As I write this, we are days away from the end of 2023. A year that will go down as one of the worst in recent memory for Chelsea FC.
So much for Clearlake’s bold claim to make Chelsea the best in the world. 2023 saw Chelsea endure the most defeats (19) in the Premier League and indeed all European leagues bar Almeria (24), Werder Bremen (20) and Empoli (20). They’ve shipped the most goals (59) in a calendar year since the Premier League started; have missed more big chances than any other side and have the worst disciplinary record (over 54 yellow cards).
When Clearlake’s pronouncement was made, did they miscommunicate best for worst? 2024 can only get better…right? Well maybe not.
As we recover from a New Year’s Eve hangover, the transfer window will burst open, bringing the cold hard daylight so unwelcome when you need the sanctuary of a darkened room. Now, we all know Chelsea need a goal scoring striker, but most concern for Chelsea supporters seems to be on who Clearlake will sell, and most of that debate is focussed predominantly on Conor Gallagher.
It seems beyond belief that Chelsea, or any club, would sell a player who has been one of the few to stand up and be counted over the last couple of seasons. More than that, Gallagher is that rarest of commodities for Chelsea in recent years. A player who has broken through from the academy to be an ever present in the first team.
He has worn the captain’s armband in the absence of Reece James and Ben Chilwell and has arguably done a better job, if leading by example is a relevant measurement. Conor has started every Premier League match this season and 3 out of the 4 Carabao Cup matches (coming on as a sub in the match against Brighton). He’s basically Pochettino’s first name on the team sheet.
His manager says of him: “He is in the starting XI in nearly all the games and is one of the captains. For me, he is the type of player that the club needs to have as he knows the identity of the club”.
“He is important because he has Chelsea values, he is a product that came from the Academy. He loves the club and is very committed”.
“You can see on the pitch: he runs, he plays, he fights, he gives everything to try to win. He is a really important player, a type of player every coaching staff wants to have in the team”.
Now while it might be true that Conor might not be the best midfield player in the world or would have got into the great Chelsea sides of the past or is above criticism, he is playing in the Chelsea side of today and undoubtedly, he’s been the player of the season so far.
The stats, so beloved by the current regime, back this up.
Opta have him in first place for assists; chances created; tackles; interceptions; possession won; possession won in the final third and distance covered. In fact, Conor Gallagher has won possession in the final third more times than any other player in Europe’s top seven leagues this season (23). Only three Premier League players have won possession more often in total (106). He is undoubtedly the reason why Chelsea have won possession in the attacking third more times (113) than any other team in the Premier League this season.
He is also the only player in Europe’s big five leagues this season with 20+ shots, 20+ chances created, 20+ dribbles completed, 20+ touches in the opposition box, 20+ duels won, 20+ tackles and 20+ interceptions. So, even the muppets on ‘X’ ludicrous claims that he’s a ‘bum’ who should be sold are farcical; he’s arguably the only Chelsea player currently outperforming expectations.
Moreover, he’s gained 11 England caps since breaking through to the senior side just over 2 years ago. And this is an England side ranked 3rd in the world just behind France and Argentina.
But apparently, the brains trust at Chelsea FC are open to offers of around £45-50 million to secure Conor’s services, just like they were in the summer. I’ll say it again, why on earth would any serious football club even consider this. I can’t think of one top 4 club who would consider selling one of their best performers, a home-grown player deemed important enough to be a captain, unless Real Madrid came in for an offer in the region of £100 million plus.
If Conor is sold, it can only be down to several factors and none of them have anything to do with helping Chelsea get back to the top where they belong.
The first is financial. Having for the most part over paid and wasted over £1 billion on ‘project’ players, most of whom have flattered to deceive, been injured or ill-equipped for the Premier League, the club could now be facing a tricky time with respect to Financial Fair Play. We may now be in a position where we have to sell in order to buy.
Selling Academy players represents pure profit on the balance sheet. The likes of Mason Mount, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ethan Ampadu, Callum Hudson-Odoi have already been sold and Ian Maatsen, Trevoh Chalobah and Armando Broja along with Conor appear to be vulnerable pawns in this strategy. If they are not going to make it then fine, but with Conor this is clearly not the case.
The other possibility is arguably even more scandalous. It’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Messrs. Winstanley and Stewart, Chelsea’s Sporting Directors, the men predominantly tasked with rebuilding Chelsea to the tune of £1 billion, are now having to scrabble around to make their ‘project’ work.
Having spent the most money by a Premier League club in the shortest timespan they find that none of it has worked. Having been in and around businesses and projects for most of my adult life, I can tell you that when things go pear shaped most people will double down, back their hires and their decisions. After all, doing anything else would be to admit they were wrong and put their own neck on the block.
Conor could end up being the victim of Winstanley and Stewarts over inflated egos and belief in their own ability and judgement. They would perhaps, rather sell Gallagher than admit that the likes of Fernandez, Caicedo, Lavia and Chukwuemeka might not be the players they’ve spent a fortune on.
Surely the Sporting directors’ remit is to support what the manager wants, and Pochettino clearly wants Gallagher, not covering up your own terrible transfers by selling Cobham products for ‘pure profit’. It also sets a terrible precedent, arguably started with the way Mason Mount was allegedly forced out of the club. A good business model would utilise the talent coming through from the Academy, who know and understand the club and who of course won’t cost you £60-100 million. Selling Conor might well end the possibility of a pathway from Academy to first team.
If anyone needs to go, it should perhaps be Winstanley and Stewart considering their shocking performance over the last year. How on earth the former Head of Scouting at well-known elite club and serial trophy winners Brighton & Hove Albion and the former Technical Director of European behemoth AS Monaco were handed the keys to ‘project’ Chelsea defies belief.
It all fits though doesn’t it. Perhaps they have potential, like the players they’ve bought. Of course, for an established elite club like Chelsea, proven winners and experience is what you need, not potential. Why were sporting directors of this calibre not hired? Why were no Chelsea playing legends from our greatest era not brought back into the fold to supplement them? The blind leading the blind I suspect.
Of course, this is all conjecture as is the possible sale of Gallagher who may well end up staying at Chelsea beyond January. However, if he does get sold, I think it could well be the straw that breaks the camels back for most Chelsea supporters. I fear that selling Conor Gallagher will be a barometer for where we stand with the club, for Pochettino’s future and Clearlake and the Sporting Director’s real intentions for it.
We’ve put up with an endless stream of idiocy, incompetence, and downright insult from the minute that Clearlake took the reins.
On and off the pitch they have dismantled everything that Chelsea has come to represent over the last 30 plus years and replaced it with a soulless corporate model aimed at the global market, to ensure a return on their investment. In the process they are destroying the relationship between the club and many supporters who have invested in the club financially and emotionally, through thick and thin for decades. The feeling of marginalisation and disconnect has never been as low as it currently is.
Of course, the irony in all of this, is that the best way to make a club profitable and get a return on investment is to have continuous success on the pitch, like Chelsea have achieved over the last 25 years! That was always the mantra from Peter Kenyon to Marina Granovskaia. Did Clearlake not get the memo or did they think they knew better?
Happy New Year!
First published in cfcuk fanzine January 2024