Granted professional football has become increasingly focused on profitability and marketability, but through all of the exorbitant transfer fees and the constant claims that the essence of professional football has been gradually lost, fans have remained the foremost consideration for almost all clubs.
When Real Madrid raised the ire of sporting pundits by spending £80 million on Cristiano Ronaldo in June 2009, football’s more successful and one of its most iconic clubs lived up to their fan expectations of having the world’s greatest players in Los Blancos squad. Similarly, Manchester City’s encounter with wealth since 2008 has seen a club with a limited identity emerge into what promises to be an English and European powerhouse for many seasons to come. Whilst such a move drastically changed the nature and standing of the club, in no way was it detrimental to the long-standing fans of a club founded in 1980.
The same could easily be said for Chelsea at the beginning of the Abramovich era, with new money elevating a club that had found recent success in both domestic and European competitions to a side that has won an incredible 12 major trophies since 2003. Met with mixed responses of despondence and criticism from outsiders and sheer joy from fans of Chelsea itself, the first decade of Abramovich’s Chelsea has been characterized by the Russian billionaire’s drastic decision-making and the development of an ‘us against the word attitude’. A title so infamously held by only the most successful clubs in the world, the Manchester United and Real Madrid, Chelsea entered the ranks of Europe’s most detested clubs as rivals sought comfort following resounding defeats in the knowledge that their small impoverished outfit tradition, character and commanded support from the loyal and passionate, not just those willing to jump on a bandwagon. The truth is, for many years, such a mentality was unjustified as Chelsea maintained a core of players demonstrative of a newfound class, but also of the English heritage of a club wanting to develop legends, not just exploit mercenaries for trophies on a year-by-year basis.
In complete honesty, the Abramovich era, in all of its glory and eccentricity, has benefitted no one more than it has Chelsea fans… until now. Manager appointment, excessive involvement in the transfer market and the swift departure of every player considered iconic to the Chelsea franchise has undermined not only the image and of the club, but has brought into question the allegiance of the club’s most fanatical supporters. The volatility building within the Chelsea ranks and fan base is set to come to a head at the end of the 2012/2013 Premier League season, with a team accustomed to success poised to come crashing to earth and player and management reforms set to change the face of the West London club.
All matter of problems can be solved if results are going your way. Unfortunately, the issues becoming entrenched in the Chelsea set-up are drawing more and more attention as a previously impervious footballing institution struggles to maintain its high standards. Finishing 6th in the Premier League last season, their tied worst performance since 1995-1996, Chelsea are evidently on the decline. Silverware in the FA Cup and miraculously in the Champions League saw them gain qualification to compete on the European scene this season, with minimal success. The FA Cup again seems their only realistic chance at silverware this season and sitting 11 points behind Manchester United in the Premier League, aspirations have shifted from a title to Champions League qualification for next season, an honor taken for granted in recent seasons. Even given a recent run of form, when results don’t live up to expectations, fans and sporting pundits begin searching for answers and unfortunately for Chelsea, results can’t mask systematic problems forever.
Possibly the most irrational and newsworthy Chelsea concern for the West London club is their inability to stick with any one manager for an extended period of time. Whilst examples of success brought from loyalty to one system are in no way hard to come by – Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona – Chelsea’s impatience and greed have found them unwilling to make the necessary commitment to one brand of football. It is hard to believe that if not sacked in 2007, Jose Mourinho would have not won a Champions League title by now with the club many still see as his rightful home. The replacement of Mourinho’s heir-apparent in Villas-Boas’ with the conservative Roberto di Matteo further complicated matters, before any semblance of sanity was thrown away upon the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez.
Mourinho is by far the most iconic Chelsea manager of recent times, heading the squad that elevated the Blues to Europe’s footballing stratosphere. Still considered by many fans to have plans of returning later in his career, the ‘Special One’ remains the face of management at Stamford Bridge seasons after his departure. The willingness of the board to appoint his most bitter rival as nothing more than an interim coach demonstrates nothing less than a complete disregard for the preferences of the club’s supporters. Moreover, Chelsea’s apparent targeting of former Barcelona man Pep Guardiola in a potential deal worth £18 million a season shows that the angst surrounding the appointment of Benitez was completely unnecessary as Benitez appears to have no prospects of reappointment.
Stoke has defensive integrity, Arsenal has midfield supremacy and Barcelona win trophies. Every club in world football, good or otherwise, should have an identity that their fans admire and take pride in. When that identity isn’t consistency in results or a tactical brand, supporters look to a core of players to whose legacy they attach their fanaticism. Throughout Chelsea’s revolving-door managerial policy, Petr Cech, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba formed a foundational leadership group, providing the Blues with stability and identity when other aspects of the club lacked such admirable qualities.
Chelsea’s Departing Greats – Club Statistics
Chelsea fans have tolerated and even defended these players through indifferent form, transfer speculation and even personal indiscretions, however the imminent sale of Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole at the conclusion of the 2012/2013 season severs this most basic of connections between a supporter and their club, their favorite players. The loss of Lampard in particular is proving a difficult proposition, given his position as one of only two players to have been at Chelsea throughout the entire Abramovich era.
Chelsea’s Replacements – Career Statistics
Whilst both Cole and Lampard remain world-class players, few would deny Chelsea the right of offload two stars of a regrettably bygone era that command hefty wage bills. Their combined 865 appearances for Chelsea in all competitions however will nevertheless be missed. A side that began the Abramovich era with six Englishmen in its first team is faced with the prospect of entering 2013/2014 with only three homegrown players of note. Often irrelevant given the persistent disappointment brought upon England by their international outfit, Lampard and Cole’s presence in England’s top XI footballers on a combined 192 occasions endeared them to the Stamford Bridge faithful that extra degree.
There are some issues faced in the world of professional sport that can easily be dealt with. Others require substantial sums of money to fix and some just need time. Chelsea’s problems unfortunately fall in a fourth category which places the solution to an endemic lack of managerial faith, a deteriorating club identity and decline in playing standards in the hands of the fans. What they request has often been rightly disregarded, however in this time of quite drastic transition, football clubs must return to their roots and remember why they play every Saturday afternoon. I’ll give you a hint, the answer shouldn’t be, and isn’t ‘the bottom line.’