Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Changing Face of Chelsea FC

Chelsea Football Club has changed very much in the last decade, especially, of course since Roman Abramovich bought the club in July 2003. At time of writing, Chelsea are closing in on a second successive league title under Jose Mourinho and the ownership of Roman Abramovich. The recent passing of The King of Stamford Bridge Peter Osgood, still fresh in the memory brings back memories of how Chelsea FC has always been throughout its history. If ever one man epitomised a club, Ossie did. Yet the Chelsea Osgood represented and which longstanding fans of Chelsea began supporting is fading fast. The Chelsea supporters of 20-30 years standing born today will be of a different breed, and have far different histories and expectations than long-standing fans of today have ever had before.

For many fans Chelsea has always represented good football, but always played with a smile on the face. Inconsistency was a byword for Chelsea until very recently. They were a good cup side, content to enjoy the cup runs yet never seriously challenging for major trophies. Players made their name at our club and then moved on, rather than the other way round. They were pretenders who never quite achieved our ambitions. A club who bordered on greatness, like in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but never really hit the real heights by winning the league and being up there where we always felt we belonged – as champions of England and competing at top level European competition.

The strange thing is that now they are champions (and set to be so again) and for me, as a fan, it still feels like it hasn’t happened. It’s like it’s a dream and we're all going to wake up any second. Chelsea doesn’t do domination of a league. Chelsea doesn’t do successive league titles. Chelsea doesn’t do consistency. Chelsea are the team who beat Man Utd at home then lose to Watford away. We’re the team that knock Liverpool out of the cup then go out to a team like Sunderland. We flatter to deceive. We’re the nearly men, the club that never quite makes it.

What is ironic almost is that Chelsea fans have always said as a club that we belong with the big boys, but they have never quite made it there. But now they are there it feels strange, like the natural order has been disturbed. This Chelsea team beats teams it should beat, with only rare exceptions. We are the best team in the country. Everyone wants to beat them. These are things now commonly associated with Chelsea. They are favourites for the league next season and the team to beat, and we as fans now expect us to make a serious challenge on all fronts every season. Chelsea have arguably the best manager in Europe and are attracting some of the best young talent in Europe to our club. The big players in Europe like Michael Ballack are looking at us rather than Arsenal, Liverpool or Man Utd when they decide to come to England.

This is very un-Chelsea like. However, there is one thing now certain. What is currently regarded as very un-Chelsea like will soon become known as Chelsea-like. In decades to come fans will look at our history and although they will see our first century of under-achievement, they will look at the beginning of the second century as when the real Chelsea began. Every season fans will expect Chelsea to challenge. If they don’t, a manager will instantly be seen as under pressure. Three seasons without a major trophy will be seen as a major drought. This is because Roman Abramovich, his money and his ambition are not going away. Peter Kenyon is marketing Chelsea as a big club across the globe and this new brand of supporter, even the London boy growing up now supporting Chelsea, will expect and demand more from Chelsea than we ever have. Relegation and mid-table mediocrity will be an alien phrases to a Chelsea fan of the future.

However, will the club at its heart change? The family club whose supporters stick by it and by each other through thick and thin and keep singing ‘Blue is the Colour’ “through the sun and rain”. Whose supporters currently are genuinely enjoying success as much as any other team and savouring success I believe more than any title-winning club for a long time, because it’s been so long coming. In future will this happen? Will expectations and a track-record of success be so high and so long that the success will be taken more for granted and expected, like at so many of the ‘traditional’ big clubs. Will supporters of the future brag about our history like supporters of a certain red-shirted club do now? Will future supporters enjoy future success as much as we are enjoying it now?

I’m not sure of the answer to that. All I know is that last season’s title win felt like the old Chelsea at last winning the trophy we’ve wanted for so long. A smaller club, achieving major glory at last. This season it feels like we’re a big club chasing glory and seeking dominance over all the rest. Now I feel like we’re a big club on a par with the other big-guns, certainly in terms of expectations. Last season felt different. For me I know the feeling I had when we won the league last season won’t be repeated no matter how many times we win the league. And maybe that’s a sign of how this club is moving onwards and upwards, and evolving very quickly into something different to what it’s ever been before. Things will never be the same ever again...