In the spring of 1905 an experienced half-back from Dumbarton, with an impressive 16 Scotland caps and more than 100 appearances for Rangers under his belt, was asked to become player-manager of a brand new football club in west London.
John Tait Robertson, at 28 years old, was still young enough and good enough to choose his next move in football, but who could resist the challenge of building a whole squad from literally nothing, with a generous board waving their cheque book behind you? These days you only get to do that in video games. The only thing these ambitious directors had was a stadium – the biggest in London, no less. Now they needed a team to play in it, and a league to compete in.
So, while they set about securing their club’s election to the Football League in time for the 1905/06 season, ‘Jacky’ Robertson was charged with recruiting the first squad of players for Chelsea Football Club.
Take a moment to think about what that would entail: taking on a club without any players or pre-existing supporters; it’s your job to help them achieve all of those things, while trying to win some football matches as well.
Fortunately, Robertson was a well-connected man. He was one of the best players of his generation: a technically gifted left-half who was not averse to the odd bone-crunching challenge was and strong in the air too, Robertson had already starred for Morton, Everton, Southampton and Rangers, who had paid the Saints £300 – a fortune at the time – for his services in 1899. He had skippered Scotland to victory in the 1900 Home Championships, which was secured with a 4-1 win over England.
With such pedigree and such a broad geographical spread of clubs behind him, you can see why Chelsea turned to Robertson. Crucially, because of his age, he could call on friends and peers who were still in the prime of their careers to join him at the Bridge. Former team-mates signed for him out of friendship; former adversaries signed for him out of mutual appreciation.
So William Foulke, the gigantic England international goalkeeper – nicknamed “Fatty” – became one of the first names on the books at Chelsea, along with Joe Kirwan, the Ireland national team’s star winger, who was tempted away from Tottenham Hotspur. These men had played against Robertson in home internationals and were among the star names in the game at the time, especially Foulke, whose striking 22-stone figure between the posts was said to add thousands to the attendance, out of sheer curiosity, each time he turned out for the Blues.
But it wasn’t just a case of picking out the big names and inviting them down to Stamford Bridge. Robertson also had to canvass other clubs for players they might be willing to let go and held trials for enthusiastic local players as he looked to add depth to his steadily forming squad. The response was overwhelming, as Robertson revealed in an article later that season.
“My work has not been without its amusing side,” he wrote. “Among the many applications I received was one from a man who said he was a splendid centre-forward, but if that position was not vacant he could manipulate a turnstile. Another wrote, ‘You will be astonished to see me skip down the line like a deer’.”
A further applicant had declared himself willing to “be linesman, goal-keep, or mind the coats.” Some of them would have to be let down lightly, of course, but Robertson had more success with his letters to other league clubs. He managed to seal deals for a host of experienced professionals, many of them fellow Scots, like Bob McRoberts and James Robertson, who were brought in from Small Heath (the original name of Birmingham City) for a combined fee of £150. The same club sold him the promising English forward Jimmy Windridge, who set the club back a further £190, but went on to bag 16 goals in his first season.
He didn’t get the club’s first goal, however. That honour was secured by JT Robertson himself, as the player-manager got the ball rolling in the club’s second league game, at Blackpool, following the anti-climax of a 1-0 opening day defeat away to Stockport County.
The first manager of Chelsea and the first goalscorer for Chelsea, Robertson had the confidence to encourage an ultra-attacking style of football at the Bridge. His team registered 90 goals in 38 games that season, including a 7-0 win over Burslem Port Vale, 6-0 victories over Barnsley and Blackpool and a 5-1 thumping of Hull City in their first-ever league game at Stamford Bridge.
Those games were played in the Second Division of the Football League, to which Chelsea had been admitted without previously playing a single competitive match, thanks largely to the smooth-talking director Fred Parker, who had wowed the League’s committee with a confident presentation. Yet, despite finishing third and missing out on promotion by one league position that first season, Chelsea were already being talked about as much as the country’s top teams, and a crowd of 67,000 had turned out for their Good Friday game against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
A team at the heart of London, with an impressive stadium and a celebrity goalkeeper, playing entertaining football – it was a big story, and the club had a single, straightforward aim in their second season: promotion.
Robertson was showing himself to have a great eye for a player and his directors were not shy in backing his hunches. During that first season, he had been alerted to a promising half-back playing for West Ham reserves, so he went along to watch him play at Fulham with Parker. Midway through the game, Robertson leant over to his boss and observed: “Never heed yon half, just watch that young inside-left… He’ll make a champion centre-forward, ye mark my words.”
That inside-left was George Hilsdon, and he was in a Chelsea shirt for the start of the following season. Having signed on a free transfer, the 19-year-old rewarded Robertson’s faith in him by bagging five goals on his debut – at centre-forward, of course – in a 9-2 win over Glossop North End on opening day.
Robertson’s team was looking good for a promotion campaign, but despite having put together such a competitive squad, his relationship with the board was becoming strained due to questions over his professionalism. His whereabouts were not always known and when, in November 1906, he failed to show up for a board meeting, the secretary, William Lewis – who would eventually take over as temporary manager following Robertson’s departure – demanded that an explanation be given for his absence.
The minutes from the following meeting, reproduced in Colin Benson’s book The Bridge, suggest that the directors’ trust in their manager was no longer implicit, and on November 21 it was resolved “that the teams be selected by the Directors with the assistance of the manager”.
In truth, the suggestion that Robertson’s commitment was on the wain is backed up by the records, which show that he played in just three of Chelsea’s opening 12 games that season, prior to his no-show at the board meeting. All was not right somewhere along the line, and he finally resigned a week later, asking to be granted a free transfer from his playing contract as well.
His request was accepted on the condition that he would not join another club in the Second Division, but, comically, he did exactly that when, in January 1907, he pitched up at Glossop – the team that had been on the end of that opening day thumping – but not before a bizarre incident was reported in a concerned letter to chairman Claude Kirby.
“Dear Sir,” read the correspondence from H. Raucorn, also republished in The Bridge, “Knowing that Mr J.T. Robertson was no longer an official of the Chelsea F.C. I thought it my duty to inform you that he was in your office after 11pm last Thursday Nov 29th.”
We can only speculate as to what the recently departed ex-employee was doing in the chairman’s office at such a late hour, but it is clear that Robertson was not alone in upsetting the board with his indiscipline that week. That same month another Scot – Ayrshire-born forward David Copeland – turned up at a separate board meeting as a representative of the players “in a state of intoxication”. He was subsequently suspended indefinitely by the club, until a letter of apology and a grovelling follow-up appearance in the boardroom resulted in a reprieve.
For all this, the Blues went on to finish the campaign in second place and, with that, were promoted to the top flight. It seems a shame that Robertson was not there to enjoy it, but despite his unceremonious departure from Stamford Bridge, his influence on Chelsea’s first major footballing achievement cannot be underestimated. Having formed the squad from dust at the outset, and added to it sensibly in the year that followed, it is to be hoped that he could at least take some sort of satisfaction from seeing his signing Hilsdon score 27 goals in 32 games to fire Chelsea into the First Division.
Robertson’s new club Glossop, meanwhile, could count the teams below them on one hand when the final Second Division table was printed. He must have cast a few envious glances towards the capital from his office in the sleepy Derbyshire market town, where he spent two years under the chairmanship of Samuel Hill-Wood before the latter moved to begin a family dynasty in the Arsenal boardroom. However, Robertson was unable to lift Glossop out of the Second Division and departed in 1909 to serve briefly as Manchester United’s reserve-team coach.
Perhaps fearful that his career was going stale, perhaps searching for a new challenge, in 1912 Robertson made the bold decision to move to Budapest, where the game was just beginning to take hold. In fact, in the months that followed, he played an important role in the development of the intricate passing style that would become Hungary’s hallmark in the decades to come.
In his influential 1950s book, Soccer Revolution, the celebrated football writer Willy Meisl explained that “Austrians, Hungarians and Czechs moulded their game on the Scottish last – precise short passing and clever positioning.” He had produced that book in response to the Hungarian national team’s convincing home and away victories over both England and Scotland in 1953 and 1954.
However, in the days before the outbreak of the First World War any professional or top amateur side in Britain was capable of crushing any Hungarian club side. The nation’s journey from absolute beginners to world beaters took just 40 years and it began with MTK Budapest’s appointment of John Tait Robertson as their coach.
He took on that role in the latter stages of the 1911/12 season and, in an early interview with local publication Sporthirlap, informed readers that a lot of work needed to be done before the Hungarian players would reach anything close to the standard he was accustomed to back in Britain. In fact, just reading Robertson’s assessment of the level of play he witnessed in those first few days on the job, it is astounding to think that Hungary would be considered one of the strongest nations in world football within a couple of decades of his arrival.
“The mistake the players commit – which is quite common with other local teams as well – is that they only use one foot,” he said. “I think a player should be able to use both of his feet.
“The aerial game is very weak and I am surprised how many times the players use their hand – they have to lose this habit.
“The half line does not play well with the backs – when the backs lose the ball, the halves should be there to provide cover. The halves are not working together with the forward line either, and their shots are not good. Brodi is clearly the best centre-half but it does not mean that he would be exceptional – I have not seen a really good centre-half in the whole league.”
Robertson set to work on remedying these factors and remained at the helm of MTK for just over a year. In that period they finished as league runners-up in consecutive seasons, but his work seems to have had an impact because the following year they went unbeaten on the way to the first of 10 straight league championships won between 1914 and 1925.
As one obituary explained, “it was often said by leaders of the game in Austria and Hungary that it was Jacky Robertson who laid the foundations of the cultured style of football played there.”
Unfortunately, his time in Budapest appears to have ended in a similar fashion to his Chelsea tenure six years earlier, with one Hungarian newspaper reporting that he was sent home by MTK having “neglected his job”.
Although the euphemistic language of the press cuttings and club records of the time prevent us from knowing precisely the circumstances in which he lost his two most high-profile positions, Robertson clearly had his troubles and, sadly, they appear to have affected his work.
What we can say with certainty, however, is that he was a man of great footballing insight. He was prepared to take on a project from scratch, laying the foundations at two clubs who would go on to become hugely successful after he had left. For all the great men who coached Chelsea and MTK in the decades to come, the record books will forever show that John Tait Robertson was the first.