Rare: Chelsea and England legend, Derek Saunders speaks about his incredible football career

Cross The Line writer, Ollie Baines met up with Chelsea legend and 1954-1955 Championship winner, Derek Saunders.

* This article has since been published by the official Chelsea FC website – http://www.chelseafc.com/news/blogs/boilerplate—guest-fan-blog/guest-fan-blog/an-interview-with-derek-saunders.html *

I’ve lived in Frinton-on-sea for quite a while now, I moved here in 1999 and little did I know that living next door was a true footballing great.

Derek Saunders, the former England Amateur captain and Chelsea Division One winner in that infamous 1954-1955 season was right on my doorstep. So, as any football fan would, I asked Derek if we could have a chat a remember those glory days.

How did it all start for you?

“I got into football at school, that’s where it all began. In those days, at the beginning of the war, all the young masters were called up to serve and only the men did the football. Because I was quite good, I was asked, much to my dis-belief, to take the football teams; I took my class and all the others. It did mean I missed all my other lessons though!

I then joined a youth-club in my home town and there was talk of the Ware Town team starting back up again, because they’d lost a lot of people. I captained the side and managed 31 games for Ware Town. However, my uncle came and watched me play and saw that I was good, he told me to go and look for a bigger club so he organised a trial at Millwall.”

What happened at Millwall?

“I played 2 games for Millwall, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel welcome there and I knew it wasn’t the right place for me. So I decided to move on and not take them up on their offer.”

What happened after you said no to the London club?

“I then got to play for Walthamstow Avenue which were a big amateur club back then. I joined them and captained them to their Amateur Cup win in 1952.”

What were you like as a captain?

“I enjoyed being the captain, but I wasn’t the extrovert that some players are now, I was quiet but I let my football do the talking. I knew I was good, but I would never say so. I’d make sure my team-mates were doing their job, but I did it in the right way, I would never swear at my team. I think they respected that and my ability.”

How did you come to sign for Chelsea?

“There was a lot of interest from Arsenal and Chelsea. I talked to my wife Brenda, as I was in office work at the time and hated it. I wanted to play professionally as I knew I was good enough. Chelsea then came knocking on my door and they came to me and asked me to sign for them.”

What was it like to play in the Helsinki Olympics? 

“I was twenty-four when I signed professionally. But it was when I was playing in the Amateur Olympics in Helsinki that pushed me into the limelight. That’s how Chelsea heard my name. It was fantastic playing for England, but such a shame to lose in the first round. I admit I came off the pitch crying, I was so distraught that we had lost; but it was such an honour.”

What position did you play at Chelsea? 

“I was a left-half, which I suppose is the equivalent to a left back in today’s game!”

You didn’t score many goals in your career but when you did score, it was a cracker. Can you remember any in particular?

“There was one against Bolton. I picked the ball up outside my penalty area and one of their players came to me, my players were shouting for the ball, but their players just didn’t close me down quick enough and I ran through till I got to their box, and I saw the keeper planted on one side and I hit the ball and it went in the top corner. That was a special moment for me.”

You were part of the Division One winning side at Chelsea, what was that like to win the league?

“I feel honoured to be a part of that team and win the league with those players. I was one of two players to play in every single league game during our title winning season. I would hide any injuries I had because I just wanted to play. I coped every time, one week I had a huge gash down my leg, but I played on; it was me and Eric Parsons who played every game, I think”

At Chelsea, were there any stand out players? 

“Jimmy Greaves, he was a great player. One of the good fellas in football. When you had the ball, you’d look to Jimmy. He was a big talent and he had a bright future ahead of him.”

Do you still follow Chelsea?

“Yes, I still follow them and see how they do. In recent years, I’ve been to the stadium to celebrate our 50th year anniversary of when we won the league and it was great to see my old team-mates”.

Derek Saunders pictured 6 from the right, standing behind the Shield.

If you had the choice, would you play football in today’s game? 

“I wish I could still play, but no; football has changed and it’s not the same any-more. I’m too insecure and I don’t think I would enjoy today’s game as much as I did when I was playing.”

Being a footballer, would you consider yourself as famous?

“I think it was changing towards the end of my career. I wouldn’t say I was famous, being a footballer was a good job then, but not like it is today. I mean, as a player I was paid, about £5 or £7 a week in my first year at Chelsea. Then it shot up to about £17 a week and that was really good money for then. But no, I don’t think I was famous.”

So after you left Chelsea, what happned? 

“I looked at getting into management, there was talk of a job at Torquay United; that was after I had coached the Chelsea reserves and won the cup with them, coaching the likes of Jimmy Greaves. But nothing really came of it because of the people who came into the club and so I left football. I became a coach and groundsman at Vincent Square, the central London playing fields for Westminster School. I coached cricket and football and that was a fabulous time. I then retired and me and my wife moved to Frinton-on-sea where we have been ever since.”

What was your stand-out moment in your career?

“Captaining the London XI at the Helsinki Olympics was incredible, we met the Queen before hand and to represent my country was amazing. But also, winning the League with Chelsea was an unforgettable experience.”

An incredible career from an incredible player. It was a privilege to speak to Derek and re-live his career. Capped off with a signed photo of himself in his playing days.

derek saunders photo

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