The indefatigable singing of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea…” is an iconic part of the tapestry that encapsulates our football club. Stories of entire halves being played under a cacophony of Chelsea chants are commonplace. Chelsea’s away following, in particular, would leave an indelible mark on opposition fans with this incessant wall of noise. It is the rallying cry after we concede and a way to encourage the team when they appear to be fading. In those rare moments Stamford Bridge unites as one, it is a spine-tingling crescendo of visceral sound. This chant captures the essence of what it is to be Chelsea: simple things are often the most powerful. With arguably the most difficult fixture of the run in handled in such an authoritative manner, have Chelsea turned a corner in their pursuit of a post-Old Guard identity?
When I think of Chelsea as a tangible quality (Chelseaness) it often manifests itself in certain matches. I think back to John Terry’s header against Barcelona (ably assisted by Ricardo Carvalho); Blackburn away and arguably the birth of the new Chelsea; Wayne Bridge at Highbury; that mad 4-4 draw with Liverpool in the Champions League; Frank Lampard at the Reebok; Napoli at home; Ramires chipping Valdes and of course Munich. I see teams with heart, passion, desire and ability. I see teams nobody in Europe liked playing: teams with character and an unparalleled will to win. We are not perfect (okay we totally are), but we do invariably turn up when it matters.
Whatever your opinion of the man, it is hard to overlook José Mourinho’s role in developing the personality of this club. Mourinho 1.0 forged a winning mentality that extended well beyond his first tenure. Terry, in particular, often spoke about feeling as if Chelsea would never lose a game during those early Mourinho years. For some players Chelseaness came naturally. For others it seemed to be something they learned and it stayed with them beyond their time here. Even pre-Abramovich we enjoyed a fantastic relationship with ex-players, affection that went well beyond the normal association one might have for a club.
This mentality inculcated by Mourinho built upon an already established ethos. From my childhood players like Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Dan Petrescu et al. completely bought into The King’s Road culture, carrying a love for Chelsea that exists to this day. The Mourinho core that would eventually form the Old Guard became the standard-bearers of this culture, taking it to new heights as the club fostered a winning mentality. Mourinho 1.0 was undoubtedly a tour-de-force; a whirlwind of tactics, man management and calculated gambits. Mourinho 2.0, the post-Madrid version, was a far cry from the charismatic and brilliant manager we saw at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. Thankfully we saw the best of him at the right time.
Perhaps the last true manifestation of Chelseaness was seen under Roberto Di Matteo. After André Villas-Boas’s calamity riddled reign, we witnessed a string of otherworldly performances resulting in the greatest prize on Earth being won. In all the times we could (or should) have won the Champions League, the side that eventually did were certainly not as talented as those before. We won the European Cup through sheer force of will in Bayern’s own backyard – I cannot think of anything more definitively Chelsea than that. That sort of mental fortitude does not grow on trees.
I have always been fearful of life after John Terry. Not so much for his playing capabilities (although in his 2014/15 renaissance he was exceptional), but for what he represents. He is that constant and comforting link to the past; the embodiment of Chelseaness. Callum West put it best in his incredible piece for the Daily Mail:
“[…] these nights and these moments all pale into insignificance compared to the most important thing about him: John Terry is Chelsea. He lives and breathes the club and he understands the fans, he represents us on the pitch and the last 22 years have been an absolute privilege”.
There was always a sickening feeling that once he departed, this squad would become a bit Manchester City (ish): a great collection of players without any substance. Terry is the last of the standard-bearers — in fact, he is probably the standard-bearer.
After Mourinho departed in 2007 many felt the world would crumble with Avram Grant “in charge”. As anecdotal stories go, the players had so much about them they effectively managed themselves to within the width of a post of a European Cup. This current crop of players saw the back of Mourinho and finished 10th in the most disappointing season of recent memory. In that respect the performance against Tottenham took on an entirely new dimension.
Although the significance of Chelsea’s win against Tottenham should be quite obvious anyway:
- It’s Tottenham;
- It was Wembley and an FA Cup Semi-final;
- It’s Tottenham.
Aside from the euphoria that a big victory like this generates, there were more substantial things happening in the background. Tottenham were immensely confident, the form side in the country and were largely being heralded as the best team in England. In the face of this pre-match narrative, a side without any of the Mourinho 1.0 core stood up and delivered a Chelsea performance in a game of seismic proportions. At times this season that has looked difficult to envisage.
We have an emerging core of players who have seemingly absorbed that intangible Chelsea quality. Seeing Eden Hazard come on and grab the game by the scruff of the neck as was required is exactly what the Belgian needs to do. He is driving Chelsea towards this league title, along with the likes of Thibaut Courtois, César Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, N’Golo Kanté and Pedro.
Hugo Lloris perhaps said it best after the game: “Chelsea […] are used to winning trophies. It’s a winning team. Maybe they have more experience than us”. Yet, this was not a Chelsea team filled with the likes of Petr Čech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba; it was a newly emerging beast. Despite the obvious difference in personnel, Lloris (and arguably Tottenham) saw Chelsea as that “winning team” with “more experience”. I see this as a cultural difference between the two sides and something that Antonio Conte should be applauded for creating. He has not brought back the “old Chelsea” spirit, but forged his own path in just 9 months. For all the praise heaped upon Pochettino, after three years at the helm, Tottenham are a disaster in Europe and do struggle when the lights are brightest. Where will Chelsea be in three years under Conte?
The wider footballing public has become obsessed with this notion of “good football”. Any side not playing a derivative of tiki-taka is undeserving of success. Anything less than measured build-up with plenty of triangles and made up Spanish words for normal footballing terms is to be mocked. This is where Chelsea have always stood apart. Capable of playing in virtually any way a particular fixture demands and winning is the hallmark of Chelseaness. Conte has taken this as a central tenet of his re-engineering of Chelsea this season. Good football is winning football.
Now we enter a season defining stretch of games. A win at Everton on Sunday was absolutely vital and given previous visits there quite unexpected. Everton are without question a bogey side for Chelsea. With 65 minutes on the clock and the usual social media experts bemoaning the lack of fifteen substitutes and twelve formation changes, Pedro struck. As Gary Cahill said afterwards, “sometimes in these matches you need a little bit of quality”. On the back of wins against Tottenham and Southampton, it was huge. Conte showed patience and faith in his starting XI: we were never going to drop points after the goal. The wonderful image of Pedro celebrating with a fan lingers long in the memory.
The strength of schedule favours us, but counting victories on paper rarely works out as intended. Jake Cohen’s Magic Number™ (all rights reserved Jake Cohen Inc.) is down to nine points. With us having home games against Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland, you would hope this is enough to see us over the line. If Conte’s Chelsea are turning into the team I think they are, they will find a way to get there.