José Mourinho is back, but I’m still resigning as a Chelsea fan

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    Jose Mourinho on-field. (AFP PHOTO / CARL DE SOUZA)

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    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.

     

    Geoff Lemon
    Geoff Lemon

    Geoff Lemon is a writer, editor and broadcaster covering sport for The Roar, The Guardian and ABC, as well as writing on politics, literature and history for a range of outlets.

    He tweets from @GeoffLemonSport.

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    The Crowd Says (50)

    • Roar Guru

      June 4th 2013 @ 4:23am
      Fussball ist unser leben said | June 4th 2013 @ 4:23am | ! Report

      Very entertaining & well-written article, Geoff – thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

      In relation to your new quandary: “So what now? Do I pick an A-League team? Shift to the Bundesliga?”

      In my opinion, “what happens next” all depends on whether you are someone:
      a) who really loves The Game; or
      b) who uses a foreign football team for “water-cooler conversation”, or, even worse, “dinner party conversation”.

      If you love the Game, you’d simply follow a football team that “speaks to you”.

      If you love The Game, the team won’t necessarily be EPL, Bundesliga or … heaven forbid – the anathema for any Euro-snob… an A-League team.

      People, who love The Game, readily follow teams from Serie D in Italy; or, non-league teams in England. Some of us even follow A-League teams & State League teams in Australia.

      How did I pick my A-League team? I love The Game & MVFC represents a collective with whom I feel “at home”.

      Even if you don’t pick a team, if you love The Game .. why not cherry-pick the action? Move seamlessly from A-League, to J-League, to CSL, to West Asia, to East Europe, to West Europe, to Africa, then Nth America, Central America& Sth America.

      So, Geoff … how much do you love The Beautiful Game?

      Are you part of the Group that proudly says: “Fußball ist unser leben”? 🙂

      • Columnist

        June 4th 2013 @ 9:59am
        Geoff Lemon said | June 4th 2013 @ 9:59am | ! Report

        Morning Fuss,

        I’d have to say I’ve never found many people at the water cooler or dinner parties who want to hear about Chelsea’s progress in the FA Cup or similar, it’s more been a late-night solitary indulgence that has annoyed my girlfriend (sounds bad).

        I do love football, among other sports, and happily watch neutral games, though I’m not as invested as your good self. But it’s still a much different experience to watching teams you actively support. I’m open to the A-League but haven’t yet had a team speak to me. Happy to play the waiting game on that one.

      • June 4th 2013 @ 11:27am
        Jacques said | June 4th 2013 @ 11:27am | ! Report

        Well put Fuss. I’m a lover of the game also who also play locally. I follow Victory and Liverpool

    • June 4th 2013 @ 4:52am
      FTR said | June 4th 2013 @ 4:52am | ! Report

      “People, who love The Game, readily follow teams from Serie D in Italy; or, non-league teams in England. Some of us even follow A-League teams & State League teams in Australia”.

      Also known as “out-snobbing the Euro-snobs” 😉

      • June 4th 2013 @ 6:17am
        Kasey said | June 4th 2013 @ 6:17am | ! Report

        Proud to love the game, and the second I heard about Adelaide United, I suspected there’d be a spark between us. Stand back Mr Evans, we don’t need Dexter the robot to calculate our comparability rating, it was love at first sight.
        Much as a person can gain a truer understanding of God and the wonder of life when they become a parent, I feel as though my love for football has truly grown to become almost all-consuming via my connection with ‘my’ team.

        Geoff, I think you need a sabbatical and some time to meditate/ruminate on the issue. Happiness isn’t really happiness unless its shared with someone, the live football experience of the A-League has awakened passions within me. I hope that Mr Abramovich’s running of his club hasn’t permanently soured your views on the World Game. Take a breath and follow your heart for your next steps as a football fan.

        Interesting piece from Goff about Eurosnobbery and the differences between supporting on ‘the continent’ versus the ‘local experience(MLS for him)’ Are we really that different here in the new (football) world than in the old world cities of England or Italy?

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/soccer-insider/wp/2013/05/30/soccer-outsider-comparing-as-roma-and-dc-united-the-match-experiences/?wprss=rss_blogsandcolumns&tid=pp_widget

    • June 4th 2013 @ 7:35am
      nickoldschool said | June 4th 2013 @ 7:35am | ! Report

      Very interesting and very ‘brave’ piece. I have always seen oz football fans as ‘different’ type of fans, whether they are ‘euro-snobs’ with strange reasons for supporting their Europe-based team, or oz domestic football. And yes, they are. The more I read football articles, speak with them or read their posts here on the roar, the more i realised the most important part in ‘australian football fan’ is ‘Australian’.

      The mere fact of wondering if we should get a football state of origin, if the next club should be based in Canberra, Auckland or Broome, the code wars vs AFL, NRL and so on, the salary cap stuff, wondering what happens to teams which are relegated (do they stop existing, move elsewhere??) or admitting you fell in love with a team because of a playstation game, the sponsor of the team, their name, their colours etc is Australian and Australian only. Does it make them lesser fans? Nope. Stranger, different type of fans? Probably, yes. At the end of the day every football fan in the country will be going for the same country tonight and its what matters. then the sometimes surreal conversations will start again tomorrow.

      • Columnist

        June 4th 2013 @ 9:46am
        Geoff Lemon said | June 4th 2013 @ 9:46am | ! Report

        Thanks Nick, interesting reply too. It is indeed a tangled, confusing, multifaced and fascinating way of following a sport in this country, legacy of the breadth of football worldwide, the varied nature of our national demographics, and the varied nature of the broadcasts we can access in the modern age.

        • June 4th 2013 @ 11:34am
          nickoldschool said | June 4th 2013 @ 11:34am | ! Report

          As a Chelsea supporter, you might know or be interested in a few books I have read. My team PSG has had ties with Chelsea for a very long time (for obvious and non PC reasons unfortunately) and Chelsea has always been my English team.

          Dunno if you have heard of or read John King’s books but I think you should give it a go. He is a Chelsea fan and about 15 years ago wrote a trilogy (football factory, England away and headhunters) of fictions. I loved these books. Not for everyone but as a Chelsea fan you should read them if you haven’t! (its obviously about the lives of die-hard Chelsea fans).

          As an aside, best book of his imo would be ‘Human Punk’. But the trilogy has more adrenaline in it than any other sports related books I have ever read.

    • Roar Guru

      June 4th 2013 @ 8:01am
      Brent Ford said | June 4th 2013 @ 8:01am | ! Report

      Loved this article as a FIFA addict I too spent many long nights trying to beat Man U on the highest setting!

    • June 4th 2013 @ 8:19am
      AGO74 said | June 4th 2013 @ 8:19am | ! Report

      I hated Chelsea even before Abramovich. My team played chelsea in 3 domestic finals and lost all of them. For God’s sake one of these was the 1991 Zenith Data Systems Cup – I dare say modern Chelsea fans wouldn’t even know they competed in this let alone won it.

      And then there was the ignominy of Roberto Di Matteo scoring the fastest ever FA cup finalgoal in history. Asyou can see I have baggage when it comes to Chelsea (although I loved Zola).

      As for modern Chelsea, you mention “lack of class”. I think you can apply this to most Euro football these days but Chelsea is the worst. And for me this pretty much sums up why I only have a passing inteerest in Euro football and spend most of my time on the (admittedly not perfect) A-League. Forza Sydney FC.

      Good article.

      • Roar Guru

        June 4th 2013 @ 9:47am
        Ben of Phnom Penh said | June 4th 2013 @ 9:47am | ! Report

        “Class” is one of the things that attracts me to the Bundesliga. Most of the clubs are majority member owned and need the support of their local communities in order to maintain their financial health. They really are “clubs” in the true sense of the word and not must-have accessories for billionaires.

    • June 4th 2013 @ 8:25am
      Mals said | June 4th 2013 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      I have heard it all now. Changing your team because of the ownership structure?!?!

      I’m also a Chelsea supporter and know how frustrating the mad Russian can be… However would you prefer us to be also rans again? Fighting relegation each year like many other English football teams? I guess you didn’t go through the hard times prior to the 1990s so you can’t appreciate what Chelsea has now.

      • June 4th 2013 @ 9:21am
        Alex F said | June 4th 2013 @ 9:21am | ! Report

        I recall Chelsea being a fairly strong team long before Abramhovic… a quick Google suggests they never finished lower than 6th since 96/97

        Also, I would suggest CFC is no longer ‘your’ club, but is now the play thing of a billionaire. I can understand why a fan may no longer feel attached to the club
        – interference in playing roster (e.g. Torres)
        – firing / hiring managers on a whim (countless examples)
        – hiring managers that the fans loathe (Benitez)

        I follow MUFC so am in a similar position re Glazers. Luckily they prefer to run the club as a financial play rather than a personal toy. That didn’t stop some Mancunians abandoning MUFC and even creating a new club to follow.

      • Columnist

        June 4th 2013 @ 9:42am
        Geoff Lemon said | June 4th 2013 @ 9:42am | ! Report

        I can appreciate it, Mals: one only has to look around at the Sunderlands and West Broms and Norwichs to understand how tough it is for smaller clubs, and how big a deal it is even to make it to the top flight, let alone stay there long-term. And as a historian I’ve certainly looked back through the history of the club. I just hate the Abramovich attitude that any season that isn’t going perfectly is cause for sacking. I’ve stuck with it for a long time, but every six months when they change manager yet again, you know they’re only damaging the team and making it harder for that team to eventually triumph.

        If you can’t believe in your team because someone is continually screwing around with the parts that are important with you, what is the solution? Mourinho is back, but there’s no assurance he’ll be allowed to stay more than six months.

        • Roar Guru

          June 4th 2013 @ 10:41am
          HardcorePrawn said | June 4th 2013 @ 10:41am | ! Report

          Sunderland? A smaller club…? Smaller than whom exactly?

          We had the 7th largest attendance in England last season. with our average attendance just a few hundred less than Chelsea’s (who were ranked 6th).
          We got bigger crowds than Everton, Villa, Tottenham, and that’s in a season where we finished just above the drop zone.

          Just because we’re not mentioned in the headlines as often as Man Utd, Arsenal and the rest does not make us a smaller club, we’re actually one of the biggest in the UK, with our near neighbours Newcastle even bigger still, with better crowds than Liverpool, Man City, and oh yes, Chelsea.

          • Columnist

            June 4th 2013 @ 12:15pm
            Geoff Lemon said | June 4th 2013 @ 12:15pm | ! Report

            I’m not talking about literal crowd size, more in terms of achievements, and the ability to compete at the top level. It is often lamented that only a handful of the top-flight clubs have any real hope of winning it.

            • June 4th 2013 @ 12:31pm
              AGO74 said | June 4th 2013 @ 12:31pm | ! Report

              And that handful of clubs contending is getting smaller and smaller. As recently as less than 10 years ago, you had big clubs like Arsenal, Valencia, Sevilla, Roma and many more contending for titles across Europe but even now they’ve been cut adrift.

              And as much as we all admire the Bundesliga at the moment, the reality is the last few seasons have been completely dominated by two clubs compared to seasons in early to mid 2000’s with the likes of Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Bremen etc all contending – and winning.

              The A-League by comparison is so much more enjoyable in terms of its sheer unpredictability.

            • Roar Guru

              June 4th 2013 @ 12:44pm
              HardcorePrawn said | June 4th 2013 @ 12:44pm | ! Report

              So what you meant to say was ‘less successful clubs’, and not ‘smaller clubs’.
              Or maybe the correct terminology would be ‘clubs not propped up financially by billionaire oligarchs’

              • Columnist

                June 4th 2013 @ 4:57pm
                Geoff Lemon said | June 4th 2013 @ 4:57pm | ! Report

                That would also be fair.

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