Halfway through the English Premier League season just gone, it hit me. I was done. My resignation letter may not have hit the boss’s desk, but in spirit I was already out the door.
I watched the new generation of Chelsea talent – the sublime skills and pace of Eden Hazard, the twinkling feet of Juan Mata, the potential of Oscar and polymath nature of David Luiz – and couldn’t bring myself to care.
The club just didn’t feel the same anymore.
Now we’ve receieved what would once have been the sweetest possible piece of Chelsea news: that José Mourinho, the prodigy, the prodigal, the genius, and my greatest man-crush, will return to Stamford Bridge on a four-year deal.
The thing is, I don’t know that it can draw me back to Chelsea.
What brought on such a deep bout of existential footballing despair? As Sartre may have said in different circumstances, hell is other people managing your contracts.
In 2012/13, it was a case of two crucial disappointments that made me acknowledge some very ugly trends.
The first was when Roberto di Matteo, fresh from coaching Chelsea to the previous season’s FA Cup and Champions League trophies, was sacked for a run of four losses in eight games.
The hammer blow came a couple of months later, when talk began circulating in January that legendary midfielder Frank Lampard would not be offered a new contract at season’s end.
On the surface this all seems pretty standard. Underperforming managers get sacked, players rarely end their careers at top clubs.
But behind the decisions were the impatience, the impulsiveness and the lack of class that have been trademarks of the Abramovich era, set in a context of ever-increasing corporate gloss and sleaze.
Of course Chelsea fans have a lot to thank Abramovich for. We can admit that without the Russian billionaire’s cash injections, the last decade may not have yielded three premierships, a Champions League trophy, or 40-odd FA Cups.
But who knows what more his administration could have achieved if they’d cultivated a more stable and honest environment?
Thing is, the owner and his yes-men have little understanding of what makes a football club work. They’ve just announced their tenth change of manager in nine years (and their eighth in less than six), having also discarded busloads of fine players along the way.
Every new manager was something like an arranged marriage: just as we were getting used to the chap, Abramovich would barge in like an overbearing matriarch to annul the arrangement, pay out the dowry, and organise a new suitor.
Half the time we didn’t even know who we were rolling over to find in bed.
Practically, this has meant instability and a weak internal culture. But a less tangible result has been a lack of external connection, a barrier to fans emotionally engaging with a club that gives them nothing constant to believe in.
* * *
Australian football fans are often challenged about our allegiance to European clubs. How can you call yourself fans, goes the argument, when you’re not from there, never been there, never seen ‘your’ team play live?
It’s true there are thousands of self-identified United fans whose involvement is limited to posting on Facebook once every couple of years. But for others, loyalty forms in any number of ways.
My own journey to Chelsea wasn’t born of a London connection or a burning love of the world game, nor undertaken on the back of a groaning bandwagon.
My affection dated back to high school. The Playstation was king, and many an afternoon was spent smoking the kind of cigarettes whose sole side-effect was an intense focus on playing FIFA ’98.
The long-term FIFA enthusiast played season mode, and the greatest challenge was to beat the top-ranked Man United on the highest difficulty setting using one of the bottom teams. Chelsea was one of those underdogs.
They became my default because I liked their stupid name, and thus I got to know the pixelated forms of players who would become my agents of victory. The smooth-running Marcel Desailly backed by the ponytailed Emmanuel Petit. The ridiculous Mario Melchiot. The splendidly titled Eidur Gudjohnsen. Grahame Le Saux as an aggressive wing-back, Boudewijn Zenden with the cross.
And of course, up front, the Of Mice and Men pairing: the idiosyncratic giant Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink thundering through defenders, playing in the sprightly Gianfranco Zola to curl another strike across the keeper and into the far corner.
Through them, I started following the real team’s fortunes. Coverage was sparse. We were a largely pre-internet society. Cable was an extravagance. TV had only the latter stages of the Champions League on SBS.
I read league standings in fine print at the back of the sports section, trying to conjure a narrative out of “Bolton 1-2 Chelsea” in point-four font.
One day I was stunned to turn a page and see a photo – an honest-to-god large photograph – of Tore André Flo mid-leap, levitating into the crowd in celebration. There was a whole article. On a Chelsea game.
The theoretical team had been made flesh.
By coincidence I started visiting friends with cable when game day rolled around. The 2002 FA Cup final was a rare sighting on free-to-air, fittingly stretching late into the night as Freddie Ljungberg destroyed my ability to dream.
I tracked the news about Abramovich’s takeover, unsure what was next. Claudio Ranieri reached unheard-of territory, denied in the Premier League only by Arsenal’s perfect season while also making the Champions League semi-finals.
Then at the end of 2004, my own game changed when I moved to Malaysia. In that land, football ruled the television, punctuated only by the odd spot of darts, billiards or golf. Suddenly I was feasting: every game live, across four competitions. And a chap named José Mourinho had just taken charge.
* * *
Mourinho had a love affair with Chelsea fans. He was charismatic, charming and full of belief. He was arrogant with the goods to back it up. He spoke like a real person. He was more than a breath of fresh air, he was a gale through the stuffy rooms of Brittania, showering the guests in broken glass.
The other clubs hated him, but we knew they were really just jealous he was ours.
After 50 years of drought he won the Premier League twice, fell just short a third time, won both domestic cups and was desperately unlucky to twice miss the Champions League final.
But even this couldn’t save him when he protested Abramovich’s weakness for playing real-life Fantasy Football. Mourinho’s knifing set the pattern for the managerial bloodbath that has ensued since that day in 2007.
Di Matteo was simply the most recent head on the block. Like most of those before him, we are left to wonder what he might have achieved given time and support.
The Champions League had been the gap in Abramovich’s cabinet, and the open wound for fans after so many desperately close calls. Di Matteo salved those wounds, a favourite son proving himself an astute tactician and bringing home the biggest prize in Chelsea’s history in May 2012.
It bought him until November, the earliest sacking in Abramovich’s reign.
The insult added to that injury came in the form of caretaker coach Rafa Benitez. While he did a decent job, Benitez was never a Chelsea person. He was an old enemy, the man behind Mourinho’s Champions League disappointments.
As a manager, Benitez equates to a service station pie: it can fill a gap if you have no better option. But to jettison your alternative in favour of a servo pie? Whatever you had, it’s hardly a step up.
Then came the story around Lampard, Chelsea’s heart in the transition from no-hopers to contenders. As Chelsea manager, Mourinho called him the best player in the world, and under that reign he probably was.
He was indefatigable, always in position, and deadly off either foot from near-impossible range. He redefined a midfielder’s capability, bagging a striker’s tally of goals each season. He was provider, poacher, and free-kick specialist.
My defining memory is Lampard against Bayern Munich in 2005: his back to goal, wide of the left post, chesting Claude Makélélé’s angled cross so it spins over his right shoulder, the player spinning three quarters of a circle away from goal on one heel to meet that ball as it lands, in one movement rifling it with his left foot across a helpless Oliver Kahn.
Yet with such skill he remained modest, and as captain John Terry proved to be a good player but a shit bloke, Lampard only proved more decent. It seemed apt that he captained the Champions League win with Terry absent.
So it was incomprehensible when – in the middle of his 12th season for the club, nearing 600 games, and within sight of its all-time scoring record – Chelsea’s greatest champion was deemed surplus to requirements.
He’d been in and out of favour with a couple of managers, but outlasted them all. His form was strong, his workrate unflagging.
Even when he broke Bobby Tambling’s record with his 203rd goal it was no soft landmark – it was his second strike in a 10-man, 2-1 comeback victory against Aston Villa to lock down third place and a Champions League spot.
Throughout the season, Lampard, Terry and Petr Cech were the only members of Mourinho’s 2005 premiership side still playing, while the eternally benched Paulo Ferreira would retire at season’s end.
It meant that the only reason Chelsea wanted to offload Lampard was because his age read 34. The decision showed no footballing sense, just the ignorance that says an older player must be past it while youth equals ability.
This attitude has been a feature of Chelsea’s modern incarnation. There is no appreciation of the value of experience, the connection with a club heritage that stretches back more than a couple of years, the presence of those who’ve done it before when match intensity rises.
The club’s decisions showed more than a lack of respect for the players, the staff and the fans. They showed a lack of perception that respect was even due.
While Abramovich has a billion-pound investment in the club, every one of Chelsea’s fans has an emotional investment. Without fans, a club is merely a lonely exercise in physical accomplishment.
The problems with Chelsea’s management have been evident throughout, but it was only during the 2012/13 season that my confidence finally collapsed.
Of course, both stories had a twist. Lampard was eventually offered a contract after all, and now Mourinho will make his Messianic return to the club that adored him.
If I’d known these things a year ago I could not have been more delighted. But these days, I just don’t trust Chelsea’s rulers.
Lampard’s one-year contract wasn’t them seeing the light. It was the barest possible concession due to the emotion and publicity when he set his record so late in the season. The disrespect with which they treated him is still clear and present.
To hear such a player say “I’m very grateful to get another year” is an indictment of the club to which he has given so much.
As for Mourinho, I don’t dare hope. In a universe that made sense, José’s four-year contract would give him four years, allowing him to build a club that could dominate for a generation. But Chelsea’s chop-happy custodians have never given a manager this chance, nor retained players who could have helped in that construction.
Throughout their modern era, they’ve reflected the consumerist mentality to perfection: never satisfied with what they have, demanding immediate gratification to get something bigger, shinier, and better.
Multi-year deals have not led to any hesitation in swinging the axe. I can’t allow myself the elation of Mourinho’s return if we’re going to see another head-roll after his team’s first inevitable bad run.
The same attitude is reflected in Chelsea’s corporate outlook, including a website that makes Stalin’s Pravda look like a model of transparent critique. Between arias on how much the club loves everyone it has sacked, we read articles on “a new three-year partnership in Thailand with Nitto Tire that will see them become our official tyre partner in the country.”
Only the most persistent scandals are acknowledged, acknowledgements come by press release, press releases don’t say anything, and no word of criticism ever hits the screen.
There has been no hint, for instance, that reappointing Mourinho kind of suggests Abramovich massively cocked up by sacking him in the first place, then wasted six years chewing through an expensive stack of seat-warmers.
I have loved and admired aspects of Chelsea Football Club for 15 years: the sides that have come and gone, the players who have amazed us, the managers who have overseen great triumphs.
There have been highs and lows, miracles and debacles, tension and elation.
Those contributors have my respect. There remain, though, administrators who undersell, undermine, undervalue and ignore those contributions. When I’m apportioning respect, these characters get none.
So what now? Do I pick an A-League team? Shift to the Bundesliga? Neither the Central Coast Mariners nor Mönchengladbach stir me in the same way as a London derby.
You can’t pick teams, after all, you have to wait for them to pick you.
And I can’t deny I’ll be keeping an eye on Mourinho’s exploits at Stamford Bridge. But I’m afraid. I’ve been hurt before, José, though I know it wasn’t your fault.
If I were to risk my heart for you again, and declare myself a Chelsea supporter who endorses what Chelsea does, I would need to have some faith in the way the club is run.
Until then, I can only address the man who controls that fate. Mr Abramovich, however paltry the gesture looks to you, my resignation stands. You know where to find me if you change your ways.