It is in our nature to overreact to setbacks. When Chelsea play badly I drink gin and throw satsumas at my television. I curse and swear and say ludicrously horrible things that make me relieved that my mother lives hundreds of miles away and my fiancee is understanding. And then I write, and for some reason that generally calms me down. Chelsea have just lost in fairly embarrassing fashion, so I offer my perspective on our bad moment, bad month(s), bad season, whatever.
I've been a Chelsea fan since I first learned to kick a football, which was on a grass common area in Milton Keynes back in 1990ish when I was very very young. I don't remember much about the team until a little later on, but names like John Spencer, Gavin Peacock, Steve Clarke... I remember them all fondly, if not particularly lucidly. I never expected greatness from the club, never expected anything more than mediocrity. Where was I when we were sh*t? I was having fun watching my team play, learning to enjoy wins and handle losses as best my little self could.
And now we're good, and the vast majority of our fans expect to win all the time every time. For good reason, too - the squad as assembled is generally of far higher quality than the opposition. So we are relieved when we win, annoyed when we draw, and distraught when we lose. This is life at the top of the table, and we're rewarded for the game being intrinsically more stressful by a nice haul of trophies and some generally brilliant play. Imagine this goal (against Bolton last year) being scored by pre-Zola Chelsea:
That is our reward for sitting on the edge of our seats demanding a win. The three Premier League trophies in less than a decade, multiple Champions League semi-finals, a ridiculous FA Cup run, every single amazing thing you've seen a Chelsea player do (and goodness there have been a lot of them), all come at the cost of our expectations being stratospherically high.
Unfortunately, those expectations take a while to adjust.
It would be silly to say Chelsea started their rebuild a year too late. They won the Premier League and FA Cup last season, playing great football in the process, and maximising wins from an aging squad is the whole point. To borrow from baseball parlance (my time in America leads me to do such things), we were in 'win-now' mode and it worked. Unfortunately, 2009/10 has become 2010/11, and this is a transitional season between the Chelsea old guard and the next generation. We were probably the best team on paper, but there were vulnerabilities - places where it was easier for everything to go wrong than before.
And it has and did go wrong for us. There's no denying that the season to date has been an unmitigated disaster. Chelsea are out of the title race, FA Cup, and League Cup, and don't look like they have the gumption to progress particularly far in Europe, either. More alarmingly, they're out of the Champions League places in mid-February, which would be a financial disaster for a team reliant on television income from that tournament to help cover their staggering year to year losses.
Our players are struggling - I hesitate to say they they no longer care*, but something is definitely wrong. Florent Malouda, brilliant at the beginning of the season, has turned into a pumpkin since rolling has ankle against Birmingham. Michael Essien hurt his toe, got suspended, and has been awful since. Frank Lampard's body has started to explode and he's no longer the offensive force we might expect. Didier Drogba hasn't really been right since the malaria incident. And they're all still playing almost all of the time.
*Actually, I'll say they do care. Chelsea's players have worked and bled for our benefit. Every single one of them is a professional player, and you don't get to be a professional player unless you care, deeply, about your football. Most of them have won us several trophies. They care, alright? It's lazy and insulting to say that they don't, just like it's lazy and insulting to call for the manager's head just because there's been a poor run of form. The likes of Essien and Drogba have done more for this team than almost anyone else in our history.
Football is a team game. When players are performing at a subpar level, they're going to make their teammates look much, much worse. Is Drogba's poor pass because Malouda's not running right? Was John Obi Mikel's embarrassing defending caused by Michael Essien failing to cover the correct man and forcing other midfielders to scramble? Enough players having a bad day means that the team as a whole will look awful.
And we've had enough players having a bad season to make a team look horrible. My feeling is that many of them are playing at less than 100% fitness, which I guess happens when you're a professional athlete, but the dropoff between Essien at 100% and Essien at 85(?)% is astonishing. Malouda playing without the ability to twist and wriggle his was through the defence is sort of like putting me out on left wing. And repeatedly dropping points does get to players.
Anyway, the point is that we're having a really, really bad year, and yet we're still expecting the team to go out and blow people off the pitch. Fans are raging after outplaying Everton at home and losing a penalty shootout. Yeah, this was a trophy that's been ours for some time now, and yes, it represented our last good chance of silverware in a season that's gone downhill rather fast since the end of October. But if there's one thing we don't need at the end of this season, it's being able to point to an FA Cup win and say that things are really kind of ok. They're not.
Chelsea must prioritise getting into fourth spot in the league. I like trophies as much as the next guy, but they're icing on the cake, the reward for a successful season. For the Blues, the only trophy that would be a success is the Champions League, and we must work out our squad's problems in the league before we can take a European challenge seriously. The FA Cup loss was annoying, but it does give us the ability to put a little more focus towards the team's needs rather than its wants. In order for Chelsea to retain their place as a legitimately big team, we must focus on the Premier League, we must get into fourth place.
But, you know, even if that doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world. All things come and go. I'm sure that Chelsea could rise again, but it'll take time and it will be painful. I take football more seriously than most, which makes the emotional peaks higher and corresponding valleys deeper, but for better or for worse we're still attached to the club, and the club has been in bad positions before.
I'd hope - I'd really hope - that we can do a better job recognising that the team deserves our support rather than trying to tear them down after this. This is still our club, even if we don't like certain decisions that have been made, and every single player has earned the right to our full support. Criticise away*, by all means, but do so with love and understanding. It's... somewhat depressing to see people forget what being a fan is all about. Entitlement is not a pretty thing, and not so long ago we'd have killed to 'only' be in fifth place in February. And considering the fact that we actually played pretty well today, the eruption of anger over Twitter seems very very odd. Are our ties to the team so flimsy, so vulnerable to the vagaries of fate?
*I personally would like to see the following players benched for a little while for various reasons: Drogba, Malouda, Essien, Lampard, and would also like a word with Ancelotti regarding playing the youth perhaps a little more.
Anyway. No matter what happens, even if we don't make the Champions League next year and have to 'settle' for the Europa spots, I'm proud to be a fan of the team. And I'm just as proud of everyone prepared to stick with the Blues through hell and high water. As they say, win or lose, up the Blues.