Friday, March 24, 2006

Remember the heart of Chelsea

Putting Chelsea's "poor form" into perspective...

The recent Champions League defeat by Barcelona was very painful. A lot of us are hungry for Champions League success and a lot has been written and said about what Chelsea need to do for next season in order to win that competition. Names like Michael Ballack, Andrei Shevchenko, Ledley King and Ashley Cole get banded about as players who will make a difference. I keep hearing some fans moaning and grumbling comments like “we weren’t good enough”, “they’ve let the fans down”, and “get rid of Drogba/Del Horno/Carvalho” (you fill in the name). There is some leverage in some of these arguments, and they are important topics to discuss. But the more I think about this whole issue the more I think that while it is important to be concerned about how we improve and develop and have serious discussion about it, many of us seem to have lost a glimpse of the heart of Chelsea and where we have come from. We talk of a sense of perspective seemingly only after defeat but we should in glory and victory too.

The untimely death of the King of Stamford Bridge, Peter Osgood, brings back memories of our great history. You may say that we don’t need to hear the history again but I think we are all at times too quick to forget. Ossie really summed up the spirit of the club, which in some way or another still exists. When Chelsea were a great Cup side. Playing beautiful football, and never quite good enough to win the league. So near and yet so far. It also reminded us of how that team fell apart during the dark 70’s and early 80’s period. The days when we were getting promoted and relegated with some regularity, and when we were a selling club, selling our best player to Man Utd to raise money. It was not nice to be a Chelsea fan then. I became a Chelsea fan toward the end of that time, largely due to my father who loves the club and imparted that love on to me. Then there was no European football, it was the likes of Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Ipswich who were doing the country proud in foreign fields. How lucky we were in 1982 when a\ stubborn greying man with a big beard bought our club. He saved our club, much as it is hard for us to admit.

This man, Ken Bates, not only saved the club but brought us back to our rightful place, at the top of the English game as a great cup team who would flatter to deceive in the league. It started with Glenn Hoddle. At the time he took over Chelsea had been a regular in mid-table for a number of years. Indeed, in 1994 – Glenn Hoddle’s first season, arguably only the goals of Mark Stein saved us from relegation. Chelsea had, as was their norm, had some good cup runs and spent what were then big sums of money in an attempt to bring success to the club. Our club record signings at different stages were Robert Fleck and Paul Furlong (still ably plying his trade for QPR) and none quite achieved what their fees had suggested. The dream of us ever winning the top division was still far away.

Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli delivered the trophies and got us close, but at a price. Claudio Ranieri getting into the Champions League saved our club from disaster. Without that we could have gone back to where we came from, watching from afar as players like Terry, Gallas and Lampard amongst others won trophies with other clubs while we went back to mid-table mediocrity.

Can we really imagine what that would have been like? Lampard going abroad, Terry and Gallas lining up for Arsenal or Man Utd, Eidur Gudjohnsen the same. Hasslebaink going to Barcelona. It would have been truly painful. Forget Europe, we would have been fighting to stay in the top flight itself.

Surely the feeling of winning the title last season was made more special because of our history, because we’ve had those dark days and because we’ve come so close to disaster. Chelsea fans surely more than other big clubs should savour and enjoy that success because we’ve seen the other side.

How lucky we are to have Roman Abramovich. He not only saved the club but has fulfilled all our wildest dreams. We are on the way to back to back Premiership titles, and last season broke too many records to mention in securing our first title for 50 years. We are the best team in England, with a squad most clubs would kill for. Our financial problems are over effectively and the future, which the law of averages says will surely involve at least one or two European Cups, could be even better.

This sense of perspective should also point to the future. Chelsea has the potential to become one of the most successful football clubs in history over the next 20 or 30 years. The difference between us and other big clubs now and with the Chelsea of the past is that this money (no matter what others say), and this status we now have, will not go away. The more success we have the bigger we become, the more attractive we become for big-name players and coaches, and talented youngsters. Anytime we need to invest big in players we will always have the finance to do so. Chelsea this time will not be a big club for a few years then drift to mid-table mediocrity. We are now with the big boys for good. Maybe we will not dominate forever, but we will forever be among the contenders and will surely be winning trophies – big trophies – with much more regularity. Chelsea fans born now will be supporting a very different club when they reach adulthood.

But in all this success – and even the disappointment of the Nou Camp - we should not forget. The heart of Chelsea. The spirit of Ossie which reminds us how great we were but also how twice the club has been close to death and that twice it has been saved. We should not be too greedy or moan too much – the club is lucky to be here at all.