that ball. That was my job, to clear the ball and I loved doing it, it was to stop people scoring. Sometimes people will say Pat Nevin was much better than you but how can you compare us? Of course he was a better player than me with the ball but I can head the ball better than Pat, I can tackle better than Pat. Different strengths for different positions.
The game has changed so much. I wasn’t a John Stones but John Stones could not have played on that Stamford Bridge pitch back in those days which was the worst around. No way would he have been dribbling the ball out from the back. Most of the time the ball was in the air because it was such a bog or sand with no grass. We loved Stamford Bridge because everyone hated it because the pitch was far away from the crowd, there was a track around it, but I loved it there. I felt very comfortable there.
There were some great home wins in that promotion season, beating high-flying Newcastle 4-0, defeating our closest challengers Sheffield Wednesday 3-2, the promotion 5-0 win over Leeds.
I remember that Newcastle game well, playing against Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott and what they brought to Newcastle. We battered them.
I also remember when Peter Beardsley knocked me out playing up there. We clashed heads and I was out cold, then struggled on for a few minutes, missed the ball and Chris Waddle scored. I came off and ended up in hospital in Newcastle for a couple of days. It was good to play against Kevin Keegan, playing against these guys was huge, playing against these famous players was what I was there for.
Sheffield Wednesday were the huge rivals then, they had some great players too and it took all the way to the last day of the season to win the title.
Winning promotion against Leeds was brilliant, the crowd all round the pitch and they were almost on it. Something you would not see these days but incredible times.
In the top-flight big time, you scored your first Chelsea goal in an impressive team performance against European champions Liverpool.
That was a big win at Stamford Bridge and they were the top team – Grobbelaar, Hansen, Dalglish, Rush. Liverpool won the title the following year at Stamford Bridge and Kenny Dalglish scored the goal. I remember that because I am always in the pictures shown. Kenny always says to me that I almost got there! I say to him I would have got there but I was not marking you, I was marking Ian Rush at the time. If I was marking you you would not have scored! There was a boy called John Millar, a young Scottish lad, he did not play that many games for us and I said to him that you were marking Dalglish. He argues he wasn’t marking Dalglish and I say no you weren’t, but you should have been!
Earlier that season, Manchester United had arrived at the Bridge unbeaten having earlier won their first 10 league games. We gave them a good game and you scored in that one…
I was talking about that a few weeks ago funnily enough. It was a really hot day and I equalised from about a yard. I was jogging back and thinking, well a point earned, and then I remember Frank Stapleton out wide and he crossed and I thought I will go to meet it. Then I realised I would not get there and Mark Hughes controlled it on his thigh and volleyed it in from about 25 yards late in the game. I was so gutted. It was good to score but such a disappointment to lose as we felt we were as good as anyone.
I also remember playing against Man United [in February 1987] and I had not trained for six weeks. I had strained my medial ligaments in my knee and I had not done anything. I played with a heavy strapping on and painkillers but I wanted to play against Man United at home, I was so desperate, and we drew 1-1. A different era of course, you would not get away with that now, but you were playing against Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, Paul McGrath - top players.
John Hollins had taken over as manager and things began to not go so well, but you did become captain…
John Hollins probably got the job a bit too early and me taking the captaincy was a big mistake. Celtic had come in with an offer for me and I felt it was time for me to go because John brought in another centre-half, Steve Wicks, and pushed Colin Pates out to left-back. He broke up something that did not need it and the fix was worse. Celtic came in and I thought if I played for them I had a better chance of playing for Scotland. John knocked it back and said he was selling Colin Pates instead. Steve Wicks and I were not the same partnership at all, we were too similar, but John said I wouldn’t be going anywhere, I want you to be captain and try to get things going again.
He told me Colin was leaving so I accepted that as I was not allowed to leave and if Colin was leaving, I will be captain. Ultimately that upset everyone as Colin did not go but had been removed from the captaincy. It was not quite right but it was a privilege to be captain of Chelsea. I can say I have done that and I have a gold disc in the Museum at Stamford Bridge.
At the start of the ’87-88 season and back in Division Two there was a strange period when you had some problems with supporters, the terraces at the Bridge were closed and we had some bad results. But you and the team came back strongly…
I had a great relationship with the fans. I am disappointed I let myself down on a couple of occasions when I was captain and emotions got the better of me. Half the ground was closed, we had just been relegated and that was sadly the time when my son died, but not many people knew that. There were lots of things happening in my life and the biggest was to lose a child. I am not saying that was my excuse but people shouting at you on a Saturday did not really matter. I was anxious about a lot of things, I was not playing that well, nobody was playing that well and because I was the captain I was getting a lot of stick. I had always had a great relationship with the fans and I reacted badly, they reacted and I told [then manager] Bobby Campbell it is time for me to go, I need a fresh start.
But that season I did not go, I came back and I had probably the best season I ever had. We got promotion with record points and record goals and I think I had won the fans back, but Bobby Campbell had an offer from Charlton and asked if I wanted to go and I said not really but he said they are going to double your money. Chelsea were not going to offer me any more money, I was 28 so I was thinking four years left, it was a big contract and they were a London team in the same division. Colin Pates was there by then, another reason to go as he and I had a really good relationship and that is why I went. I wish I hadn’t because Colin left to go to Arsenal about six weeks after I joined. Leaving Chelsea was a big, big mistake but I had six good years there.
What are you up to these days?
I am based in Scotland and I run my own business. I do a bit of scouting for Fulham up here which may not go down too well at Chelsea! I wish it was Chelsea but the next Joe McLaughlin is going to Fulham when I spot him!
The business is sending boys over to America on football scholarships. I have been doing that for about 15 years and I have also been assistant manager to Mark McGee at Millwall. I have been involved in coaching and running my own soccer schools but the scholarships are the main part of my business. I do a bit of radio work.
I keep an eye on Chelsea all the time. I do a bit for Talksport about Chelsea so I am always following what is going on. I would love to see them win on Sunday. Chelsea v Man U is always a big game.