Willi Steffen: English Football’s First Swiss Import

WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS

As England prepare to host Switzerland in a Euro 2016 qualifier tonight, we remember Willi Steffen, the fighter pilot from Bern who became the first Swiss footballer to play in England when he joined Chelsea in May 1946 and left six months later with a black eye and a famous new friend…

Willi Steffen
Image: Press Association Images

Willi Steffen left Stamford Bridge for one last time with a heavy heart and a black eye.

“I take home a souvenir!” the big defender announced after his last game in England, pointing to his shiner and bringing an impromptu farewell conference with the British press to an end. It said much about the interest generated by the young Swiss on these shores that he proceeded to walk off into the sunset that April chatting away to an opposition forward, the great Raich Carter.

The fighter pilot from Bern was a revelation at full-back in his six-month spell with Chelsea during the 1946/47 season – the first full post-war campaign.

Having initially impressed in an international friendly between England and Switzerland at Stamford Bridge in May 1946, Steffen was offered a trial by Blues boss Billy Birrell and signed in July ready for the coming season.

However, one thing and another kept the six-footer (a height worth remarking on at the time) from making his debut until the last day of November, when he turned out at Derby County’s Baseball Ground on a pitch that was nothing short of a mudbath.

Baffled by Derby’s powerful widemen and uncomfortable wading about in the sodden English pitch, Steffen actually finished his debut with his confidence drained and the papers were keen to dwell on the travails of this foreign curiosity floundering about in the midlands mud. The Daily Mirror painted a vivid picture of this down-in-the-mouth debutant the following day:

“Shaking his head as if unable to believe it himself, Willi Steffen, Chelsea’s Swiss left back, told in his best English just what a bad player he thought he had been in his first League game at Derby: ‘I am so very bad, am I,’ said the big, blond Swiss sadly. ‘Always I am playing lying down. Your English mud, it is so terrible for me. How is football played with it? In Switzerland always is the ground hard because it is summer, in England the football should be in summer or else it is rain always.'”

It was in that game that he had been forced to confront arguably the most talented English player of the generation and the man who would come to Stamford Bridge to bid Steffen farewell the following spring. Carter was an inside-forward with almost arrogant self-assurance, calmly taking teams to pieces with exemplary technique and vision.

At the Baseball Ground, he teamed up with Derby’s winger, Frank Broome, to pose Steffen all kinds of problems in a 3-1 win for the Rams, but the Swiss had stood up to the pair better than he gave himself credit for according to those watching. The late Chelsea historian Scott Cheshire was clearly impressed, writing that “it was at once clear that [Steffen] had solved one of the club’s more glaring weaknesses.”

Two months later and the solid displays had made Steffen one of the team’s most important players. He had steadied an uncertain backline and was forceful in his dealings with the typically tricky English wingers of the day. In January, Derby came to west London for an FA Cup tie and found a toughened Swiss full-back ready to show Carter and Co just what he was capable of.

“Jim Macaulay and Willi Steffen of Chelsea are two of the most improved players we have seen,” said the Daily Mirror of the Blues’ full-back partnership. “It was a sad Willi Steffen we spoke to as we waited for the train after his first League match.

“Today we can expect a rather different story. The Stamford Bridge ground will be more like the Swiss pitches to which Steffen is accustomed. But because we still doubt Chelsea’s ability to hold Carter we think Derby will continue on the Wembley trail.”

They were right on both fronts. Steffen was much improved and Carter did prove too hot to handle, scoring in a 2-2 draw, before Derby won the home replay to progress.

The tough-tackling, aerially dominant Swiss left-back went on to make 19 appearances in total for Chelsea, missing just four games through injury after his debut at the Baseball Ground. Four of those 19 came against Carter’s Derby and his final game in blue provided Steffen with the opportunity to show how far he had come.

On a firm Stamford Bridge pitch, he handled the Derby attack expertly as Chelsea kept a clean sheet and ran out 3-0 winners to see their boy from Bern off in style. At the age of just 22, he had won over British hearts and once again the morning papers captured the mood perfectly.

“Willi Steffen took a last long look at the deserted Stamford Bridge terraces. Half an hour later before they had rung with cheers for the popular Swiss as he walked off the field,” wrote Larry Coates in the Daily Mirror.

“It was the fans’ way of saying farewell and thank you to Willi, who had played his last home game before returning to Switzerland on Wednesday.

“‘But I am so unhappy,’ he told me. I do not want to go, but this is goodbye to Stamford Bridge. I am sad because I don’t think I shall ever again play in your League football. And your crowds have been so kind to me, both at home and away. I shall miss it all. But I must go home to work and fly my fighter plane.’”

Adversaries six months earlier, Carter and Steffen now shook hands as friends, as the Englishman wished the Swiss good luck.

“I hope to see you soon in Switzerland,” he said with poignant respect.

Willi Steffen was just 22 when he departed Chelsea and he went on to star in his homeland. In 1958/59, as a veteran full-back, he was part of the Young Boys side who reached the European Cup semi-final, where they faced the great French side Reims, for whom the phrase “champagne football” was first coined. Although Young Boys managed a 1-0 home win in Bern, they were defeated 3-0 in the return leg in France, but competing in such company was a fitting way for Steffen, who had also appeared in the 1950 World Cup for Switzerland, to finish off a fascinating career.
Dominic Bliss is editor of TheInsideLeft and author of ‘Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer’, available from Blizzard Books now. Follow him on twitter @theinsidelefty

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