Royalty on the King's Road

Bobby Tambling relaxes in the sunshine at Carrigaline Court Hotel, Co Cork this week;
Bobby Tambling relaxes in the sunshine at Carrigaline Court Hotel, Co Cork this week;

Frank Lampard may equal Bobby Tambling’s Chelsea scoring record today, but the bond between the Stamford Bridge legends will always be stronger than stats. Kieran Shannon spoke to the Cork-based striker about Lampard, Jimmy Greaves and the swinging sixties in West London.

He wants Frank Lampard to break his record. Genuinely, he does. While the nurses and doctors that have cared for him over the last few months and years will sometimes exclaim their relief, delight, bias that “Lampard didn’t score this weekend!”, to Bobby Tambling, ‘Lampard’ is ‘Frank’. Chelsea’s best ever player.

A gentleman. His friend.

Most people probably now know that the night Lampard scored his 200th goal for the club he rang Tambling who was laid up in a Cork hospital bed, suffering from Martorell’s ulcer, the dreadfully painful leg condition which has tormented him and at one stage almost even killed him in recent years. They spoke about the game and the goal, against Lampard’s old club, West Ham, then about more important matters. How are you, Bobby? That’s it, stay positive, keep listening to those doctors and nurses, and hopefully we’ll see each other at Stamford Bridge soon.

As everyone now knows, they did, the same day that Lampard moved to within one goal of Bobby, with Bobby right there at the same goal end before he was wheeled out at half-time to a standing and tearful ovation from an adoring home crowd. As Bobby’s long-time partner Val noted, “big, burly, tattooed men” cried that afternoon. But such men laughed with them that day too.

Before the game John Terry as well as Lampard both made a point of meeting Tambling and his family.

Lampard wasn’t down to start but, as Bobby pointed out, he might come on. At which point Val interjected.

“But, Frank, if you do come on, you’re not to take any penalty, alright? John, you take the penalties!”

“Val,” winced Terry self-deprecatingly, “the last time I took a penalty...”

If they didn’t have a game to play, they could have talked to him forever. About yarns from the dressing room; about family; about their mutual love of the Cork coast; Crosshaven has been Tambling’s home for decades now while Kinsale is a favourite haunt of Lampard’s and his fiancée.

Christine Bleakley. Lampard was the one who wanted him and Christine to have a photo with Bobby and his family. That night Christine tweeted and posted them up on Facebook, fondly recounting her day with the “legendary” Bobby Tambling.

“Frank always gives us his time,” says that legend. And what we’ve learned over the last few years is that he’ll be there for us.”

Here’s a story that no one knows. Last year Tambling was to be honoured at a Chelsea FC function for a lifetime award. He couldn’t make it over. He was too sick, in hospital. After he got out though, his best friend, Val’s brother, Buzz O’Connell, decided they should have some kind of surprise party for Bobby in Cork to mark the honour. So the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Crosshaven was booked. A band too. Barry Bridges, Bobby’s old partner in scoring at the Bridge, was flown over; Neil Barnett from Chelsea TV and club match-day MC as well. Paddy Mulligan and his wife were put up having come down from Dublin.

The only problem was how to pay for it all. Barnett said to leave it to him, he’d organise a sponsor or two.

Within 48 hours he’d come back. That had all been taken care of. Once he’d heard of the event Frank Lampard was honoured to pick up the bill.

Now you know why Bobby Tambling has so much time for Frank Lampard.

What you might still not quite get is just why Frank Lampard has so much time for Bobby Tambling.

To understand that is to understand Chelsea: its history, identity and family, because believe it or not that’s what such a mega-sized club, corporation even, often still feels like for him — family, with Tambling one of its most loved members.

In the swinging ’60s nowhere and no one was quite swinging like Chelsea. If George Best was football’s first rock n’ roll star, then Chelsea were its first rock n’ roll team. Long before Jack Nicholson and Hollywood would flock to see Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers’ brand of Showtime, celebrities like Michael Caine, Steve McQueen and Raquel Welch would regularly head down the King’s Road to Stamford Bridge to take in football’s most stylish and swashbuckling team. The Chelsea side of that era might not have won many trophies but they won something almost as precious — affection. They were loved, for how they played and who they were.

Nearly all of them came through the ranks. Tambling did. He wasn’t cheeky or a Cockney like a lot of the others but a quiet, grounded lad from the small town of Havant on the south coast, though when the scouts came calling Chelsea’s was the one that charmed him. Or conned him. Tambling still can’t make up his mind.

“I wish someday someone would write a book about Jimmy Thompson. Everyone who went to Chelsea had a funny story about him. He was the original Del Boy. Terry Venables often talks about the time he was to meet Jimmy in Waterloo Station. Big station, Waterloo Station, so Terry asked where in Waterloo Station. Jimmy said underneath the clock. So Terry gets there, stands under the clock but can’t see Jimmy, he can only hear this ‘Pst! Pst!’ He keeps looking around until he hears this fella hiding beneath a newspaper. ‘Can’t be seen talking to you!’ That was Jimmy. I won’t say he was a conman but he was a character.

“In my case, he just showed up on the doorstep one evening with this piece of paper. He handed it to me and it was a sign-on form. I said, ‘Jimmy, you know as well as I do, I’m not allowed to sign any paper. You shouldn’t even be here talking to me’. I was still in school, and in those days you couldn’t sign for a club as a schoolboy. So Jimmy said, ‘Look, just sign the paper and you keep it’. I knew that was strange but a week later Jimmy is back on the doorstep, this time with [manager] Mr [Ted] Drake.

“So Ted says, ‘Can I have the form?’ And Jimmy’s standing behind him, shaking his head, waving his hands, so I’m there, this 15-year-old kid, telling Ted Drake, this famous player and manager, ‘What paper, Mr Drake?’ And he says, ‘I know Jimmy. He would have got you to sign a piece of paper. He’s not allowed to do that. Just give me the paper and you know and I know you’re going to join us’.”

Tambling had a lot of scouts and clubs onto him, playing on the national U15 schoolboys team in front of 80,000 at Wembley against Scotland alongside Nobby Stiles (“I think that’s why Nobby never kicked me later on”). Wolves, the biggest club in football at the time, wanted him. So did Reading.

Their manager, Harry Johnston, had captained Blackpool, the side Tambling supported, to FA Cup glory but when Tambling broke it to him that he was going to Chelsea, Johnston selflessly declared he’d made the right decision.

“He told me, ‘You’re right not to stay local. You’ll have every Tom, Dick and Harry in your ear and all your brothers too, though they mean well. You should only be listening to the people that matter: the coaching staff’. It was great advice. Until I walked through the doors of Chelsea I’d never been coached.”

His youth coach Dickie Foss was one of his taskmasters and a stern one at that. “One day we won 7-0 and I’d got a hat-trick when Dickie sat down beside me. ‘I suppose you’re feeling happy with yourself?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I am, Dick; pleased as punch!’ And then he listed off things that I didn’t do. By the time he got off his feet I was thinking, ‘God, I must have been crap!’ He was brilliant at keeping your feet on the ground. When we won the FA Youth Cup we were all delighted for Dickie.”

Dave Sexton’s technical and tactical knowledge was exceptional; he was the coach that came up with the idea of overlapping wing play, taking the idea from rugby and applying it to football, to allow the likes of Tambling stymie defenders and get in or finish crosses.

“The great thing about Dave was he didn’t just tell you to do it. He’d explain why to you. Once you understood the reason, you’d do it much more willingly.”

Then there was Tommy Docherty. Doc was Doc. A character, a chancer, a charmer, a lot like Terry Venables, actually. It was just a shame the dressing room wasn’t big enough for both of them.

“Terry was tremendous in the dressing room. I’ve always maintained the dressing room is as important as the pitch and Terry was as good as you could get in the dressing room. We’d all go shopping together, maybe into Selfridges, and Terry would go up to an assistant, telling them he had a friend who was missing a toe and did they have any special sock for him that wouldn’t be so flappy.

“So while the young fella checks with the manager, we’re all hiding behind a clothes rack, laughing our head off. Then the young fella comes back and of course he gets a right earful. So he tells Terry, ‘No, we don’t have anything like that in stock, sorry’. Then Terry tells him, look, we’re with Candid Camera, sorry and thanks for being such a good sport, is it okay if we use it? And the young lad is delighted, rushing down telling all the others, having no idea Terry’s just conned him again.

“It might seem juvenile to some people but that’s what made the spirit amongst us so strong. But that was the trouble later on between Terry and Doc. They were both quick-witted and wanted to be centre stage. It was almost like a competition between them. Whereas Doc should have stepped back and left it to us, the players, he wanted to be part of us. But most of us would have run through walls for Doc.

“He built a lot of us up into internationals, taking every chance to tell the press we should be in the England side.”

Tambling would play for England. Three times, the last cap in 1966. He was actually on the 28-man training camp on the eve of the World Cup when Alf Ramsey came up to him. ‘I appreciate your effort, but you’re not on the 22, but keep fit because if something happens to one of the lads, we’ll be looking to call you up’.

But of course he never did. Though Tambling was that rare thing in British football — a top-class left-footed wide man — Alf didn’t use wide men.

“Of course I was disappointed,” says Tambling his accent a blend of his native Hampshire mixed with a tint of his adopted Cork, “but you’ve got to be honest with yourself too. There’s a slight difference between each grade of football. You could be an excellent player in Division 2 but not quite make it in Division 1. Then you could be a good Division 1 player but not quite be international level. I was one of them.”

So, no, don’t put him down in the same bracket as Jimmy Greaves as a man who missed out on ’66. He won’t. He knew Greavsie well from their Chelsea days. Different class.

“I’ve always said, Greavsie was a Rolls Royce, I was an old banger. Whenever we needed a goal, you’d say to yourself, ‘We’ll be alright, Greavsie will score one’. Greavsie was different to the rest of us. He’d do just two or three laps and then go shooting with the keeper. The rest of us would still be slogging away but no one had a problem with it. Everyone got on with Jimmy.”

Tambling also learned from him. How to remain cool, cold-blooded in the box. About ten years after Greaves left the Bridge for AC Milan, Tambling would net his 202nd goal for Chelsea. It’s a club record that lasts to this day — or at least until today.

Ask him why was it he scored so much and he’ll say without any hint of false modesty, “Because I played on a very good team.”

So why didn’t they win more? For a team so consistently in the top five of the league, that reached the last four of the Cup so often? Probably, he says, they were a player or two short. Maybe they were simply too short. Peter Bonetti was the tallest at six foot.

“I mean, Ron [Chopper] Harris was a great defender but Ron wasn’t big,” he points out. “He just tried to make everyone the same size as him by cutting them off at the knees!”

As the years would go on, Tambling’s own legs were having trouble. The year Chelsea would finally make their FA Cup breakthrough, Tambling was on loan at Crystal Palace where he would eventually play for three years.

“Towards the end of my career, I had a lot of injuries. You couldn’t get a rhythm for the season. One year at Palace I did my Achilles tendon and the specialist told me to retire. He was a former New Zealand All Black and said he’d seen that injury too often, that I was going to struggle any time I played on hard ground.

“Luckily enough, I said this to Paddy Mulligan. So Paddy said, ‘I’ve the answer for you. Play in Ireland. The pitches there are always soft’. I still wanted to play so when Paddy told me he had a team fixed up for me, I thought ‘Great.’ I was even happier when I heard it was down in Cork. And happier again when he told me they were second. What he didn’t tell me was that they were bloody second from bottom!”

They wouldn’t stay there long. By the end of the season Cork Celtic were league champions. To this day he treasures that season: playing Hibs in a derby in front of 27,000 wedged into Flower Lodge; the camaraderie of that dressing room.

He would stay with Celtic for a few years, even manage them, even manage to persuade George Best to play a few games for them. Even after his League of Ireland career would peter out, he would still play and later coach at some level for Avondale and Crosshaven, which has long now been home for him.

“As you get older people say you should pack up, end near the top of the tree. But if you enjoy playing, so what if you have to come down a few branches? I loved playing the game. Even if we hadn’t been paid at Chelsea we would still have wanted to play for free.”

Even in those playing days though money was tight. In 1967 at the height of his fame and powers Tambling opened up a sports shop in his hometown, and lived in its upstairs premises. There was no garage for his car, a Ford Corsair.

“It was a super car but often the blasted thing wouldn’t start if it was damp. I’d have to get up 20 minutes early to see if it would start and if it didn’t, then I’d have to jump on the train.”

Chelsea would look out for him though long after he’d finished with them and competitive football. Through the years he’d work in other jobs, other sports shops, like one in Douglas, but he and his family have no hesitation in saying Ken Bates helped them out at times when they were struggling.

“The first time I met Ken was shortly after he’d taken over the club. We were out on the field, looking around the ground and I said to him, ‘Thanks very much, Mr Bates, for saving my club’. Right away he corrected me, ‘No, it’s my club, Bobby!’”

He’s grateful he could return to the Bridge last month. He’s grateful to be above the sod at all. The last few years have been torturous. He developed an ulceration of the lower leg brought about by undetected high blood pressure, a condition that requires multiple skin grafts and leaves indents in his leg. Then at Christmas he was hit with severe pneumonia and a dose of blood poisoning. Only for people like surgeon John Kelly, dermatologist John Burke, cardiologists Gerry Fahy and Carl Vaughan and the nursing staff at Cork’s Mercy Hospital, South Infirmary and Cork University Hospital, he says, “I wouldn’t be here today.”

Chelsea have sustained him too. Watching their every game, cheering, crying. The night they won the Champions League he was in tears down the phone to old team-mates like Barry Bridges and Ken Shellito.

A few days before the trip over for the Swansea game last month, he was laid up in hospital, but the visit elevated his spirits and health.

“I keep saying, we’re part of this family. And we’re the older part of the family. And I’m just humbled that people still have such fond memories of our team. I’m not any different to anyone. I don’t feel I’m more special than anyone. I just feel privileged to have done what I have done, to play for such a big club and to get to meet as many fans as possible.”

Last month they were there for him upon his return to the Bridge. As was Lampard.

“Perhaps he wasn’t the quickest fella on the pitch but he would work all game for the team which was something we very much appreciated about him,” a former Chelsea captain recently said. “Even when he was having a bad game, he would never go missing. He was the perfect player and the consummate professional.”

That was Ron Harris talking about Bobby Tambling. It could as easily have been John Terry talking about Frank Lampard.

Now you know why Frank Lampard picked up that bill in Crosshaven for Bobby Tambling.

Different salaries, different eras, but twins of a kind too.

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