The jeers at the end of Chelsea’s 0-2 home defeat at the hands of Swansea in the first leg of the Capital One Cup Semi-Final were no surprise. Stamford Bridge, which became a veritable fortress during the club’s golden period of 2004-07 is no longer the daunting destination of old. As soon as Swansea’s second goal went into the back of Ross Turnbull’s net, the abuse aimed at Rafael Benitez started again, cranked-up to an even higher volume. Benitez could be the best and most suitable manager on the planet, but we will never know. Chelsea’s supporters will never take to him and more results like the Swansea setback will only hasten his exit.
But the tepid performance of a clumsy and often disprited Chelsea team, coupled with a mood of mild rebellion at the Bridge, only serves to highlight that this is a club that is ill at ease with itself. This is encapsulated by the body language of the club’s biggest “white elephant” in Fernando Torres, whose unhappy time at Chelsea may soon be coming to an end.
The Chelsea fans love Torres when he scores, but for £50m – a tag that is a millstone if ever there was one – he’s expected to do that every week. When he’s not finding the back of the net, Torres offers little else, and often gives the impression he’s disinterested. Already, the Bridge regulars have warmed to Demba Ba, not least because he’s robust, more box-centric and exudes energy. At £7m, he’s likely to be bargain at a mere 14% of Torres’ fee.
The calls for Ba to enter the field of play, at the expense of Torres, was an indication of the diminishing affection towards the former Liverpool striker. Coupled with the abuse towards Benitez and the hostile reception afforded Bruce Buck before the game, and the bad vibes – which many felt had subsided since the aftermath of Roberto Di Matteo’s departure – are clearly still prevalent at Stamford Bridge.
Will it change? Not in the short term. Chelsea’s fans have to accept that this is now the type of club that emerges from the artificial environment created by the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003. It’s a club that will inevitably have success, but it might not necessarily be very comfortable achieving it – as witnessed in 2011-12 when the Champions League was won – and it won’t always make for a happy place.
Once you create a team of hired guns, you have to continue with that process, unless you can install a conveyor belt of young talent that starts to replace the expensive stars. Chelsea don’t really have that yet – indeed, does anyone? Abaramovich’s initial outlays in the 2002-06 period brought some great talent to Stamford Bridge, but the core of the team remained the Cech – Terry – Lampard – Drogba axis. With one gone, two on their way out and who knows how long Cech will continue, Chelsea have not prepared well for the moment of truth. They allowed the Mourinho team to grow old together and the current team – while comprising some great talent – is disjointed, weak in key areas and has no heart to it.
The problem is that no manager who comes to Chelsea has time to build. In some ways, Abramovich and his acolytes construct the team and bring in the manager to run it – until they disappoint. The danger man in this conundrum is probably Michael Emenalo, the so-called “technical advisor”, a man with no track record – unless you regard 56 games for San Jose Clash and 14 Nigerian caps as prerequisites for the top job.
Emenalo has Abramovich’s ear and although he’s rarely seen in the spotlight, he advises the Russian on the performance of the manager and, I believe, potential signings. This makes the head coach a relatively lowly person in the hierarchy at the club and probably prevents any manager at Chelsea from building a relationship with Abramovich. But that’s arguably deliberate, to ensure there is clear blue (no pun intended) water between the owner and his employee. It’s a practice often used in the corporate world and given Abramovich is also advised by men who worked on Wall Street, go figure is they say in the Manhattan bars.
Where will it all end? There’s an argument that if Chelsea fans protest too much, Abramovich will say, it’s my myach (ball) and I’m taking it away. Which, in effect, will destroy the club. Russian’s are tough folk – it’s cultural and it’s a lot to do with their history of revolution, poverty, war and crisis. It has to be a risk, especially as nobody, but nobody, outside the gang that haunt the Chelsea hospitality suites, has ever heard the man speak.
So, I’m afraid Chelsea fans will have to live with it. Nobody liked Ken Bates too much, but he rescued Chelsea in the 1980s from extinction and his form of dictatorship was to sound-off in the press and programme, telling everyone that he was the only one with any brains. The current empesario solved another financial crisis and his method of control is his wallet. He spends his money his way – building a fantasy football XI, with the help of his friends. And with a sackful of trophies secured, he probably believes he has given the customers a good time on the way. If it ends unhappily, at least the fans who chant, “give us our Chelsea back”, will have it – albeit languishing in League One or Two. Anyone who witnessed the period 1975 to 1983 will not welcome that.