“Team-mates I hadn’t seen for decades were there and supporters were telling us that what we achieved was their favourite football memory – despite the League titles and European successes that have come since.”
It is 40 years this summer since Chelsea set off on the journey that led to them winning the Second Division under the leadership of Ken Bates and John Neal and the reunion that has taken place this close season left Colin Lee buzzing.
“It was a great night…..so many terrific memories and friendships were renewed,” said the former Wolves manager. “Fans who were youngsters then are obviously getting towards retirement age now but they were lapping it up.
“We met in a room at Stamford Bridge and you couldn’t have got any more in. It was packed with almost 400 present. And Pat Nevin did a super job on the microphone, inviting the players up in turn to answer questions and sit on the stage.
“I have been to one or two Chelsea games over the years and seen Paul Canoville and John Bumstead but there were others this time I hadn’t seen for much, much longer. It was such an experience to be part of it.”
Some context is required here to understand why a squad who were also represented in this nostalgic setting by Kerry Dixon, David Speedie, Eddie Niedzwiecki, Keith Dublin, Peter Rhoades-Brown, Colin Pates, Mickey Thomas, Nigel Spackman and Tony McAndrew are so revered. While Wolves were unexpectedly winning promotion from Division Two under Graham Hawkins in 1982-83, Chelsea nearly exited the second grade at the opposite end.
Not only did they finish below the likes of Shrewsbury, Carlisle and Grimsby, they were only two points above relegated Rotherham, who were managed for most of the season by Emlyn Hughes.
“We went to Bolton for our last away game and won 1-0 with a Clive Walker goal,” Lee added. “I’ve always said that was the saving of Chelsea and I repeated that belief at the reunion.
“The club’s future was in the balance for ages. Marley Homes wanted to build on Stamford Bridge and who knows what would have happened if we had gone down? It was still the lowest the club have ever finished in the League structure and I think Colin Pates, John Bumstead and myself were the only senior players retained for the following season.
“John Neal had Ian McNeill as his assistant and proved that the secret to management is good recruitment. Their signings included Pat Nevin, Kerry Dixon and David Speedie and the three of them scored more than 60 goals between them.
“Speedo was my room-mate and lived near us in Camberley, so I took him under my wing. I started the season up front with Kerry but had an illness and that’s how he and Speedo came to play together and do so well. Kerry finished with 34 goals.
“I played in different positions as my career went on and had a good spell at right-back in the promotion season as replacement for John Hollins, who had rejoined the club from Arsenal and who we have sadly just lost.”
Lee played 38 games in a campaign that started with a 5-0 slaughter of Derby. Chelsea later won 5-3 at Fulham, beat Newcastle 4-0, Swansea 6-2 and Shrewsbury 4-2. Near the end, when fresh momentum was required, they overpowered Fulham 4-0, Leeds 5-0 and won 2-0 at Manchester City.
Crucially, they won their last four as well as seven of the last eight, losing only three times from early December. Their total of 90 goals, including three from Lee, was comfortably the highest in the top two divisions.
“Sheffield Wednesday were our big rivals and beat us up there in the first half of the season,” Lee added. “They still led the table with two or three matches left but had a draw at home to Manchester City while we beat Barnsley.
“We had a much better goal difference, secured promotion by thrashing Leeds and then added the title by winning at Grimsby on the final day. Unfortunately, I was out through injury that day but travelled up there anyway and we had a great party on the way home.
“We must have thought we were going to do it because we were on a double-decker bus, all of us drenched in champagne by the time we got back to London. I was in charge of the kitty and remember we needed to stop at the off licence to top up on refreshments.”
Not surprisingly considering he went on to coach and manage for many years, the 67-year-old watched Neal’s methods closely. “Geoff Hurst had signed me, with Bobby Gould as his assistant, and there was a rumour at one time that Brian Clough might be coming in.
“But John was appointed and made all these terrific additions after we nearly went down in 1983. He also signed keeper Eddie Niedzwiecki, Joe McLaughlin and Nigel Spackman. Mickey Thomas was another a bit later. John was a deep thinker and rarely lost his temper but had a real eye for a player.
“It was one of the proudest days of my life when I was asked to be a coffin bearer at his funeral almost ten years ago, along with Mickey Thomas and Joey Jones.”
Jones was unable to attend the reunion because of illness but submitted a message shown on screen. The 91-year-old Ken Bates flew in from the south of France, though, and was no doubt reminded how he ended up in the bath as the players celebrated promotion.
Nevin described the occasion as ‘an unforgettable trip down Memory Lane’, ‘full of special moments’, and continued: “As usual, I didn’t prepare a word. The players had plenty to say and usually a very funny way of saying it.
“Filling the time wasn’t going to be a problem – the players carried on with the surreal humour that I loved every day in the home dressing room all those years ago.
“Ken Bates, never short of a sharp word and harsh criticism when he thought it was due, was on top form. Considering he is in his 92nd year, he was little short of a phenomenon. I admit I was ready to whip that microphone away if he strayed into dangerous territory but I needn’t have worried.”
Lee totalled more than 200 games for Chelsea, who were also accompanied to the top flight in 1984 by third-placed Newcastle.
He was part of the John Neal squad who then finished sixth 12 months after ending their five-year absence from the elite and, to underline their exciting impact, also reached the League Cup semi-final.
Another of Lee’s Chelsea highlights was scoring twice in the 5-4 Full Members Cup final win over Manchester City at Wembley in 1985-86.
We are grateful to him for supplying us with the first two photos that accompany this article, the top one showing him with Mickey Thomas and Paul Canoville; also for the lovely hospitality when he and his wife Lyn welcomed us to their home in Torquay recently.