Simon Poulter edits What Would David Bowie Do and is more than a little unhappy with event at The Bridge
I can’t verify this, but it is possible that the under-communicative oligarch Roman Abramovich is currently still enjoying the good life on St. Barts. For it is there that the Chelsea Football Club owner has been – and may well still be – enjoying an extended New Year’s holiday with his pregnant girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova. And good luck to him. Everyone needs to take time out to spend with their nearest and dearest every once in a while.
Unfortunately, while Roman has been sunning himself on his Nimitz-class yacht, his football asset – managed by a hapless Rene-from-’Allo ‘Allo lookalike – has acquired the sort of toxicity that turned Erin Brokovich from struggling single mother living in the Californian desert into the subject of a blockbuster movie.
Your season – it is behind you
It is, though, still the pantomime season in Britain, which means that seasonal booing and hissing is a national ritual at this time of year. So, as matinee audiences of Cub Scouts and church outings boo soap stars and game show hosts playing Baron Hardup in provincial theatres, Chelsea fans are booing anything not nailed down at Stamford Bridge.
First, there is Rafa Benitez, the ruddy-cheeked, portly Spanish restaurateur who, despite being as popular as a fart in a spacesuit before he was appointed “interim first team manager”, has succeeded in galvanising his unpopularity via a variety of methods: 1) getting out of bed in the morning; 2) turning up for matches; 3) picking star striker Fernando Torres; 4) not picking club legend Frank Lampard; 5) winning some games handsomely while drawing or losing quite disastrously others.
Is it all Rafa’s fault? Oh no it isn’t
It’s not all Rafa’s fault, of course. The club’s reward for Lampard and Ashley Cole continuing to be, respectively, a prolific goal scoring central midfielder and the world’s still-finest left back, is to show them the door at the end of the season and not extend their contracts. Meanwhile Torres, who these days permanently carries the demeanour of a sulking 15-year-old girl, is not even responding to diagrams of cow’s backsides and instructions on how to hit one with a banjo. Demba Ba, the crock-kneed Senegalese brought in from Newcastle for a fraction of the Spaniard’s money is, however, scoring goals everytime he smell a goalkeeper’s boot polish.
Into this background is the club’s extraordinary approach to fan engagement – i.e. to not have one. This is a club that would rather do its business in private, with the owner “advised” by a coterie of people whom, it would appear, are no more qualified to advise about running a Premier League football club as I would be about running a hospital. Unless you regard Michael Emenalo, the former Nigerian defender and now Chelsea’s technical director as being of distinguished experience in the game.
Thus, the rare on-pitch appearance of club chairman, Bruce Buck, making a pre-match presentation to goalkeeper Petr Čech, results in the sort of sustained and vitriolic booing chancellor George Osborne earned when turning up at the Olympics last summer to give out medals. Booing the chairman may sound like impudence bordering on frustration, but the fact that the fans were bothering to boo a club executive they’d never actually bothered about at all previously says a lot about where fan sentiment at Stamford Bridge is at the moment.
There are those – including club executives – who will continue to dismiss the religious singing of Roberto Di Matteo’s name on 16 minutes each game as rambunctious fandom, even considering it morale-boosting collective sprit. It’s not. Most of us do genuinely regard the sacking of Di Matteo as counter-productive, and the appointment of Benitez as poisonous as opening a Spurs club shop opposite the Emirates Stadium.
The singing for Di Matteo, even the singing for Jose Mourinho, is not just a rallying call. Chelsea – and for that we must assume Abramovich – have miscalculated too often the depth of stakeholder sentiment. It is, of course, a valid argument that Abramovich’s decision to sack managers has often produced the results he’d hoped for – an improvement in form and silverware – but it would appear that with this latest act of petulance, there won’t be a happy ending.
Despite a few impressive results, like the pre-Christmas mauling of a pathetic Aston Villa, who barely seemed to have turned up, Benitez is still struggling to make impact. Torres is a waste of space, although Ba has become a bright spot, but the defensive frailties that Di Matteo was suffering with are still there, if Wednesday night’s embarrassing 2-0 lead turning into a 2-2 home draw to Southampton was anything to go by.
And so, as Chelsea go into a weekend when they face Arsenal at Stamford Bridge – a fixture rich in both turbulent entertainment and sour disappointment over the years – there is a creeping deflation amongst supporters of the West London club.
Most Chelsea fans have never had a problem with the club being unpopular with other fans. We don’t really care. We’ve been perfectly happy with our club long enough – whether courting 1960s celebrities, being seen as a bunch of Fancy Dans in the 1970s, being pretty rubbish in the 80s and almost bankrupt, or being regarded as a home for ageing internationals in the pre-Abramovich, latter Ken Bates era. We have worn the “shit club, no history” goading with good grace. But whereas “shit club, no class” used to wound – but perhaps they have a point.
The constant upheaval, the inability to retain managers, the lack of consistency in player policy (“Will we not buy this summer due to lack of funds and then buy some expensive trinket of a player in the January window as a panic acquisition?”), on youth development and even stadium development.
Every football fan will find fault with their club of choice. That’s why we love football. Football IS chaos! It is still our excuse – and I’ll admit, an almost exclusively male preserve – to have a moan about something. Even if our team is running away with a telephone number-nil win, we’ll find something to niggle.
However, the complaints against Chelsea are piling up and, yes, much has to be directed at Abramovich. Elephant in the room, and all that, but the man who has ploughed an insane amount of personal fortune into the club is also directly responsible for creating the toxicity around it.
It comes from a lack of communication. Yes, we get plenty of communication from whomever is in charge of the team from one week to the next, but do we have any idea about what is really going on at the club? No.
The back end of the horse
We assume Lampard and Cole are being treated shabbily because that is how the press is reporting it, how Lampard and Cole’s people are telling it, and our instincts are receiving it. But we could be wrong. Perhaps a little explanation of the strategy would go a long way. Perhaps Abramovich himself would break cover and speak. After all, it’s hard to really read a man when we only ever see that half grin of his as he stands at the back of his executive box in the Stamford Bridge West Stand, the grin occasionally evolving into high-fives with his sidekick Eugene Tennenbaum, before returning to its bemused state.
Like the wizened old crone that I am, I’d foreseen much of this disease spreading at Chelsea in November when the club’s annual Halloween nightmare rendered Roberto Di Matteo redundant and Benitez installed. I even suggested that Pep Guardiola, the manager coveted by Abramovich more than any other, might be wise to give Chelsea a miss when he chose to come back to football management.
And thus it proved to be so, as arguably the greatest football coach of his generation chose Bayern Munich over anyone else. In so doing, he chose a club with history, with class, with money, with German efficiency, in a league that is quietly becoming Europe’s most exciting. As opposed to a club with history, money and a boatload of dysfunction. Well, maybe an expensive super yacht-load of dysfunction.
Article originally published here.
Image in no way inspired by the era of Dennis Wise and Gianfranco Zola.