When all this started for me it was Leeds. The devil, incarnate in eleven all white outfits. Then, for a while, it wasn’t really anybody. Or rather it was everyone and it was no one. It became Liverpool in the eighties and more recently it was Man United. Now it is Chelsea. Of all of them Chelsea have come closest to closing the circle, the nearest thing to my childhood bêtes noires. There was something so hateful about Revie and the way his unquestionably gifted players went about their business which hasn’t applied to the others. The sacrifice of huge talent at the alter of thuggish pragmatism now fully reborn in the Church of Mourinho. Of course Chelsea aren’t so systematically brutal, even they couldn’t get away with the kind of violence which ruined British football in the early seventies and for which so many graceless inarticulate pundits still pine to this day. But the principle is the same.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am well aware that on occasions all teams need to revert to a pragmatic game plan. A bad run of results sees you slip down the table and Aston Villa look like claiming fourth at your expense? You have to start defending a bit deeper and squeezing out draws just to build a platform and to stabilise the ship. The opposition song on any given day is pitch perfect and envelopes you in a perfect storm of attacking football? You need to hang on in there and maybe win the cup on penalties. It can happen to any team, the best managers and players adapt.
What has come out of Stamford Bridge, that benighted billionaire’s plaything, has nothing to do with adapting to necessity. This is a deliberate plan. This represents the limits of a man’s imagination, the ultimate expression of his art. What is excusable in Stoke On Trent is not in Fulham. I’m not talking about leg breaking tackles such as that successfully executed by Shawcross and so nearly managed by Cahill on Sanchez – that of course is never acceptable, never excusable. I’m talking about choice. Chelsea have a choice as to how they go about the business of trying to garner as many points as possible in a game which is, lest we forget, entirely a part of the entertainment industry.
If you are managing an unfashionable, relatively under resourced provincial club then perhaps you might feel the need to play lowest common denominator football. Anything to stay afloat in the big pond. If on the other hand you step into the hot seat at a club which moments before extinction has been salvaged by an obscenely wealthy man who then showers you in riches allowing you to buy any player you fancy at any price and others you don’t need but you buy simply to weaken your opposition, then you have no excuse. None. Set out to draw and hope to nick a win. It’s pitiful.
Back in the nineties I used to send my Sunday league boys out to play like that in the lowest reaches of division three of the Mid-Somerset League. It was because the novelty of losing thirteen one every week had begun to wear a bit thin. We drank and sang long into the night on the occasion of our first nil nil draw. The critical difference between myself, Perry, Pete The Greek, Squid and the rest of our gallant lads and men like Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and their mates is that we were absolutely useless. Exhausted by the time we’d finished putting the nets up and often still stoned from the night before. If we’d been any good we would have tried to play and we only attracted crowds of between three and four.
So this Chelsea team looks like winning the title. They will have deserved it by dint of getting more points than anyone else but that is literally all you will be able to say about their achievement. History will not remember them fondly. Once their benefactor leaves they will return to the obscurity from whence they were plucked. Arsenal under Arsène Wenger, regardless of whether he ever wins another trophy, will occupy a place with the greats. You think of Brazil, of the great Dutch sides from the early seventies, Clough’s Forest, Ajax Amasterdam, Bristol Rovers third division title winning team of 1989–90 or whoever your favourite footballing side may be and Arsènes Arsenal will sit comfortably up there alongside them. And boy that must smart. That must be like a splinter on Mourinho’s office chair. To have everything and yet to have nothing. A shining new bell, empty and silent. A Christmas cracker made from golden thread with no toy inside. A loud, classless boast, boorish and distasteful.
So what can we expect this afternoon? It’s a well rehearsed show isn’t it, the Arsène and Jose show? We come out all guns blazing and attempt to bamboozle them with tricksy fast free flowing footy, they soak it up and hope to get a lucky break away goal. This may not happen today. Football is not a finely calibrated machine it is as much a game of chance as anything else. Too many variables, too many human beings with their frailties and their sudden unexpected strengths. Last season we took a thumping from them when they came at us in a most un-Chelsea like way. Weird shit can happen.
So often though these games come down to whether our early attacks bear fruit or not. If we knock too long at the door without scoring the crowd begin to suspect the usual Mourinho smash and grab and the whole stadium becomes unsettled, the football a little strained. If we get our reward for the early adventure then maybe we’ll see a different script written today. It’s certainly the game I want most to win now that the Old Trafford hoo doo has been laid to rest. More than that I want us to finish as high up the table as possible and we still have to go back to Greater Manchester and repeat the feat achieved in the quarter final. This season is far from over and there is far more than bragging rights at stake today. In any case I don’t have a social life nor a job so I don’t have anyone to brag to, and let’s be honest boasting and bragging in victory are as ungracious as whining in defeat.
It’ll be interesting to see if Arsène continues with his new formation, narrower, more compact without a recognised wide man on the right, whether our flying Spaniard returns at right back or if Debuchy has now reclaimed his place. The only other consideration is Per and his ankle. Many people are sanguine about the potential loss of our lanky number four, a reflection of their confidence in Gabriel rather than any animosity to the German. I’m not so sure. His partnership with Koscielny, his calm and experienced reading of the game are vital components for me and if not able to play today I certainly hope he returns for the remainder of our fixtures.
Like a turd in clean bedsheets today’s visitors will be the least welcome stain on our otherwise perfect pitch, a most odious collection, ambassadors for an ill bred, ugly club. However hard it will be to enjoy watching Arsène having to stand so close to such an odious object as Mourinho I hope you can take some pleasure from the match, whatever its outcome. Regardless of the result I just hope we are allowed to play and that the referee protects us from the worst of their violence and cheating. Let’s just get this job out of the way, pull the flush and try to enjoy the rest of our season.