I have to admit to a strange feeling before games these days. I only realised I’d had this feeling before the Manchester United game. But it had been there from the start of the season. It was a feeling I didn’t wholly understand.
And then again, before the European Super Cup Final. Something was missing.
There were the usual matchday feelings of course. Excitement, building up as the day wore on. Hope and the desire for another win and another trophy. Hope that no one suffers a serious injury; that the referee would be fair; that we’d have the run of the ball. There was the adrenalin rush in those 20 minutes before kick-off. But something had changed.
It was when I thought back to the last few seasons I realised that I had become used to waking up on match day and looking forward to a match with that same mixture of excitement and hope – but also fear.
There was fear of defeat, certainly – for obvious reasons, especially last season. But it was something more, something vague and intangible, but very definitely there.
This fear came from the walk along the Fulham Road, from the atmosphere at the Bridge, from the previews and post match analyses. It lurked at home, or on the train journey going to the game. It came from everywhere. And originated – where? Where exactly did this fear begin?
I thought back to Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge. For two years life as a Chelsea fan reflected the football on the pitch: exciting (mostly), skilled, solid and determined (definitely) but above all, controlled.
For me, it was an education in tactics to see how a team could control a football match. Mourinho’s side was more than getting players behind the ball when the opposition had the ball, more than Chelsea getting players forward when we had it. It was controlling the game: actually allowing the other team to have their periods of possession, to have their dominance, whilst still ensuring they did not hurt us. It was allowing the opposition a longer leash while we waited for the opportune moment to counter.
Of course, we knew before every game that we could lose. We weren’t arrogant, after all. I defy any Chelsea fan who has been through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to become arrogant – we’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory too many times on and off the pitch for that to happen.
But we all knew we could be outplayed or tactically out-thought (unlikely though that seemed). There was also the possibility we would not get the run of the ball, or the referee would make some ludicrous decisions. Or, as in the FA Cup at Newcastle, brave substitutions by the manager followed by a run of freak injuries would see us comprehensively beaten.
Control. With it, we were confident and assertive. We were winners.
When Jose left, we ran through a number of managers, each with his own strengths and weaknesses, each with his own particular qualities. It’s not my intention here to run through their successes and failures: we all know the history, we all know our managers and our players had qualities good enough so that for the most part we carried on winning trophies.
But that was when the chaos started. For me, with every dismissal we lost something. Every time a manager left, a little bit of that feeling of a club in control left with him. And with each of those exits, a little bit of confidence drained from the terraces.
And when it came to last season, we hit a true nadir and for me at least Chelsea felt like a club at which there was little control. Our results were suffering, we employed a manager whose history many fans hated, yet somehow we managed to cross the line and qualify for the Champions League.
Despite the fact that for much of last season the club seemed to thrash about on and off the pitch, desperately scrambling to keep on track, somehow we did it. It was ugly and it was upsetting but credit to Rafa and the players, they put together a fine run which saw our worst nightmare disappear. Somehow.
But “somehow” is not control is it? “Somehow” is a lack of control: it is chaos. It had been there in increasing doses in previous seasons, but last season – well, the fact that many fans just wanted it to end and more still would now rather not think about it, speaks volumes. Even for Chelsea, the season was chaotic. And Fear is borne out of chaos.
And this fear is what I was surprised to find missing before these early season games. I just wasn’t expecting it.
Fear! There it was – gone!
Not only had it gone, but it had been replaced by a feeling of confidence. Not over-confidence, not arrogance, because I know we could lose. But I was sure we would no longer put in a tactically naïve performance and pretty damn certain we wouldn’t put in an apathetic or a lazy performance. In short, I knew that if we lost we would go down fighting. And that’s all you can ask of your team.
So, yes, this strange sensation, this freedom from the jitters, this unusual calm, this is what I used to call being in control.
For the fans, Confidence has returned to the terraces. I know where it’s comes from, of course, and so do most other Chelsea fans. You could feel it at the Bridge against Hull, you could touch it at Old Trafford against Manchester United. The calm, quiet (well, sometimes quiet), controlled confidence of Jose Mourinho is back. The Happy One has, once more, helped us feel in control.
And if he does that for the fans, just imagine what he does for the players.