Them and us – Ian McNeill (Latics and Chelsea)

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The trip to Chelsea on Saturday 9th April 2011 is an ideal opportunity to review the career of one of Wigan Athletic’s greatest servants, Ian McNeill.

Ian, whose full name is actually John McKeand McNeill, was born in Glasgow on 24 February 1932. He will always be remembered as the manager who guided Latics into the Football League in June 1978.

 He commenced his football playing career at Aberdeen who he joined in 1950 as a schoolboy despite interest from Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton. During this period he made 5 appearances for the Scotland Youth International XI, the highlight of which was more than likely the 3-1 beating handed out to England on his home team’s ground!

 He progressed through the ranks but was to play just 10 league games for the Dons, scoring his only goal on debut against St Mirren in a home fixture on 6 January 1951. His time at Pittordrie was interrupted by a spell of National Service which he spent in Kenya during the Mau Mau Revolt, which later turned into a Civil War. On returning to Scotland in 1956 he soon took the plunge, as many Scots did in those days, of heading south, his destination was Leicester City and the Dons happily took five thousands pounds as his transfer fee.

He was a member of the team that won promotion from the Second Division in 1957 and the following year saw him score the all important goal against Birmingham City at St Andrews which retained their top flight status. In total he made 72 League appearances, scoring 22 goals in the process, before a move to Second Division Brighton and Hove Albion in 1959 for a fee of ten thousand pounds which at the time was a club record for Leicester City.

Four years at the Goldstone Ground saw Ian amass 116 League appearances and 12 goals, before he finished his career at Southend United for whom he signed in the summer of 1962, making 41 League appearances for the Roots Hall outfit, during which he netted 3 times.

On leaving Southend, he returned to north of the border to start a career in management with Ross County, who in those days resided in the Highland League. To date the Staggies have won the championship on three occasions, the first of which was under Ian, who was their player/manager, in 1967.

He took the manager’s reins at Springfield Park for the first time in May 1968 and had just three months in which to assemble a side good enough to compete in the newly formed Northern Premier League.   The season ended with Latics being runners up to Macclesfield Town and they also finished as runners up to Southport in the Northern Floodlit League Cup. During that campaign Ian played 1 game for Latics on 3rd September 1968 in a Northern Floodlit League game at Oldham Athletic which Latics lost 0-2. Hardly surprising really as this had been Latics’ third game in four days!

However, the story then gets very ugly as a public falling out with chairman Arthur Horrocks resulted in Ian being sacked just six weeks after the epic FA Cup first round, second replay at Old Trafford.   Physiotherapist Duncan Colquhoun then became caretaker/manager until the appointment of Gordon Milne the following summer.

Ian meanwhile had a short spell as manager of Southern League outfit Salisbury Town before returning to Ross County, whom he helped to win the Scottish Qualifying Cup Final. Latics meanwhile went on to great success under Gordon Milne, Les Rigby and Brian Tiler who then left the club in April 1976 to manage in the United States of America with Portland Timbers.

It was then that Ian returned for his second spell in charge of the club. Having settled their differences, Ian and Mr Horrocks set off on their vision of gaining entry into the Football League. After a disappointing 1976/77 season, in which Latics still managed to win the Lancashire Junior Cup, the dream of bringing League football to the town again for the first time since the demise of Wigan Borough was achieved after Ian guided Latics to the runners up spot of the Northern Premier League in May 1978.

 Ian then came within a whisker of promotion during the club’s first season in the Fourth Division gaining a very creditable sixth place finishing. This feat was equaled at the end of season 1979/80, but he left Springfield Park for the last time on 15 February 1981 following a 0-3 defeat against Port Vale at Vale Park the previous day.

Ian was soon back in the game when in May 1981 Chelsea appointed John Neal as their manager, John in turn appointed Ian as his assistant. At the time there was nothing short of turmoil at Stamford Bridge and John and Ian were working with a squad that was often being decimated as players were sold to help fund a redevelopment of Stamford Bridge. It was during this period that former Latics chairman Ken Bates acquired Chelsea for the princely sum of one pound!

 John and Ian had a torrid time in season 1982/83 as Chelsea very narrowly avoided relegation to the Third Division.   The summer of 1983 saw Chelsea concentrate on matters on the playing side of things as property developers had acquired the Stamford Bridge freehold.  Priority now rested on getting a decent team together and Ian was instrumental in the Pensioners signing the likes of Pat Nevin, Joe McLaughlin, David Speedie and Kerry Dixon, which resulted in the team winning promotion to the First Division the following year.

After a spell as manager of the club during an illness sustained by John, he left the game for a while before returning to management with Shrewsbury Town in December 1987 after Ken Brown had been in charge of the Shrews for just one game! He stayed at Gay Meadow until 1990 before deciding to retire from football management.

He was unable to stay out of the game completely and has since held scouting positions with Chelsea, Norwich City, Bolton Wanderers and Leeds United. Ian though will always have a special place in Wigan Athletic folklore and he still visits the DW Stadium whenever his schedule allows.

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