This time last year it felt like Christmas had been cancelled.
Chelsea, Champions just the season before were languishing near the relegation zone. Jose Mourinho, our greatest ever manager had lost his ‘special’ touch. Far from tuning up a formula one football machine, beating all comers to win another title, the ‘Special One’ was at the epicentre of an internecine civil war.
His spite and vitriol was met with petulance by the players some of whom all but downed tools. Division was rife – briefings against the manager by the players; the manager calling them out in the media; snakes and rats; supporters split in to rival ‘Jose in/Jose out camps’.
Emenalo got one thing right in his hapless TV appearance to justify the sacking of Mourinho: there was indeed ‘palpable discord’. What he failed to mention was how universal that discord was between Club, Manager, Players and Supporters. Not for the first time Chelsea looked like it had been subject to a coup by the ‘Toxic Avenger’.
What a difference a year makes.
Chelsea sits atop the Premier League six points ahead of our nearest rival. We have equalled our biggest consecutive winning streak. Our two most influential players – Hazard and Costa – are both on fire. Hazard, resembling the player who waltzed to the Player of the Year in our title winning season liberated by a more attacking and central role and Costa, not just back to his bullying, goal scoring best, but seemingly staying on the right side of the thin line between love and hate.
There’s more to it than these two though. David Luiz, a hugely popular player in his first stint at the club albeit somewhat error prone has returned and since the change to a back three, has commanded the Chelsea defence like a modern day frizzy haired Franz Beckenbauer. In a team seemingly devoid of leadership last year, a player who always had the potential to be a Chelsea leader is maturing in to a fine one. My epithet of “Captain, Geezer, Legend” coined several years ago now seems more plausible than comical.
So much of this is down to Antonio Conte. As the song says “Antonio Conte does it better, makes me happy, makes me feel this way”. He certainly does, and I certainly am!
His supreme ability as a football coach evidenced by the way he has turned bit part and average players in to vital cogs in the Chelsea wheel would be enough for most supporters. Getting the best out of the best players would be the least we demand. Turning round a team of sulkers in to a cohesive unit where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and who genuinely look like mounting a title challenge in the New Year, built on team spirit, guile, character, defensive stability and attacking flair is, quite frankly, beyond my wildest dreams a year ago.
If Conte can pull off a title win in his first season, considering the depths we were in last season, it will be a remarkable and indeed ‘special’ achievement. From Heroes to Zeroes to Heroes in the space of three seasons is in my book (and quite probably Mark Worrall’s) the definition of ‘Glorious Unpredictability’.
However, over and above all of this, one thing that is gloriously predictable is the Chelsea supporters. Like most big Premier League clubs, sometimes the atmosphere isn’t quite what we would like it to be at home, and there is no doubt that ticket pricing, pandering to corporate markets and marketing to ‘new fans’ and tourists doesn’t help. But that can’t and shouldn’t take anything away from the majority of Chelsea supporters who turn up to Stamford Bridge every fortnight and get behind the team.
And as for the away support – my hat is well and truly doffed. The commitment in terms of expenditure, time off work, travel to the frozen North and equally
inhospitable places and then on top of all this having to battle their way to fixtures whose kick off times are subject to the seemingly cruel and despotic whims of the Broadcaster and Premier League mandarins. That they do so with a healthy dose of humour and a sanguine perspective on what following Chelsea is really all about is to their eternal credit. So far removed from the virtual and ‘nappy shitting’ entitlement world of social media.
But how can one really blame ‘fans’ who don’t get to experience the bond of following Chelsea home and away? Perhaps deep down they know what they are missing and I’m not talking about the football.
What I’m talking about is real friendship, a sense of community, family even. Something forged by a common purpose and shared experience.
In spite of the horrors on the pitch last year, the ‘before and after’ the matches in the pubs was arguably one of the most enjoyable I have experienced. Many a time the temptation to ‘long-off’ the match to have another pint and enjoy the laughter and conversation was very real. In a sense it seemed a bit Old Skool. We may have been ‘here for the Chelsea’ but in a sense we were here for each other, the beer and the crack a little bit more.
I am extremely privileged, thanks to writing in here, producing the Chelsea FanCast and my involvement with the Supporters’ Trust that I have got to know so many Chelsea Supporters. I am even more privileged to call them friends.
The irony is never lost on me that the essential difference between following Chelsea 30 odd years ago and now was that back then you only really knew your own group of Chelsea mates well – you drank in the same pubs and went to the matches together and a few others were on nodding terms and that was about it. It was a small, somewhat insular circle.
The rise of the often derided social media and blogging world has changed that forever. As a result, my own Chelsea circle of friends has increased manifold and from nearly every corner of the world. That I have met so many of them at matches and been lucky enough to have a few beers with them is something that defies belief compared to my experience years ago.
Amidst all of this, I have concluded that the Chelsea community is a very special breed. I have been on the receiving end of and witnessed so many acts of genuine kindness and real friendship over the years following Chelsea. At a time when we think of family, peace and goodwill to all men (except Sp*rs) I think it’s worth reflecting on this and being thankful for it.
So, (and forgive my Christmas indulgence and behaving like a soppy old tart), but a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous (and title winning) New Year to…
All the people who have made me laugh and bought me a pint of Guinness in the pubs this year (Athens John, CFCAway, Nilesy, Jonny T, SatNav Mart, Chelsea Pete, Buncey, Sausage Rolls, Julie O, Debs, Kenny B, True Blue Terry and the RAT pack, Dumbledore John, Mr Bridger to name but a few).
To the people who have sorted out last minute tickets for me and other friends in dire need, such as DanDanDan, ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’, Chelsea Pete, SatNav Mart and especially to Hastings Mark for his immense generosity and kindness in helping out James K.
To everyone who sends kind messages of support and encouragement for the stuff I write in here and for the work we do with the Chelsea Fancast and amuse and engage with us on twitter.
To the merry pranksters of the Chelsea FanCast without whom I would be stuffed…JK, Marco, Clayton, Tony G, the Two Dans in particular and all the other brilliant contributors and of course the listeners.
To the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust Board who put in a shift and then some, all voluntarily and because they believe passionately in helping to get Chelsea supporters voices heard by the club. You all deserve a medal but you’ll have to settle for a CST badge!
And last but by no means least, Mr Walter Otton, on his one man mission to make the world a better place; a fine human being, a talented genius of a writer and an inspiration to all of us. (P.S. apologies to Walts for nicking his pseudonyms for the characters mentioned above).
Finally, to all of you who follow Chelsea and get that it’s much, much more than 90 minutes of football with a few stats thrown in, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of it and travel the journey with you.
Have a great Christmas and New Year – I’ll be raising a glass to you all on Christmas Day.
“To the Special Ones” of course!
First Published in cfcuk