Seamus O’Connell, one of the original Chelsea champions of 1954/55, has died peacefully at his home in Spain, aged 83.
An inside-forward, his was a brief but famous career in west London with a spectacular Stamford Bridge debut followed just six months later by a place in the team the day the club won our first major silverware, the league championship 50 years after the club’s formation. O’Connell was one of the members of that team present as guests of honour at the Bridge another half-century later when our second championship trophy was presented to the team of 2004/05.
Born in Carlisle, O’Connell was playing for leading amateur side Bishop Auckland in the north of England when he joined Chelsea near the start of the ’54/’55 season. He worked in his family’s lucrative cattle-dealing business and in common with other members of the squad, Jim Lewis and Derek Saunders, he remained an amateur. It was the time of a maximum wage for professional footballers.
O’Connell’s debut came in the October of that season in front of 56,000 spectators, having arrived in London on the day by train to take on a Manchester United side at the very start of its ‘Busby Babes’ era.
What followed was one of the most remarkable games played at the Bridge, with O’Connell equalising Man United’s opener. It was 6-3 to the visitors by the time the debutant struck his second goal of the afternoon and then completed his hat trick, but ended on the losing side with the final score 6-5 to Man U. Matt Busby had previously tried to persuade O’Connell to sign for his side as a professional.
The new star played the next two games although results at that time were hardly those of prospective champions. The family business limited O’Connell’s availability with Les Stubbs taking back the no.10 shirt when the amateur was away up north.
O’Connell came back into the side after Christmas and scored in a home draw against Arsenal and then in his next three appearances.
The team’s form had improved greatly and in early April came the game that would go a long way to deciding the champions. Wolves were the visitors and with the contest scoreless, it was O’Connell’s fiercely-struck shot that was heading for the top corner when England captain Billy Wright punched it away. The referee, eventually, awarded the penalty that decided the match.
In the next home game O’Connell and his team-mates comfortably beat Sheffield Wednesday and were crowned champions of England (he is pictured below on the day). In that first season he found the net eight times in 11 appearances.
Well-built, tidy on the ball and a sharp, opportunistic finisher, O’Connell scored three times in the first five games of the following season but his main occupation soon took him away and the remainder of his football career was as an amateur at Crook Town and Carlisle. He played for England at amateur level too.
In total O’Connell played 17 games for Chelsea and scored 12 goals. He spent many later years living in Spain but returned to Chelsea for a reunion dinner of the 1955 squad (pictured below, with O’Connell fifth from the left) which formed part of the club’s centenary celebrations, as well as for the 2005 Premier League trophy presentation.
Chelsea Football Club is deeply saddened by Seamus’s passing and sends our condolences to his family and friends.
Club historian Rick Glanvill writes:
‘Seamus O’Connell captured the imagination of fans while remaining one of the most enigmatic of Chelsea players. No other player can say he scored a hat-trick on his debut at home to Manchester United but still ended up on the losing side.
‘His exploits with non-league Bishop Auckland had brought him to Chelsea’s attention – not least because his team slaughtered Ware 5-1 in the 1953/54 Amateur Cup – and the Hertfordshire side were managed by the Pensioners’ former veteran left-back, Tommy Law.
‘Soon after that the inside-left made his England amateur debut and, by coincidence, played several games in the FA Cup and First Division for our opponents last night, Middlesbrough, before joining Chelsea .
‘At Stamford Bridge he was a firework that shone brilliantly but fleetingly, which maybe helped build the legend. He had the wow factor, as Ted Drake’s side brought the first league title to Stamford Bridge.
‘Living at the other end of the country, it was all too rare that he trained with his teammates. When O’Connell secured a win at Charlton and decided to stay in London to prepare for the Blues’ FA Cup match at Cardiff, Drake was effusive: “All he needs is full training to be England’s greatest inside-forward. What a partnership he is striking up with Frank Blunstone.”
‘A country lad at heart, it was more usual for him to arrive from the train station for each game carrying his boots in a brown paper bag, and so it continued. The arrangement was never likely to satisfy Drake, who demanded commitment, and in Seamus’s second and final season he figured just six times – scoring four goals.
‘O’Connell’s impact on Blues fans in that short spell was undoubtedly a huge and enduring one. When a Mr B Kirkwood wrote to the Daily Express in 1961 to set out what was wrong with the Chelsea side of the day he bemoaned the loss of star players from the mid-1950s and included O’Connell on his list alongside the far more regular and established Eric Parsons, Roy Bentley and Ken Armstrong.’