Scot Was Chelsea Rising Star In Lampard Mould

More Memories from 1955 (This is North Scotland)

09:00 - 05 May 2005

In 1955 Chelsea won the English First Division championship. Playing a pivotal role for manager Ted Drake's side was a right-sided midfielder who contributed 14 goals in a memorable campaign.

Fast forward half a century and a young midfielder, who has contributed 12 Premiership goals, has been hailed a superstar of the game as Chelsea won the championship for the first time in 50 years.

Frank Lampard has played a pivotal role for Jose Mourinho's side this season, and has reaped a rich reward. He has millions in the bank, is a regular in Sven Goran Eriksson's England side and is an icon of popular culture.

In 1955, things were somewhat different for former Inverness Clachnacuddin player John McNichol. The Scot missed just two of Chelsea's 42 league matches in the 1954-55 season, even though he combined his football with dawn rises to work in his newspaper shop.

Kilmarnock-born, 79-year-old McNichol has been settled on the south coast of England for more than half a century, but is quick to remember the difficult times growing up in Scotland.

McNichol's father, Danny, died when the fledgling footballer was aged only five, leaving mum, Catherine, who was born in the Highlands, to raise eight children.

One of McNichol's sisters would not survive infancy and his eldest brother, Danny, was killed during the final days of World War II.

Educated at St Joseph's School, Kilmarnock, McNichol spurned the road to university followed by many of his friends and started working as a message boy at McMurray's drapery shop at Kilmarnock.

He said: "I had played football for the school team throughout, but I had to work on a Saturday in the drapery shop, so that certainly curtailed my football.

"I used to play some midweek games for Hurlford United juniors in the Western League, when I was about 16 years old.

"When I left McMurray's and went to work at the local SMT bus garage as an apprentice motor mechanic, I didn't work on a Saturday, which allowed me to continue playing for Hurlford.

"I used to get 10 shillings a week for playing with Hurlford, which was almost as much as the wages I was bringing home from the bus depot."

McNichol's budding football career could have come to an abrupt end due to the war, but he did make his mark in the Highlands.

He said: "I was called up as a mechanic with the Fleet Air Arm, and one of the places I was based at was Invergordon.

"Obviously there were no Highland League games being played in war time, but I did turn out for Clachnacuddin in friendly matches.

"Quite a lot of professional footballers were stationed all over the country, so the standard at the time was fairly high."

AFTER the war, McNichol returned to Kilmarnock to continue his career with Hurlford - until he got his break.

He said: "Two or three teams had invited me to go on trial with them, but I was in my early 20s when Newcastle asked me to go to St James' Park. I played for the reserves against the first team in the traditional pre-season friendly, in front of 15,000 fans.

"Newcastle, who were in the Second Division, had lads like Frank Brennan, Joe Harvey, Len Shackleton, Jackie Milburn and Roy Bentley - who I later teamed up with at Stamford Bridge - playing for them.

"I must have done all right, as they asked me to return the following Saturday for another trial. I again found myself in the reserves facing the first team. At the end of the match, I signed for Newcastle.

"I was there for two seasons, playing most of my football in the reserves, as it was very difficult to break into the first team."

Although McNichol was taking the formative steps on what would be a very successful career, he was forced to supplement his football income by working as a mechanic for a local undertaker.

McNichol said: "He had a little garage and two or three Rolls-Royces, so it was a nice change from working on bus engines.

"I used to train on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and I made as much full time at the undertaker's as I did part time with Newcastle."

After two seasons with the Magpies, McNichol was on his travels again, to the other end of the country.

He said: "I signed for Brighton and Hove Albion, who were in the Third Division at that time.

"I still wanted to be working as well as playing football, so once again I got a job at a local garage, right next to the old Goldstone ground at Hove.

"I wanted to keep up with my mechanical skills, just in case I ever had to give up my football career early through injury, but later I bought a newsagents business.

"My wife Connie - whom I first met when we were kids growing up in Kilmarnock - and I lived in a flat right near the sea front."

AFTER three seasons, First Division Chelsea shelled out 12,000 to sign McNichol, although he continued to live in Brighton, much to the annoyance of Blues manager Drake.

At the same time, McNichol's former Newcastle team-mate Bentley signed for 11,000, while Chelsea paid Crewe 7,000 for Frank Bluntstone.

The Scot revealed: "Ted Drake came to see me at my new house that I had decided to buy in Brighton, less than 50 yards from the Goldstone ground and quite near to Hove station.

"When I signed for Chelsea, I told Ted Drake I wanted to continue to live in Brighton, so I used to go up to London on the train every day.

"However, the Chelsea manager wasn't all that pleased that before I went up on the train, I would be up at 6am in our shop to get everything ready for the paper boys coming to pick up their deliveries. Connie would work in the shop all day when I was at training in London.

"Although Ted Drake and I had words about my shop, he really was a lovely man - and he won the league, a wonderful achievement and something which hadn't been emulated until last weekend."

As soon as he joined Chelsea, McNichol became a regular in the first team, and in 202 appearances between 1952 and 1958, he scored 66 goals.

Reflecting on his Stamford Bridge career, McNichol said: "Unlike now, no club dominated the league at that time, and anyone could have won the league each season, although clubs like Wolves, Arsenal and Tottenham were all fairly strong at that time.

"In that particular year, two or three teams had the chance to take the title, right up until we clinched it with a 3-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday at Stamford Bridge.

"Our centre half at that time was Ron Greenwood, who later went on to manage both West Ham and later England. Ron really was a super chap, and he was my room-mate.

"I always knew that he had the ability to go and become a top-class manager.
He was a great tactician and never lost the desire to impart his knowledge."

After many happy seasons at Stamford Bridge, McNichol was on the move again, this time to Crystal Palace, who were in the lower reaches of the English professional game.

McNichol added: "After two or three seasons with Palace, I took the job as manager of non-league club Tunbridge Wells, which was only about 20 miles away from Brighton.

"It may seem a bit daft now, on reflection, but just before I gave up playing in the football league, I actually sold the newsagents."

McNICHOL, who now lives in the Saltdean area of Brighton, revealed that he still occasionally makes a pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge, although the ground he knew has changed out of all recognition.

He said: "Only this week I received an invitation to a reunion with my old championship-winning team-mates.

"It's really good to see all my old pals, and now that Chelsea have won the title again, the memories from 50 years ago have come flooding back.

"Our goalkeeper in that championship team was also a Scot, Charlie Thomson, but these days, apart from assistant manager Steve Clarke, the only Scot at Stamford Bridge these days is a young lad from Banffshire called Steven Watt, who made his first-team debut against Scunthorpe United in the FA Cup earlier this season.

"When you are a youngster, you really are taking on a challenge to come all the way down to London to try to make your name in the game. I'm sure, like myself when I went to Newcastle, now and again he may feel a wee bit homesick.

"Football can be very rewarding, but it can be equally cruel, especially when you think you have made it and then find yourself back in the reserves.

"But over the years, the game has certainly been good to me."


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