More than anything else, Sunday afternoon at Stamford Bridge was sad. It was sad because it’s just not pleasant to see one human jeered so mercilessly. Rafa Benitez displayed more dignity than might reasonably have been expected, but when he switched out the light on Sunday night, he must have lay there for a while under his ‘Shankly Gates’ bedcovers and wondered what on earth he’d let himself in for.
But it was sad too because you knew that this toxic spill of rage and derision was the only option left available to the Chelsea fans. What else were they going to do? Call for Roman Abramovich’s head? Regardless of the small profit they turned recently, the one for the period just before that latest FFP-defying spending splurge, without the Russian they would disintegrate. It’s not their club, it’s his toy. They’re just permitted to come round and watch him play with it.
The supporters don’t want to be ‘won over’. They hate Benitez with such intensity that only installing the Ferdinand brothers as joint-managers could have been a less popular move. One Chelsea fan told me recently that she wouldn’t even cheer for the Spaniard if they beat Manchester City 9-0 and Fernando Torres scored all of them. So just imagine what she made of that grim goalless draw.
And yet, you can already see Benitez’s hand at work, primarily because his deeper, tighter team secured their first domestic clean sheet since September 22nd. You can see how he’s made sure that David Luiz’s surges across the halfway line are now covered by defensive midfielders under orders to actually defend. With a team packed with talent and generously funded, his tactical tweaks could turn Chelsea from entertaining, but vulnerable cavaliers into sleek, effective roundheads, not unlike the Mourinho title-winning sides. But it won’t happen while 40,000 supporters are screaming for him to do one.
You can moan about the fans or you can make the very reasonable point that Benitez should have known better, but ultimately there’s only one man to blame. For nine years, Abramovich has been running this club like a teenage boy; impulsively, recklessly, and without the experience to recognise when he’s being a complete moron.
There are some Chelsea fans who insist that his policy of sacking everyone who fails to win the league is vindicated by all that gleams in the trophy cabinet, but frankly, that’s nonsense. With almost limitless resources, they’ve won three league titles, but only one of them has arrived since Mourinho left in 2007. They won the Champions League, but let’s be honest, it was by virtue of extraordinary human effort more than it was Abramovich’s policies. Yes, Chelsea have won a lot of FA Cups, but when you’ve spunked famine-ending sums of money on world class footballers for the better part of a decade, you shouldn’t be crowing about a trophy you and your rivals regularly compete for with weakened sides. They should have won much, much more, but under Abramovich’s feckless and whimsical leadership, they have squandered a chance to build an empire.
Chelsea fans are regularly taunted for their club’s lack of history, but it’s a facile and baseless sneer. They have history, all right. Many of the supporters who booed Benitez on Sunday were the same who have followed their team out of the top flight and back again three times since the 1970s. The same who fought the suggestion of electrified fences under the Ken Bates regime. The same who were seduced by Bates’ spending in the 1990s and were almost left without a club in 2003 when it all caught up with him.
Yes, Abramovich was the man who saved them, but does that mean that they must be consigned to his unhinged, unreasonable and emotionally disconnected idiocy? You can blame the fans all you like, but imagine if your manager was suddenly replaced by a man who had repeatedly denigrated you, your club and your players. How would you react? Those supporters deserve better than that. So does Benitez, an experienced, successful man who, outside of past gamesmanship, is guilty only of saying ‘yes’ to a job that could revive his career.
Benitez and Chelsea are doomed. They’re a mutually-damaging, two-way pity fling, contrived after cheap white wine and a bad office party. Because of Abramovich’s foolishness, both parties now find themselves here, ruefully staring at each other over the top of the duvet and wondering how on earth they’re going to get out and catch the night bus home without the other person noticing. Now that is sad.
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