On 20th October, in a dramatic lunch-time kick off, Chelsea defeated Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 at White Hart Lane, having found themselves 2-1 down early in the second half. To come from behind in a derby against bitter rivals gave the Stamford Bridge faithful the belief that, given indifferent early season performances from all the title contenders, what had promised to be a transitional season could yet turn out to contain delightful surprises in the league campaign.
Just six weeks later, we find ourselves poking about in the ruins of our season, facing likely elimination from the Champions League this week, 10 points behind Manchester United at the top of the table, and under new management. It is the last of these which has caused the biggest rift between the supporters and the club since the 2011 ill-fated bid to purchase the CPO lease, and has shaken any confidence that fans have in those running the club still further.
When Roberto di Matteo was sacked on 21 November, the club statement explicity read “the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season”. When Rafael Benitez was appointed the same day, their statement read “…the board believe that in Benitez we have a manager with significant experience at the highest level of football who can come in and immediately help deliver our objectives.”
Three games later, let’s have a look at how that’s going.
Under Benitez, Chelsea’s record reads played 3, won 0, drawn 2, lost 1, goals for 1, goals against 3. A drab draw against Manchester City. An even worse performance against Fulham. A second half capitulation against West Ham.
You have to ask yourself what exactly are the objectives that the club had in mind?
His appointment has infuriated and alienated the supporters. Tim Rolls cited the atmosphere at the Manchester City game as the most hostile he’d seen at Stamford Bridge since 1981. Three days later, the atmosphere at the home game against Fulham, retreated into a sullen silence. No boos for Benitez, but still expressions of love and support for di Matteo. At West Ham, the banners were out in force again, and at 1-1, the travelling support uttered the pertinent chant (Sloop John B being useful for once)
Is this what you want?
Is this what you want?
Is this what you want?
And you sit down, as a fan, and ask yourself, what is it that Roman Abramovich wants? If he wants Barcelona-style football he won’t get it. From anyone. Not even Guardiola. The tempo and psyche of the Premier League simply won’t allow it. The nearest Chelsea have ever come to it was under Jose Mourinho during his first campaign in the Premier League, in the goal-fest of the Carlo Ancelotti double-winning team, and for the first few games this season under Di Matteo.
Does anyone at the club have any influence on Roman? Do Bruce Buck, Ron Gourlay, Michael Emenalo, Eugene Tenenbaum or Bobby Campbell ever try gently suggesting, “You know Roman, I hear what you’re saying, but is this really going to work?” Or are they too frightened for their own positions within the hierarchy to make the oligarch see sense? It has been rumoured that one of the reasons for Robbie getting the Spanish Archer* (or in this case, the Spanish Waiter) is that he told Roman that he didn’t understand the game, not having played it (rather worryingly this sounds identical to the circumstances in which Ray Wilkins departed, having made a similar suggestion to Ron Gourlay. If this is the case both RDM and Wilkins are, of course, quite correct).
Mr Abramovich’s actions now appear to have compromised how he is viewed by the supporters. During the club’s attempt to obtain the lease of CPO, their slogan was Trust Roman. That was the message every time an ex-player was wheeled out to encourage shareholders to vote for the proposal. And Chelsea fans have much to thank the Russian for. Almost a billion pounds spent on infrastructure, players and wages. But at what cost to the real fabric of the club? The soul, if you like. From anecdotal and personal evidence I’ve now heard of supporters so disenchanted that they’re leaving games early (at half-time, in some cases), giving tickets to mates, and generally losing the spark that makes supporting your team an emotional experience. And that leads down a slippery slope. Another blog account has accused me of my judgement being clouded with emotion. And that’s crucial. Because once you lose that emotion, you stop caring. If you stop caring, then you start going down that road to finding other things that you might do with your time, other than support Chelsea. And here the club needs to take care. It’s going to be difficult enough for them once the plastics start melting away, as they will if mid-table mediocrity and no silverware comes calling. If the true, engaged, vocal fans, i.e.the ones who were there before when Chelsea were shit, get the hump, what are they going to do then?
Chelsea fans have traditionally not enjoyed much sympathy from their fellow fans. However, that now appears to be changing. Whilst no doubt experiencing a large degree of schardenfreude, fans of other clubs are now seen to be expressing sympathy for the plight in which we now find ourselves. Stuck with a manager we profoundly dislike, who had the effrontery to question our passion for our club. Well over the last week he’s had a taste of the passion. This is will undoubtedly persist at what’s likely to be the final Champions League game Chelsea play this season – although ironically Benitez can’t be held responsible for this, although if the Blues stiff against Nordsjaelland, even more questions are going to be asked about his tenure.
Brian Clough’s 44 day reign at Leeds is legendary for both its brevity and its acrimony. If Benitez fails to deliver what is presumably his short-term objective of winning the World Club championship, and this is followed by an ignonimous exit from the League Cup, ironically against Leeds, on 19th December, Christmas could find Benitez hanging from a precipice by his fingertips. It’s likely that adverse results over the festive period will find Roman looming over him, stamping on his fingers.
Tuesday night sees The Chelsea FanCast host a special debate ‘Chelsea FanCast versus The Press’, featuring Dan Levene of The Fulham Chronicle, Fleet Street veteran Rob Shepherd, Martin Lipton from the Daily Mirror and Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail. You can tune in to hear the show live at 8.00pm on Mixlr, or download the show later from iTunes.
Follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67 or if you fancy a debate with proper Chels 24/7 pop over to the After Hours Football Club
*Spanish Archer = El Bow (elbow)