Steve Kember

Former Player Remembers: Steve Kember

When former midfielder Steve Kember spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football, he recalled his time at Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Leicester City.
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He joined City from Chelsea, who had signed him for a club record fee from Crystal Palace in 1971. Jimmy Bloomfield brought him to Filbert Street in 1975, where he stayed until 1978, making 128 appearances for the Foxes. After a spell with Vancouver Whitecaps, Steve returned to play for and then manage Palace.

Steve began by recalling the early days of his career: “While playing district schools football, I was noticed by Crystal Palace manager Arthur Rowe. Their coach, George Petchey, took me under his wing. I was lucky because the sports master at my grammar school let me play for the Palace junior side on a Saturday, so I got into their youth team at an early age. I played for the Under-17s and Under-18s when I was 15 or 16. In those days I was a striker. I scored goals for fun when I was young! My idols were Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves. I made my first team debut on 1 January, 1966 just after my 17th birthday.

“We got promoted to the old First Division in 1969 and I was made captain the second year we were in the First Division. In those days there were so many decent players, like George Best, Denis Law, Jim Baxter and Jimmy Greaves.

“While I was at Palace, Birch (Alan Birchenall) arrived from Chelsea, at the same time as Bobby Tambling who, until Frank Lampard, was Chelsea’s highest ever goalscorer. These were two good signings for us. I palled up with Birch straightaway, even though I once set fire to a newspaper he was reading in the dressing room, causing him to chase me onto the pitch and pummel me when I tripped over a sprinkler! Our wives got on really well. We all went on holiday together, even after we had left Palace.”

Steve signed for Chelsea in September 1971.

Looking back, he remembers: “Dave Sexton (Chelsea’s manager) and George Petchey had grown up together at West Ham and had taken their coaching badges together. By then, I was playing in midfield. George had always said to Dave that I was probably the sort of player he would need to sit alongside Chelsea’s Alan Hudson, because I was a hard worker who could get in the box and score.  

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Steve Kember
Steve Kember

Steve spent four years at Chelsea before joining Leicester in 1975.

“Crystal Palace had a really poor start to that season. The chairman, Arthur Wait, who bankrolled the club, called me in, told me the club had no money, that Chelsea had come in for me, and would I go there. The fee was £168,000, which in those days was a lot of money, the highest fee Chelsea had ever paid. I’d said I would go as they needed the money, but it was a bit of a wrench to leave. It was the same thing with Birch. They called him in the following day and he went to Leicester for £100,000. With that £268,000, they bought about six or seven players and stayed up.”

By this time, Steve was an England Under-23s international: “I played my first game against West Germany at Filbert Street, which we won 3-1. I played with Brian Kidd, Joe Royle, Colin Todd, Colin Suggett and Micky Mills. It was a really good team. I only got three caps but it was an honour. Shame they weren’t full caps!

“I didn’t really enjoy my first year at Chelsea. I was cup-tied in the League Cup and we got to the final, and we were knocked out on the away goals rule in the European Cup Winners’ Cup after winning it the previous season. I was in and out of the side. I wasn’t playing in midfield. Also, I didn’t really think the players accepted me at first because they had a really tight-knit squad. But at the end of the season, we went to Barbados after losing the League Cup Final. Socially, in those days, it was still a drinking culture, I joined in and got accepted.

“I was at Chelsea for just under four seasons and was made captain. When Dave Sexton’s replacement, Ron Suart, was sacked in April 1975, we had three games left to avoid relegation. Eddie McCreadie took over and he dropped all the senior players, me included, and put the kids in, players like Ray Wilkins. It seemed a strange thing to do when we needed to get results to stay up. We lost the first game, against Tottenham 3-1, and only drew the second one and that was us down. It was a bit of a kick in the teeth from my point of view, being the captain and not playing.

“To cut a long story short, I went away for the summer and decided to put in a transfer request. But then I told Eddie McCreadie that I had changed my mind and that I wanted to stay and fight for my place. He told me that Leicester and Coventry had come in for me and that he thought I should go and talk to them, which made me think he didn’t really want me to stay.

“Birch had been going on about me going up to Leicester. I spoke to Jimmy Bloomfield and it was a no brainer. I then told Coventry’s Jimmy Hill that I had given my word to Leicester that I would sign for them.

What I found very strange in those first two seasons was that we played some good stuff, had top-half finishes and then they sacked Jimmy Bloomfield!

Steve Kember

“After pushing for me to go to Leicester, I then took Birch’s place in the side! He was playing at the back more at that point as he couldn’t run so much then!

“Playing at Leicester was great. I enjoyed it. Chelsea was a big club but Leicester was similar to Crystal Palace. Like at Leicester now, the fans were so behind the team.”

Steve was a virtual ever-present at Leicester, starting in 91 games out of a possible 94 in his first two seasons, when Bloomfield’s side finished seventh and 11th in the top flight.

He added: “Leicester had a good squad. There was a large contingent of good players who had played in London. There was Dennis Rofe, Stevie Earle, Jon Sammels, Jeff Blockley, me, Birch, and Keith Weller. Also Frank Worthington was there, who was a really good player.

“What I found very strange in those first two seasons was that we played some good stuff, had top-half finishes and then they sacked Jimmy Bloomfield! I could never get over that. No disrespect to Frank McLintock, who came in, but it was ridiculous.

“At Chelsea, the manager, Dave Sexton, liked us knocking the ball about and Jimmy was just the same. He was from the same era as Dave Sexton. We just knocked it about and played. We had two wide players who could take people on and get it to Frank, who would get hold of it, knock it off, and get himself in the box.”

McLintock took over as manager in July 1977: “I got on really well with Frank, but he had two pubs in London and was travelling up and down the motorway. He made it hard for himself.

“I went to Vancouver Whitecaps on loan in April 1978. Jon Sammels was there. There were 24 teams in the NASL as it was called then. The calibre of players included players like [Franz] Beckenbauer, [Johan] Cruyff, Pelé, Roberto Carlos and [Johan] Neeskens. They were world-class players. The football, the crowds and everything about the NASL was top quality. I was travelling all around the USA. It was really enjoyable.”

Jock Wallace replaced McLintock to take over newly-relegated Leicester City.

Looking back at that time, Steve continued: “Jock saw things in black and white. You worked hard for him. I quite liked the games I played under him.

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Leicester City 19767/77
Leicester City 19767/77

Kember and his Foxes team-mates in the mid-1970s.

“What I really enjoyed about Leicester was that, in those days, we used to go out on a Wednesday night. We’d go to the working men’s clubs and play darts, billiards, snooker and skittles. The social side of football in those days was not like it is now. We were closer to the fans. We could go into a pub in Leicester. The fans would buy you a pint and you’d buy them a pint back. They would say you were rubbish and you’d say: ‘Yes, you’re right!’ It was a different way of life. The camaraderie of the players was brilliant.

“Then Terry Venables came into Palace and he took me back there (in October 1978). I was lucky enough to play in a team with a lot of young good players like Kenny Sansome and Billy Gilbert. I was the old man. We got promotion to the old First Division in 1979.

“I played one more season with Palace in the First Division. I was in and out. Vancouver came back in for me again, but I did my knee there on the astroturf. Apparently, I’d done some damage to my cruciate. My playing days were over. Back at Palace, they made me manager I kept them up and got them to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

“Then I went away on holiday with Birch and his wife somewhere in Spain. I had arranged all the pre-season. It took me all the holiday to try and persuade Birch to become my assistant manager. On the final night of the holiday, he agreed. I then got a phone call at about midnight. It was from my brother-in-law to say that I’d been sacked. Unbelievable!

“I told Birch the next morning and he couldn’t believe it either!”

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