Perils of Pragmatism
Chelsea won the League Cup a few weeks ago and are, at the time of writing, sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League table with a comfortable points cushion over their nearest rivals, Manchester City. Since being taken over by Roman Abramovich in 2003, the club have been winning silverware at an astonishingly consistent average of one per year, excluding two Community Shields. By any account – on the field, at least – it’s a great time to be a Chelsea supporter. So why does it feel so numb?
Abramovich’s arrival in English football heralded a new era at the top level of the game. Out went the old-school, diamond geezer chairmen exemplified by the likes of Ken Bates, replaced by reclusive billionaires, Emirati sheiks and Qatari investment groups injecting huge sums of money into clubs to secure the biggest marquee signings and an express route to global sporting domination.
The effects have not been limited to those with a solely financial interest in their clubs. As a fan, one who arrived at Chelsea in awe of the majestic skills of the great Gianfranco Zola, it has been interesting to note the subtle shifts in how supporters are interacting with the sport in an era when clubs and players are increasingly seen as assets and status symbols.
In 2003, few supporters had any idea of how financially imperilled Chelsea was at the point of Abramovich’s takeover; in fact, the situation had terrifying echoes of when Ken Bates bought the club for £1 in 1982 to save it from going under. Nowadays, though, Blues fans take great pride in their knowledge of the club’s finances. One only need visit the popular Chelsea fansite, We Ain’t Got No History, to read Jake Cohen’s excellent breakdowns of the Financial Fair Play implications of every one of Chelsea’s incursions into the transfer market. It’s an outlook that meant the anger stirred up the departures of such popular figures as Juan Mata and David Luiz could be justified and allayed by a consensus that the club had negotiated an excellent price for both players.
It would be ridiculous to deny that a club’s success, whether that means a well-stocked trophy cabinet or the avoidance of relegation, has always been of primary concern to most supporters. Yet fans seem increasingly ready to accept a more pragmatic viewpoint that entertaining football is an acceptable sacrifice to ensure financial stability and a steady supply of trophies, or the sale of beloved players as long as the club receives a good return on its initial investment.
True, even before Mourinho, the football at Stamford Bridge was not always the most thrilling and our inability to bring through youngsters from the academy to the first team is hardly a recent development. The difference is that, in the days when trophies were an unexpected treat rather than a mandatory requirement, supporting your club meant forming an emotional rather than an intellectual attachment. It was about a club which could combine the ankle-biting primitivism of Dennis Wise alongside the cultured grace of a Zola or a Gullit. It was a shared frustration at never being able to win at Arsenal or, for some reason, Coventry and Middlesbrough. Those notoriously intangible elements that gave a club its spirit and its soul, unrelated to trophies or balance sheets.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that this attitude seems to have been nurtured by those at the top of the game as a means of justifying their exploitation of fans’ unwavering devotion. To adopt this new pragmatic mentality as a supporter means accepting ticket prices vastly higher than those of even the most prestigious foreign clubs, with no promise of your team even attempting to offer entertaining football in exchange for that £55 outlay. It means shelling out for new kits every season and accepting ridiculous kick-off times to maximise clubs’ television revenue, at a time when the game has more money flowing through it than ever before, and fans have significantly less. Chelsea, to their great credit, are the only club in the Premier League to have committed to paying all their staff the London living wage.
It was interesting to read an article in the Telegraph last year which suggested the effect of the Premier League’s riches on supporters of Championship clubs has been quite the opposite to that which might have been expected. Far from seeing the top flight as a promised land, the article argues that for many, the thrill of promotion is dampened by having to go from being a successful lower-league club to one that endures a depressing weekly fight for survival with the very likely prospect of being immediately dumped back from whence they came. That’s to say nothing of clubs who invest massively in a bid for promotion, only to fail miserably and end up in serious danger of bankruptcy. The cost of success, it would seem, is not exclusively the concern of the rich.
Of Chelsea’s many successes in the Abramovich era, the ones I remember most vividly are those whose stories were rooted in the club’s rich history: in 2004-05, our first top flight league win in 50 years. Our 2010-11 FA Cup and Champions League victories, masterminded through a spate of injuries and suspensions by returning club legend Roberto Di Matteo, with the added sweetener of snatching away Tottenham’s place at Europe’s top table. If Chelsea win the league this season, I’ll celebrate it as passionately as anyone. It is just a shame that part of me will probably be wondering whether that celebration is still in support of a club, or a commodity.