The only time I’ve ever sat in the stands at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, a manic, bug-eyed youth in the row in front of me periodically yelled: “We hate Tottenham,” when he couldn’t think of anything else to do, which would have been at least understandable if the opposition hadn’t been Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Football is a tribal world, but Chelsea, more than any other club in England, has achieved a notable level of insularity that ensures they are almost universally unloved by non-supporters. Their surprise Champions League triumph last May was not something shared by non-Blues.
Since the start of this season, nothing the club or its fans has done has helped to improve its standing in the eyes of others: in fact, the opposite is true.
On 27 September, the Football Association banned Chelsea’s captain John Terry for four matches for the racial abuse of QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. Incredibly, Chelsea retained the services of Terry as club captain.
Earlier this week, Chelsea’s ludicrous case against referee Mark Clattenburg – who it claimed had used the word “monkey” towards their player John-Obi Mikel – was thrown out. Afterwards, the club refused to offer even a word of apology towards Clattenburg, who had endured a horrific month after the false allegations, and could have lost his livelihood.
But of course it’s not just in the boardroom where Chelsea excels in a lack of common decency. The fierce hostility and abusive chants the fans dished out at their new manager, Rafael Benitez, on Sunday were extraordinary. Yes, he helped foster a fierce rivalry between one of his former employers, Liverpool, and his new team four or five years ago. But life goes on.
It was understandable that Chelsea fans would not take easily to the sudden, disorientating change in regime. After all Roberto Di Matteo, a former player, had been a folk hero for the Blues faithful. He won their first Champions League title in May and despite some rocky form throughout November, no Chelsea fan was even considering he would be sacked following Tuesday’s Champions League defeat to Juventus.
But the Roman Abramovich rollercoaster that has taken them on the glory train since 2003 has carried with it an unpleasant side-effect for the club’s managers. The Russian billionaire has brought Chelsea three Premier League titles and four FA Cups, he has liberally bought up some of the finest global talent available, but he gets bored with managers easily, and likes bringing in new ones.
If, as a Chelsea fan, you don’t like that, then logic would suggest you either stop supporting the club altogether, or direct your abuse at Abramovich.
Not a bit of it. They all turned up, and to a man they almost all directed their attentions to Benitez, with one placard declaring: “In Di Matteo we trusted and loved. We will never trust and love Rafa Benítez. Fact.” But as though legitimising Abramovich’s antics another big banner read simply: “The Roman Empire.”
It will be fascinating to see how the relationship between the former Liverpool manager and the Chelsea fans develops. If Benitez is driven, as many suspect he is, by a desire to get Fernando Torres firing again, he risks neglecting the importance of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar.
He should be reasonably happy to have begun with a clean sheet against the attacking might of champions Manchester City. But the clear intention to get Torres involved more did not produce any notable result, and Mata began in a deeper and wider role than he usually operates in.
Unusually, especially in these days of attacking formations and insecure defences, Chelsea 0-0 Manchester City was not the only goalless match of the weekend. Aston Villa v Arsenal also failed to produce a score and Brendan Rodgers’ return to Swansea saw Liverpool go close, but not close enough.
Manchester United had one of the easiest fixtures of their season, a home match against QPR, and duly collected the three points after an early scare. The win enabled them to replace City at the top of the table. But who’s that team lurking in third position? Steve Clarke’s over-achieving West Brom of course, their latest win an entertaining 4-2 success at Sunderland. West Ham could have gone fifth with a win at White Hart Lane, but Tottenham were determined and back in form after a three-game losing streak, with Jermain Defoe and Gareth Bale excelling in a restorative 3-1 win.