How the former Chelsea defender John Dempsey left football behind to work in a care home
He played against Pelé, Cruyff and Beckenbauer. George Best was suspended for his testimonial match but Eusébio came instead and played alongside Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst. He scored against Real Madrid in a European final, and was one of the outstanding performers in a classic FA Cup Final. But there is much, much more. He has, through sport, enriched the lives of many people with Down’s Syndrome and learning difficulties. He has occasionally had to change the nappies of vulnerable adults who are incapable of caring for themselves. He knows all about wheelchair maintenance, lifting disabled people with a hoist, autism, epilepsy and challenging behaviour. He was a day centre care worker for 25 years. He is John Dempsey – a remarkable man who has led a life quite unlike anything expected of a top professional footballer. And he has enjoyed every moment.
Dempsey was a Chelsea legend of the 1970s, though he has an affinity, too, for Fulham, where he started his career. He was a stalwart centre-half in a team that featured Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, Peter Bonetti, Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson. It was the ‘Blue is the Colour’ era, when the song of that name added to the allure of the ‘glamour’ team of English football. Dempsey had no idea, throughout a busy playing career, what he would do after football.
“None of us ever thought about what we would do next,” said Dempsey. His father was a big influence on him when he started, and “even he never mentioned it. None of us did. When you’re playing, all you think about is football. But we all had to find something afterwards because we didn’t earn so much back then.”
That is something of an understatement. Dempsey’s wages as an apprentice at Fulham were £6 a week. His first professional contract took him to £15 a week and by the time he finished at Chelsea in the late 1970s he was on £125 a week. With bonuses he earned little more than the average national salary. He did not have an agent, nor did he have any sponsors.
After Chelsea, Dempsey spent three years playing for Philadelphia Fury in the United States. He had helped to stop Pelé scoring in a friendly in Kingston, Jamaica in 1971, in which Santos beat Chelsea 1-0. In the North American Soccer League he shut out Gerd Müller of Fort Lauderdale – “a surprisingly small bloke” – and in four games against Cruyff (Los Angeles Aztecs, Washington Diplomats), the Dutchman scored only once. Other opponents included Rodney Marsh (Tampa Bay Rowdies), and a trio of loan players at Detroit Express – Trevor Francis, Alan Brazil and a young Mark Hateley.
In 1979 Dempsey was voted the NASL’s defender of the year. The runner-up was Franz Beckenbauer.
In 1980 he was awarded a testimonial, in which Chelsea beat an International XI featuring Moore, Hurst, Alan Ball and Eusébio. Best had promised to play but was banned by his club, Hibernian, shortly before the game.
Dempsey then tried management, without much success. He had played for the Republic of Ireland 19 times, qualifying through his parents, and led Dundalk in the League of Ireland for two and a half seasons. He returned to London and managed the non-league sides Maidenhead and Egham before he “drifted into work” for Barnet Council. He did not drift out again until he retired, aged 65, three years ago.
“I became a care worker and stayed for 25 years,” he said. “I have had a very rewarding job, a rewarding life, after football. I must admit I got as much enjoyment doing that as I did playing football.”
Few, if any, of his 1970s Chelsea teammates would say the same thing – that they had as fulfilling a life after football as they did while playing. Sadly, one of them, Peter Houseman, did not have a life after football at all: he was killed, with his wife, in a car crash in 1977. “I look at some of the others and while some of them did work they enjoyed, others have been angry and still are in some cases,” said Dempsey. “They think the club, or the game, should have helped them but it isn’t like that. You finish playing and another lot come in. Once your time’s finished you’re soon forgotten. That’s how it is. It’s very, very sad when people get like that.”
Sitting at his home in Hemel Hempstead, Dempsey ran through what he knew of his fellow players who featured in the famous FA Cup replay win against Leeds in 1970. The first game was a 2-2 draw at Wembley. “They’d had the Horse of the Year Show at Wembley the week before and the pitch was terrible, the ball bobbled all over the place. We could have lost that first game. Leeds had so much possession, and they were a good team.
“The pitch wasn’t great [at Old Trafford] for the replay either, but we played better then, we deserved to win. I think I played well in both games.”
The winning goal was scored by David Webb, who had a successful business career after football. “He spends a lot of time abroad and has done quite well. He used to dabble in buying and selling cars when he was playing, and always had a head for business.”
Ron Harris, who trained greyhounds for years, has also done well in business, said Dempsey. One of Harris’s top dogs was called Dempsey Duke. Peter Bonetti was a postman on the Isle of Mull for a while “and is now a Chelsea ambassador for home games, like Ron.”
“Marvin Hinton, last I heard, had been a baggage handler at Gatwick for a while. Tommy Baldwin was a minicab driver. John Hollins did the best of those who stayed in football.” Hollins managed Chelsea, Swansea, Rochdale and Crawley. “Peter Osgood and Ian Hutchinson ran a pub in Windsor but it went bankrupt. They’re both dead now; so is Keith Weller.”
Weller, who owned a coffee shop and worked as a van driver after settling in the United States, died 10 years ago. He did not play in the 1970 team but, a year later, was in the side that beat Real Madrid to win the Cup-Winners’ Cup in Athens. That went to a replay, too – and Dempsey volleyed a spectacular goal in the second game. He learned his goalscoring skills early in his career, when he played a few games for Fulham as a centre-forward.
“Charlie Cooke runs football skills courses in America, and Eddie McReadie lives there too.” McReadie, who managed Chelsea from 1975-77, coached and managed in the United States. He lives happily on a farm in Tennessee with his wife, a renowned quilt maker, and two dogs, one of which is called Chelsea. He became a Christian eight years ago and sounds as though he could run Dempsey close for contentment in later life.
The player who most feels hard done by is Alan Hudson, whose fall into a desperate lifestyle has been well documented. Hudson, who spent four years in the United States at the same time as Dempsey, had problems with gambling and alcohol. He was in a coma for two months after being hit by a car in London in 1997, was recently diagnosed with cancer and is living on benefits and a small pension. He is bitter that Chelsea never gave him a testimonial match. “I have always got on with Alan, and I went to see him a couple of times when he was in hospital,” said Dempsey. “The doctors thought he wouldn’t survive. It’s very sad, what’s happened to him.”
While Hudson was heading for a troubled future in the 1980s, Dempsey found his way into a new career. He did a bit of coaching at schools in north London. “Tony Jarrett did athletics, so did Donovan Reid [both were Olympians] and Lloyd Cowan, who is Christine Ohuruogu’s coach. I did football,” said Dempsey. “One afternoon a week I started going to Broadfields in Edgware, a centre for people with learning difficulties. They had autism, Down’s Syndrome, challenging behaviour. After six or seven months one of the staff said a vacancy was coming up to teach PE at the centre. I quite enjoyed the schools work but I was interested. I didn’t have a lot of qualifications but they said what I was doing, the one afternoon a week, would count in my favour. I went for an interview and got the job. And I stayed for 25 years.
“The main part of it was running groups and there was a lot of personal care. I would have eight regular clients. I’d have people in wheelchairs who might have to wear nappies and I’d have to change them, lift them on to a bench. If it was really bad I had to take them into the showers too.
“It was an unusual job – a lot of people have told me they wouldn’t fancy it, but I would say to them, ‘Go and have a look and you’ll see why I enjoy it.’ None of my old teammates ever did come and see for themselves, though.
“Back at that time people didn’t really talk about it a lot, about caring for these sorts of people. Some of my old teammates would say, ‘I don’t know how you can do that job.’ A lot of them didn’t realise what I was doing. I don’t know of any other players who ever did anything like it. They won’t be doing it now either, with all the money they’re earning!”
One man who did go to Broadfields was Matthew Harding, the wealthy Chelsea director who died in a helicopter crash in 1996. “I went to see him in his office in Fenchurch Street to ask him for a donation. We needed a minibus, and to buy it and adapt it would cost about £23,000. I said anything would help, but asked him for £500. He said, ‘You get the bus and I’ll pay what it costs.’ All he wanted was reassurance that I wouldn’t be leaving the centre in the near future.
“He wanted to come along and present the bus. He had lunch at 12.30 and stayed till half past four. As he was leaving he said, ‘Now I can see why you don’t want to leave. This visit has really made my day.’ His secretary rang a couple of days later to say Matthew wanted to come back in a couple of months. He did, and again about a year later. Then, sadly, he had his helicopter crash.
“He was different. People would look at you funny back when I started. They didn’t like to see adults with Down’s Syndrome out in public. At the swimming pool, at the bus stop, they’d just look at you. They didn’t realise what warm loving human beings these people are. Coming to the centre once a week was something they really looked forward to, the highlight of their week.
“We had about 135 coming every week. You built up quite a relationship with some of them. Eight of the clients were under my wing, in my key worker group. It wasn’t just working directly with them, though. Once a year we’d see their parents, would have to write a review for every one of them. We’d sit and talk about their progress, with the centre manager and a social worker there.
“I like to think I improved their lives. About seven months ago, long after I’d retired, one of my old group had her 50th birthday. Her parents invited me along on a Saturday night, and they told her I was coming. They told her a few words to say to her guests and after a short while she just kept talking about John Dempsey. I was so embarrassed, but it brought back happy memories. It was good to know that, even though I’d left, she hadn’t forgotten what I’d done for her. It was all about trying to give to them something they hadn’t had in life.”
His care group became aware over time that Dempsey had been a famous footballer and would sometimes start singing ‘Blue is the Colour’. He remembers one football match particularly fondly.
“We had a team from Broadfields that played in a league of 12 teams, all from similar care centres,” he said. “I’d referee the home games and give them a bit of help. You had to make sure they kicked right way because sometimes they’d just kick whichever way they wanted. We had one player, Danny Kirkham, a centre-half, who was quite good. He had behaviour and learning problems. In one game against St Albans their centre-forward was about 6ft 8in and every time he got the ball everyone started running out of his way. The big fella came storming through again and I said, ‘Danny, Danny, come on, tackle him.’ He turned round to me and said, ‘You fucking tackle him!’”
He sometimes had to deal with challenging behaviour. “They particularly liked routine, and if anything ever changed they might not react very well. They might fly off the handle, try to scratch you. You got used to it. It was a demanding job, long hours, but very rewarding.”
When Dempsey finished his 25 years service in 2011, his salary was £25,000 a year. Three years before that, he was given a ‘personal recognition award’ by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It was presented by another man who played in central defence for Chelsea in a European final – John Terry. At the time, Terry would earn Dempsey’s annual salary in two days.
The club invite him to two games a year, and for others he can buy tickets to take his son or daughter. The last game he saw was against Leicester this season. He follows Chelsea closely on television, too.
“Of course I think the money they earn nowadays is far too high,” he said. “I watched the Youth Cup Final at the end of last season, when Chelsea played Fulham. One of the defenders, Andreas Christensen, is supposed to be earning £20,000 a week and he’s 18, he’s never played in the first team. Then there’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the midfielder – they say he’s on a lot of money too. In five years they can earn so much that they never have to think about working again, in or out of football.”
That is bad for their development as people, Dempsey believes. “What will they do with their lives? I can genuinely say that in all my years as a care worker I never once went to work without looking forward to it.
“They’re lucky to have been born in this era. But I’m lucky to have led the life I’ve had.”