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Billy Birrell (1939-1952)

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Billy Birrell (1939-1952)

Written by Bluebeard in May 2007

birrell.jpg Chelsea’s fifth manager was another Scot – the third to take charge at Stamford Bridge. Billy Birrell, born in 1897, had played for Raith Rovers and Middlesbrough before taking up management. He returned to Raith as manager, then was in charge at Bournemouth and Queens Park Rangers before Chelsea appointed him to succeed Leslie Knighton at the end of the 1938/39 season.

Birrell was the last manager/secretary to take charge of Chelsea - future managers would take charge of training and have a lot more interaction with the players.

Upon his arrival, Birrell stated that he wanted Chelsea to bring players through a new youth scheme rather than spend money in the transfer market like his predecessors David Calderhead and Leslie Knighton. His plans were delayed by the war though, and the scheme didn’t get set up until the late 1940’s.

The outbreak of war also meant that it was seven years before Birrell took charge of his first competitive league game. Although football was played throughout the war, the leagues were regionalised and guest players were drafted in to fill gaps left by players serving in the forces. Indeed, after the war Chelsea only had two first-team players still on the books from pre-war, and so had to sign players.

Birrell proved adept in the transfer market, his most notable signings including Ron Greenwood (from the juniors), Len Goulden, John Harris, Bill Robertson, Tommy Lawton, Willi Steffen, Tommy Walker, Ken Armstrong, Roy Bentley, Stan Willemse, Bobby Smith and Eric Parsons.

bentley.jpg Despite all the talent brought to the Bridge, Chelsea’s highest position under Birrell was thirteenth in Division One - once again, the club flattered to deceive and never fulfilled their potential.

The high points of Birrell’s reign were two FA Cup semi-finals, in 1949/50 and again two years later. Both times the opponents were Arsenal, and both times Chelsea were beaten after a replay – all ties were played at White Hart Lane.

Chelsea finished the 1950/51 season on level points with Sheffield Wednesday and Everton at the foot of the table, and had to win their last game to avoid relegation. Chelsea beat Bolton 4-0 and survived by a .044 better goal average.

At the beginning of the 1951/52 season, two of Chelsea’s top players, Roy Bentley and John Harris, refused to agree terms with the club and spent eight weeks without playing a match or receiving any wages.

Eventually the board listened to their grievances and things returned to normal, but after finishing nineteenth in the league, Birrell resigned at the end of that season, tired and fed up.

Although the club never finished in the top half of the league under Birrell, he left his legacy by way of the Chelsea youth scheme which was to prove so beneficial to the club in later years.

Managerial Record

Highest League Position 13th (Div 1) 1948/49 & 1949/50


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