It’s time we talked about Chelsea. But let’s not actually do that, not just yet. First, let’s talk about West London, disparaged semi-regularly as a kind of fake London, an ersatz pocket of the capital that feels like it might just be anything that anyone with enough power and money decides it should be. It is go-go dancers gyrating topless at the Chelsea Drugstore in 1968. It is the enclave of men in wash-worn rugby shirts swilling vile Fruli and staring with their floppy dogs into the wet glimmering off the banks of Richmond upon Thames. It is the chlorophyll of Kew fighting back against the flight path and the acid refuge of Eel Pie Island giving birth to epochal British soft power in real-time.
It is Carnival and Richard Curtis’ Third Way propaganda machine and the M4 Lucozade advert and the tragic alien husk of Grenfell, a totem to how little money really cares for those denied it in London. It is today’s dull and docile King’s Road, with its Byron and Benihana, its juice bars, dog barbers and endless BBC4 smart-casual for people with fat wallets and dwindling hormone stocks, the atmospheric blueprint for the new British high street that has been rolled out en masse to Tory-leaning toy-towns across the land. It is, like all of London, transient, but a place where transience comes at a much higher price. It is this man getting in £9 pints down at the Sloaney Pony.
And it is, obviously, where Chelsea FC live, making total and utter sense. The weird thing about Chelsea is that for all they owe to Roman Abramovich’s billions, not once have there ever been the usual suggestions and concerns that all that wealth might create a damaging distance between club and fans. Instead, Chelsea feel natural as just another expression of upstart capital in this neck of the woods – born to it, almost – a club that even in its strident march from Ken Bates’ shit-heap hooligan zoo to oligarch stress ball somehow still feels deeply rooted to the gilded progress of local postcodes.
This is probably why it’s sometimes easy to forget for just how long the Abramovich-fuelled Chelsea have been a force. The Russian took ownership of the club 15 years ago, back in 2003. It has been 15 years of wanton success, a milestone that feels like it went curiously unmarked in the summer: five league titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, a Europa League and, most impressively of all, a bled-for Champions League, London’s first win in the competition. Fifteen years before Abramovich arrived, it was 1988, Thatcher was in power and Chelsea had just been relegated to the old second division. The point isn’t to run them down for having the nerve to invest and challenge the establishment red-shirts who dominated before them. It is to acknowledge that their own dominance should no longer be regarded as a phase.
All of this longview noise and context considered, it would be fitting if Chelsea were led into their most unexpected and sunlit halcyon days by an ex-banker, albeit one with the quietly manic air and dress sense of a person who’s just escaped from some kind of managed facility. Here comes Maurizio Sarri again, gobbling up his fags, nibbling away his nails, wry smile creeping across his face like he’s just figured out a great new hiding spot for the communal cutlery. To call Sarri a genius would be slightly insulting; the sheer amount of graft, study and sacrifice needed to propel him to this point – as detailed in full by Rory Smith for the New York Times – simply exhausts the brain. Rigour and drilling made his Napoli side the most thrilling attacking team in world football last season: a man who never played at any serious level shouldn’t, by rights, be able to do that.
But Sarri does, because somehow, over the course of 19 jobs at 19 clubs in 28 years – the first decade of which was split among local Tuscan teams lacking so much as a Wikipedia entry – this injury-stricken, chain-smoking, ex-amateur wealth-management consultant learnt how to see the game in a way that improves the world’s finest players. That, as a basic statement of fact, is startling. There is something wonderful too about Sarri pitching up where he has, that place by the Thames where money and hard work generally go to hide themselves. Sarri is a man who wears his toil in his face and is, if not proud, then at the very least ambivalent about that. The same could be said of his nascent Chelsea side, around whom there is a real buzz this season.
If it’s not difficult to see why, now, after five games and maximum points, then perhaps it’s harder to work out why Chelsea weren’t touted for top honours more loudly once they’d finally secured the scrawl of one of the game’s greatest modern minds. Maybe it was simply a case of intrigue-fatigue building up around the whole affair, the sacking of ex-boss Antonio Conte seeming to drag on for so long that in your most anxious moments you feel like it must still be happening somewhere, some distant outpost of Earth – Canada’s Northwest Territories or Tristan De Cunha, perhaps – where news arrives by albatross and Victor Moses is still being described as a masterstroke. Or perhaps the reason that Chelsea haven’t found themselves being billed as credible champions simply boils down to the quality and competition around them. Liverpool and City seem the consensus-pick for any title race this year, yet neither have played as well as Sarri’s men in their most heightened and excited state, a royal blue blur that seem to be getting to grips with a style and strategy quite unlike anything else in Europe, and one showing off the energising benefits of a bit of hard graft in a part of the world that can often feel bloated and stale with ruinous luxury.
With Sarri at the helm, they will only get better. Take that and throw money at it.