FORMER Chelsea manager John Neal has died, with the London club paying tribute to him as the man who helped to keep the club afloat.
Neal, who was born in Seaham, passed away on Sunday at the age of 82, after a long career in football which took in Hull, Swindon, Aston Villa and Southend as a player and Wrexham, Middlesbrough and Chelsea as a manager.
“Chelsea Football Club is deeply saddened by the passing of John Neal, one of the most significant and loved managers in our history,” the club confirmed.
Appointed by Chelsea in 1981 as successor to Geoff Hurst, Neal prevented the Blues from slipping into the Third Division and in 1984 guided them to the Second Division title.
He had to stand down in 1985 due to heart surgery and was appointed to the club’s board of directors. He never managed again, but Chelsea still fondly remember his efforts.
As part of a long tribute on their website, the Barclays Premier League leaders said: “To this day those years when the team that John built flourished remain among the very favourite Chelsea seasons for fans who lived through them.
“It is no exaggeration to suggest there might not be a Chelsea Football Club today had he not made such a success of dealing with crisis and getting the team back on its feet.”
Neal took over Chelsea at a time when financial problems were crippling the club, but the manager’s eye for a bargain - notably the small-fee signings of Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin - helped get the club back on track both on and off the field.
Prior to being at Chelsea, Neal had made a huge impression at Wrexham.
Appointed in 1968, he twice took them into the European Cup Winners’ Cup owing to their Welsh Cup successes, with brave defeats to Hajduk Split and Anderlecht ending their runs.
He spent four years with Middlesbrough after replacing Jack Charlton in 1977, before the start of his Blues spell.
Club historian Rick Glanvill wrote: “A succession of novices had found turning round London’s cash-strapped former giant beyond them before Neal arrived in 1981.
“After a dismal two seasons, his proper old football nous would produce two years of unforgettable drama and togetherness in the middle of a troubled decade and a half.
“Had his reign not been cruelly curtailed by illness, genuine silverware looked highly possible.”