I was back in the UK last weekend. I was there ostensibly to see my newly born nephew, but as luck would have it Chelsea were at home to Everton in the FA Cup, and a mate of mine had bagged me a ticket in the Matthew Harding end. I was hoping for my return that Chelsea would put on something resembling a half-decent performance, but instead they lost, on penalties – AGAIN – after 120 minutes in which the current league champions were made to look like ponderous mid-table cloggers by one of the few teams in worse form than them. I got to see close up just how devoid of confidence and ideas the team is, how out of form so many key players are, and how one-dimensional the play is. I’ve seen this before and no doubt I’ll see it again, but while our plight won’t (understandably) generate any sympathy, these days it creates tabloid headlines and heated radio talk show debate, so I thought I’d stick my oar in.
Much has been made of Ray Wilkins’ sacking, and how since then we’ve not been the same team, but frankly that’s been overplayed. Chelsea’s problems are more prosaic than the sacking of one coach: we have a thin, ageing squad, and one that cannot play two times a week and expect to win trophies. In any case, Wilkins’ could easily be replaced by one of any number of coaches, and it’s hardly as if the players would have been surprised; whatever the reason was for that specific sacking, Chelsea have always had a habit of binning off coaches in the loudest, most needlessly aggressive way possible. In my time going to games I can only think of Glenn Hoddle and Guus Hiddink who departed without some combination of acrimony, big headlines and an even bigger pay-off. (Even Eddie McCreadie in the late 70s fell to the same disease, after a row over a company car, just after having got Chelsea promoted from Division Two – with Ray Wilkins as his captain.) The team has carried on doing well despite this, but that’s because the players were so strong, and so well drilled by the men who run the dressing room that games could be won without tinkering too much with the trophy-winning formula that José Mourinho introduced.
However the core players from Mourinho’s team are now definitively passed their peak, and there isn’t enough new blood coming through. Former key players like Michael Ballack and Ricardo Carvalho were sold off without adequate replacements, and this is symptomatic of another classic Chelsea problem: there absolutely no faith in the products of our youth system, even after having spent a fortune nicking on some of them from other clubs. In the midst of our worst form in well over a decade the club decides to loan out Daniel Sturridge and Gael Kakuta to other Premier League outfits, while a midfield crying out for some dynamism and urgency has hardly seen anything of Josh McEachran, a player who has put in some cracking performances when he’s been given the chance. As a consequence we’re putting out the same old, tired 11 more or less every game, with the only substitutions available like-for-like swaps between Salomon Kalou and Nicolas Anelka. This distrust of youth appears to be club policy – on and off the pitch – and Ancelotti is giving no sign of bucking that trend. That shouldn’t be surprise either, mind you; in Italy players are considered ‘prospects’ until they’re about 26, and only exceptional players get a chance at the top clubs. (In fact Italy is a country that doesn’t trust youth in general, but that’s a whole other article.)
This is a crucial time for the club though, on and off the pitch: once this team goes south, the floating fans who might stump up £50+ for Copenhagen at home will not be coming back if we don’t keep doing well. While we’ve been experiencing the best football ever played at Stamford Bridge the club has done absolutely nothing to attract the young fans who will be the future of our support, and who will stick with it when times are rough. The average age of a match-going Premier League fan is 38, and I would guess that where I used to sit it would be even higher; I’m 29 and on Saturday was probably the youngest in my block, with most being at least 10 years older. These people cut their football watching teeth in the late 70s and early 80s, and go because they always have done. Once that lot go however, there’s hardly anyone out there who will be able to stump up the outrageous sums charged at English grounds, so the club has a choice to make: either they make sure that Chelsea keep winning by investing huge money again (and risk being hung out to dry by the Financial Fair Play regulations), or start seriously planning for the future of the club, so that when things do inevitably take a turn for the worse, we’re not back to where we were in the early 90s. Given our history I think I, and many other jaded Chelsea fans, know which one we’d put our money on.
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