John Hollins was one of those men you just couldn’t find anything to dislike. A hard-working pro who was a thoroughly nice bloke off and on the pitch.
Loved by supporters of the clubs he played for, Chelsea, QPR and Arsenal. It was one of those clubs, Chelsea who announced the sad news today of his death at the age of 76.
Hollins was born in the same town I was, Guildford on 16 July 1946. His Dad, Grandad and three brothers were all professional footballers. One of his brothers, Dave was capped by Wales.
Hollins himself earned the distinction of having played for the world champions. He was capped once by England, a friendly at Wembley against Spain in May 1967. He lined up alongside five of the men who were victorious at the same venue less than 12 months before. Bobby Moore, George Cohen, Geoff Hurst, Roger Hunt and Alan Ball. England won 2-0 with goals from Hunt and Jimmy Greaves.
Chelsea board member, Daniel Finkelstein, told BBC Sport;
“He was a hero to the fans of the club, and very much that to me.
“He was at the heart of one of Chelsea’s greatest teams and, as well as contributing to its trophy success, he expressed its spirit.
“He lifted up the team with his play and lit up the Bridge with his smile. He gave a life of service to this club , as a player, as a manager and as a matchday ambassador. He was greatly loved and will be much missed.”
After his playing career came to an end of the 1983-84 season he moved into a coaching role at the club. A year later he was appointed first-team manager. They were top at one stage in the season but fell away towards the end. In the days when Chelsea never won anything, negotiating the team to win the Full Members Cup was something many older Blues fans always cherished.
Hollins signed for Chelsea as a youth player when he was still at Park Barn School in Guildford. He was handed his debut by Tommy Docherty in the first team as a 17-year-old in a League Cup tie at Swindon Town in September 1963. Chelsea lost 0-3. Dennis Brown, who also came through the same youth system as Hollins, made his debut that night too. He would later join Swindon after struggling to force his way into the first team.
Hollins didn’t make the first team again till the following March when he was in the side which lost in a midweek First Division game at Stoke. He was playing in midfield alongside Terry Venables.
His home debut came a few days later, in another defeat as local rivals, Fulham arrived at Stamford Bridge and walked away with a 2-1 win.
It wasn’t until his fourth appearance for the club that he was on the winning side. Bobby Tambling hit two goals in a 3-0 win at Wolves at the start of the following season.
1964 was when he really broke into the side and became a regular. That season was a really successful one for the club. They finished third in the league, were losing Semi-Finalists in the FA Cup and won the League Cup. They reached the Final, which in those days was played over two legs.
Hollins played in the first leg which Chelsea won 3-2. But he was dropped for the second where they saw out a goalless draw to lift the trophy.
It was their first silverware since Ted Drake steered them to the League title in 1955.
The following season, 1965-66, was another impressive one for the club. Fifth place in the league was no disappointment and they reached the FA Cup Semi-Final again, losing to Sheffield Wednesday. Their League Cup win had qualified them for the Fairs Cup (pre-UEFA Cup). They beat Milan in the Third Round. The tie required a play-off after the aggregate score was level. Even that couldn’t separate the two sides so it was decided by the toss of a coin. Chelsea guessed correctly.
A similar thing happened in the Semi-Final where they came up against Barcelona. Both sides won their home games 2-0 so another play-off was needed. But this time Chelsea’s luck ran out as they were cast aside, 0-5.
The magic of the cup competitions continued the season after as Chelsea reached the League Cup Final, before losing to Tottenham.
Once he’d staked a claim for a regular place, Hollins rarely missed a game over the next decade. He played in 400 of a possible 420 league games and at one point made 167 consecutive appearances. Still a club record.
Hollins finally won a winners’ medal in 1970 when Chelsea won an epic FA Cup Final against Leeds United, after a bruising encounter in a replay. In the first match at Wembley, it was Hollins’ cross that lead to Hutchinson scoring the late equaliser.
By then Dave Sexton had replaced Docherty as boss and Chelsea had one of their best seasons. They finished third in the league and Hollins was chosen as the club’s Player of the Year.
Victory in the FA Cup earned them a place in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup the following year. They reached the Final too, meeting Real Madrid. After a 1-1 draw they won the replay, 2-1. Hollins played in the first game but was injured for the second.
1971-72 saw him as the club’s Player of the Year for the second season running. It was his most prolific in terms of goals too. He notched up 17 during a term when Chelsea reached their third successive cup final.
They failed to make it three wins out of three when they were beaten by Stoke City in the League Cup Final.
It looked like they might make it four years running for cup finals when they got to the Semis of the League Cup the next year too. But this time Norwich City got the better of them.
These were halcyon days for Chelsea fans. They were the perfect foil for the gritty northerners of Leeds. The swinging sixties and the Kings Road gave Chelsea an image of fashionable southern geezers. Hollins was the clean-cut boy many a Dad would be quite happy their daughter brought home.
But the fall from grace for the club was alarming. 17th in 1974 led to relegation a year later. Sexton was sacked. Hollins lasted a year in the Second Division before he was sold to nearby Queen’s Park Rangers. This reunited him with Sexton and the two were instrumental in turning ‘the Hoops’ into a decent outfit.
In Hollins’ first season, QPR had their best-ever league finish when they were within 15 minutes of winning the league before Liverpool pipped them by a point.
He played over 150 times for Rangers before a surprise move in the summer of ’79 to Arsenal. At 33 years old he was expected to be a squad player, but his versatility soon found him used more often than anticipated.
His first full season at Chelsea had ended with League Cup Final success. His first season with QPR saw them almost win the league. So no one should’ve been all that surprised when his first season at Arsenal saw them reach two cup finals. Hollins was left out of the squad for the FA Cup Final defeat to West Ham, but he did make the team for the Cup-Winners’ Cup Final. They lost on penalties to Valencia. He came on as sub in the game and was successful as the fifth penalty-taker before Graham Rix missed.
His performances in the 1981-82 season earned him another player-of-the-year award.
After four years at Arsenal, he was allowed to leave on a free. There was only going to be one destination for him. Chelsea. In the eight years since he was last there, they’d only spent two in the First Division. But of course, Hollins’ ‘first season’ magic struck again and they won promotion.
He was 37 by that time yet still turned out for 29 games. This took his overall appearance total to 592 for the club – fifth on the all-time list, but third at the time, behind Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris.
As mentioned earlier, he moved into coaching and then management. After three years managing Chelsea, he had spells at QPR as a caretaker, Swansea City, Rochdale, Stockport County, Crawley Town and Weymouth.
When he was at Swansea they won the fourth tier (Third Division, at the time).
He was awarded an MBE for services to football in 1982.
His son, Chris, was the main sports presenter on BBC Breakfast between 2005-2012 and on the news of his father’s passing, he tweeted;
“He was so modest but I will say it: He was a great player, brilliant team-mate and one hell of a person. My mum, my sister and all his grandchildren will miss him so much.”
As you can imagine, tributes have poured in for the man many considered their friend, even if they hadn’t actually met him. On a local Facebook group many pointed to him being the reason they started supporting Chelsea. Not for Osgood, Hutchinson, Harris, Bonetti, Tambling or Venables.
Others have talked of how he played football with them on the local parks, even though he was a professional footballer.
Micky Hazard, who was managed by Hollins at Chelsea tweeted;
“Very, very sad to hear the passing of John Hollins, my former manager who in fact was too good a person to be a manager. John was such a lovely man and he will be sorely missed by all who knew him. Rest in peace John the world has lost a really goo guy. RIP John”
QPR released their own tribute;
“We are saddened to learn of the passing of former player and coach John Hollins. John was part of our much-loved team of the 1975/76, making 183 appearances and scoring seven goals while in W12.
All our thoughts are with John’s family and friends at this time.”