The Neutral’s Guide to Falling In Love With… Chelsea
In the latest instalment of our Neutral's Guide series, we head for West London to ask Chelsea fans what it means to be a Blue in 2017.
You can read previous entries from the series here.
Nickname: The Blues, The Pensioners
Concise Summary: Title-winning West London fashonistas with a small army of skeletons in the cupboard.
Famous Fans: Phil Daniels, Richard Attenborough (deceased), Johnny Vaughan, Suggs, Damon Albarn, John Major, Jeremy Clarkson.
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There is a school of thought that views football – particularly English football – as a form of ritual suffering. You follow your local club home and away out of a sense of duty, through driving rain and over endless grey motorway. The pre-match pub is a dive serving flat pints the colour and temperature of fresh piss and they've not done food since that run-in with environmental health. To compound the misery your team are shit, either overpaid and disinterested or underpaid and inept. It's not fun, not in the sense that it is in any way enjoyable or enriching. You keep going, though, because that's what you're supposed to do: follow your team through thick and thicker, from Plymouth to Carlisle, 'til death or liquidation us do part. It's passion in its original sense: a kind of perverse suffering that you can't do without.
There are places across the country where this is still the standard experience, but SW6 is not among them. Chelsea F.C. in its 21st-century incarnation is football support on easy mode: nice pubs, an attractive West London setting, and to top it off a team whose ability to compete for major trophies is guaranteed by the presence of a Russian oligarch with the loosest of purse strings. Under the patronage of Roman Abramovich they have been Premier League champions five times, were crowned kings of Europe in 2012, and are avid collectors of world-class talent. Chelsea have few rivals in the English game and, quite naturally, they are roundly hated for it.
It was not always thus, of course, and herein lies the contradiction of Chelsea Football Club. While their fans have had it relatively cushy over the past 15 years, what came before was a very different story – one that doesn't tend to make it into the Premier League's promotional materials. It bears repeating that Chelsea were relegated as recently as 1988 and, worse still, were the legal possession of Ken Bates as recently as 2003. Off the pitch endemic racism and a horrendous hooligan problem blighted Stamford Bridge; on it the team promised much but delivered relatively little. Though they are now enjoying an embarrassment of riches, Chelsea were once merely an embarrassment.
In fact, there were times when the club seemed to be on the brink of extinction. They came close before Bates bailed them out in 1982, and ended the next season three points clear of a drop to the third tier. The hooligan problem headlined by the Chelsea Headhunters was among the worst in the English game – a grim accolade if ever there was one – with links to far-right groups Combat 18 and the National Front turning Stamford Bridge into a recruiting ground. A section of Chelsea fans sang "We don't need the nigger" at Paul Canoville as he prepared to come on as a sub, while some would simply remain in the pub if Canoville was named among the starters. One longstanding fan we spoke to solemnly described this period as "the lull", and for some supporters it coincided with a lengthy period away from Stamford Bridge. Had Chelsea disappeared altogether, some would have considered it a blessing.
That they did not was part luck, part divine intervention. Between 1979 and '84 Chelsea were a Second Division side with a crumbling if well appointed stadium. The hooligan problem was such that, in 1985, Bates revealed a plan to install electric fences at Stamford Bridge to curb violence. The mid eighties were better, but they once again fell into the second tier in 1988. An ambitious project to develop Stamford Bridge almost crippled them, and alongside this loomed the spectre of losing their ground altogether, with property developers Marler Estates keen to bulldoze the Bridge and build the kind of flats you might now market to men like Roman Abramovich. In the mid nineties Matthew Harding came on board as vice-chairman and quickly won the fans' hearts, only to perish in a helicopter crash on his way back from a Chelsea game. By most football fans' definition, this sounds like suffering. The fact that it took place in a 'nice' part of London seems fairly irrelevant.
And so when the aforementioned Russian oligarch arrived in 2003, offering to share the wealth he had shrewdly acquired following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it did not seem especially unfair that Chelsea were the recipients. This was not like Manchester United or Arsenal – already wealthy and successful – catching yet another break. If anything, Chelsea's newfound mega-millions made the top of the English game more competitive (rather like Man City's did almost a decade later).
All of this is important to understanding Chelsea in 2017. For some rival supporters, it has become the default to write Chelsea fans off as entitled and gloating. Of course some of them can be, but then so might you if your former basketcase team won the football lottery and became London's first European champions. While Chelsea's nouveau riche status is sometimes used as a stick with which to beat them, they were hardly going to suggest that Roman sling his hook and start knocking on doors in North London. As one fan we spoke to put it: "It had to be someone, so it may as well be us."
But the arrival of money and success have had an inevitable consequence: Chelsea's fanbase has been swollen by a raft of new supporters whose relationship with the club does not include hooligans, winding up orders, or considering Frank Sinclair to be a passable choice at left-back. The touchstones of this new generation are Mourinho, Munich and Abramovich's millions.
All of which might sit a little uneasily with some of their more seasoned supporters, for whom the "our little club" vibe that rather miraculously persists at Chelsea is tied in with having experienced the darker moments of football fandom. Part of what makes a Chelsea fan – what you might very simplistically call a proper Chelsea fan – is having suffered the bad times, or at least been around before Abramovich arrived and started sliding blank cheques under Jose's door. In this respect, there is an inherent difference between a Chelsea supporter who remembers the nineties and one who does not (remembering the eighties, seventies or sixties are all different things again). Admittedly, there is a tendency to romanticise a past era when things were, to quote more than one veteran supporter, "shite". But this does represent a fundamental difference in the experience people have of the club, one that informs how they perceive them and how they react to different situations. The travails of last season offer a perfect example: had you seen Chelsea play in the second tier, you'd naturally be quite blasé about finishing 10th in the Premier League. Put another way, it's is no coincidence that when you type "where were you when we were shit?" into Google, the second result is a Chelsea fancast; the top result is a discussion on a Manchester City message board.
It is perhaps appropriate in this respect that we spoke to a group of Chelsea season ticket holders ahead of their clash with City at Stamford Bridge. While Pep Guardiola's side are still adjusting to life as a destination for the world's finest players, for Chelsea it is becoming the norm, a remarkable situation for those who remember "the lull", though perhaps just a little more relatable if you can recall the swaggering Italianesque team of the sixties.
Which reminds us that Chelsea – like most Premier League clubs, and plenty more in the Football League – have been through more than one identity change. Before the glossy corporate era and before the hellish eighties, they were a glamour side who attracted celebrity supporters like Raquel Welch to Stamford Bridge. Back then the King's Road was about football, fashion and rock 'n roll, or what one fan recalls as "the smell of Woodbines floating in the air." This was the mystique that Abramovich bought into, not skinheads handing out far-right zines. Before too long, this era will have passed from living memory, yet it will remain a part of the club and its supporters for years to come.
And while Chelsea fans might now have settled into their new life, further change is afoot. The Bridge is on the verge of its biggest overhaul in a century. A wholesale redevelopment on the current site will effectively see a new stadium built, though retaining the same location should mean that the old rituals – the journey to the ground, the pre-match pubs – can remain. Nevertheless, this will likely mean three years as tenants at Wembley, a nine-mile trip to the hinterland for fans more accustomed to a quick hop into town. There are some who say they will not suffer the trip up the Metropolitan Line, though considerably more who will follow their team over land and sea (and Leicester, of course).
What are Chelsea in 2017, then? Beneath the layers of corporate compliance policy and brand values, the astronomical sponsorship deals, the often profligate transfer policy and the stockpiling of young players? Put simply, they are largely a club like any other. The fans may not enjoy that description, but from Chelsea's eighties nadir it's a remarkable leap. They still have their arseholes – the kind who might sing "We're racist, and that's the way we like it," on a Paris Metro – but Chelsea, like every big club in this country, genuinely do work hard to counter this kind of behaviour. As one fan tells us, "I think it's become more family friendly, more sterilised," but that has its upsides when it comes to driving out intolerance. Chelsea is now a multi-ethnic and multi-racial club; a fan who stays in the pub when a black player is named wouldn't have seen a moment of their glorious 2016-17 campaign.
What we can say is that they were arguably the greatest beneficiaries of the creation of the Premier League, insomuch as the new middle-class fans that it attracted were Chelsea supporters in waiting. Back came old followers who'd been driven away by the eighties, in came new ones who liked the look of football in SW6. It's no wonder they need a new stadium.
And so this is just another club, supported by the same mix of people who support any Premier League team in 2017. They are not extraordinary: they just happen to be based in a flash area of London and, partly as a consequence of this, a Russian oligarch decided that they might be a fun plaything. Still, the elder fans know what it is like to see the team they love rot to the point of near decomposition; even supporters in their twenties can recall tragedy and disaster on a scale that some clubs have never known. Most Chelsea fans are simply people who love their football club. The fact that the club is Chelsea is no reason to hate them.