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Chelsea at the crossroads of modern football, or just a repeat of the 1970s?

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Reflecting on Chelsea’s struggles this season and their potentially (very) wide-ranging repercussions.

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Chelsea v Burnley - Premier League Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Several days on from Sunday’s embarrassment and all I have is an increasing sense of bewilderment. Where to start in terms of identifying what was wrong. The line-up and tactics? The lack of imagination? The lack of energy of most of the team? The ineptitude? The continued lack of visible on-pitch leadership? The ludicrously late substitutions? Hazard’s clear and entirely understandable disillusionment? Conte’s shoulder-shrugging interviews?

It is necessary to put things in context. Chelsea are still in Europe, still in the FA Cup and with a chance of Champions League football next season. The season may yet turn around. But the clear acceptance by the manager that Manchester City are so much better than us, that we had to set up just to contain, to stop rather than to confront and to challenge surely marks a watershed moment, a clear decline from our last visit just fifteen months ago. No shots on target, only feeble counter-attacks, our best player acting as an unwilling target-man to hoofed clearances.

Chelsea were dining at the very top table of European football six years ago. We are now in danger of being allocated the table near the toilets and the service lift, craning our necks round a pillar to look at the contenders, the big boys, whilst hoping for a crumb or two off their table. Even domestically we seem to be heading for Nando’s rather than Quaglino’s. This somehow seems more serious, more structural, than the 2015-16 collapse under Mourinho.

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Eventually if very good managers — Mourinho (twice), Ancelotti, Conte — get briefed against, marginalised and, ultimately, kicked out then surely the club have to ask themselves, ‘is it them, or is it us?’. I am not sure how big a part introspection and self-analysis play in the very upper echelons of the club, but maybe this time they should. The Abramovich cheerleaders rightly list all he has done for the club, and they are absolutely right, he has taken us to undreamed-of levels. A Champions League, a Europa League, five Premier League titles, myriad domestic cups. What is clear, though, is that we have declined against the best in Europe in recent seasons, and my concern is that, if money is invested in the stadium rather than the team, then this decline will only continue.

If Chelsea fail to qualify for the Champions League, as seems entirely possible, there is a clear and real danger that the top managers and top players will not want to come here next season, even if we wanted to pay the money to get them. Our very best players (Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante) must watch what is going on with bemusement. Our team is not good enough. If we want to compete with the best, we need to buy the best. Recent purchases suggest this is no longer the case. The manager’s public pronouncements have hardly helped his case, and I fear he will be gone by the summer, but he can entirely legitimately argue he has not been backed with top-quality signings since the arrival of Kante.

Football supremacy in England tends to be cyclical. Ask Liverpool supporters, Arsenal supporters, Tottenham supporters whether, deep down, they would have thought they would go 28, 14 and 57 years, respectively without a league title. United didn’t win it for 25 years, City for 43 years, Everton not for over 30 years. Even fifteen years ago it would even have occurred to any of them that Chelsea could be the only team in London with a European Cup.

History shows that nobody stays at the top of English football for a decade. That will happen to City. Either they will implode or another club, or clubs, will respond with sufficient ambition, talent and money to (quoting a well-known Scotsman) ‘knock them off their ******* perch’. My fear is that Chelsea will be so off the pace team-wise, and on-pitch ambition-wise, that we will not be in a position to exploit any decline.

Cricket At Chelsea Ground Photo by Bob Martin/Getty Images

There are some unavoidable parallels here to the early 1970s. Then, the Chelsea board, on the back of FA Cup and ECWC success, had grandiose plans about an all-seater 60,000 capacity stadium, the best in Europe. Despite a clear and well-publicised pledge by chairman Brian Mears in Summer 1972 that manager Dave Sexton would have all the money he needed to buy new players, the tap was quickly turned off as money was pumped into the first stage, the East Stand. It was never publicly made clear exactly how the new stadium would be paid for or filled. Fine words about bring in families and the middle-classes were, just that. Words.

Sexton’s solution to a lack of width in 1972, rather than buying a winger, was to move his most skilful midfield player, Alan Hudson, to the wing, losing his ability to direct play, to make the game-changing pass. This switch was a root cause of Hudson’s disaffection, disruption and, ultimately, departure. That other great talent of the time, Peter Osgood, found himself in midfield and even on one occasion centre-half due to a lack of alternatives. Sound familiar? Surely you adapt a system to your best players, rather than compromise the limited special talents you have at your disposal.

Brian Mears gets a lot of flak for the problems that overwhelmed Chelsea in the 1970s while he was chairman, but nobody could doubt his love of the club. A mistake the board arguably made was to focus all the club’s energy and money on the ground redevelopment while the team was in severe need of refreshing and rebuilding. What happened next was a chastening and spectacular decline and fall, on and off the pitch. The new East Stand, delayed for reasons largely outside the board’s control, almost bankrupted the club, the rest of the proposed redevelopment never happened, the team declined, the best players were sold, Sexton was sacked, and relegation was, in the end, inevitable.

Nobody is going to claim Chelsea could be relegated or almost go bankrupt these days, but failure is a relative concept. How many weekend trippers, selfie-stick wavers and half-and-half wearers would be attracted to a team not competing for the League title or the Champions League later stages is an interesting question, but scrabbling after European qualification in an unwelcoming temporary stadium would be a tough sell.

I sense that a fair number of match-going supporters are less enthusiastic about the new stadium than when the concept was first launched. The delay in moving away, the dismal prospect of four years away, the feeling that the glory days may (at least temporarily) be coming to an end are all factors. Chelsea seem to be at a crossroads. Do we pursue the stadium at the risk of a prolonged period of relative on-pitch failure, or pursue a less ambitious stadium project whilst pumping funds into the team? Tough call.

Supporters have no divine right to expect the owner to invest significant money into the team whilst pumping huge amounts into the redevelopment. The problem is, if he doesn’t do the former, the latter may not be necessary. Nobody wants to see Stamford Bridge like those luxury flats between Clapham Junction and Vauxhall. Very attractive to look at but nowhere near full.

Me? The team should come first. I realise that the redevelopment will almost certainly happen as proposed but personally, now seems a good time for the senior hierarchy to draw breath, assess short, medium and long-term priorities and act accordingly. If that means scaling down the redevelopment in terms of scale and cost such that the capacity becomes 48-52,000 then so be it. In six years’ time we will need a very strong team indeed to attract 19,000 new punters. A number of supporters, including me, clearly think that selling 60,000 tickets for the less attractive games in a redeveloped Stamford Bridge will be nigh on possible regardless of how good the team is, but of course supporters are not the people who make the decisions. This is without taking into account the support we may permanently lose in our four years in the wilderness, stadium-wise, especially if the team is struggling, in relative terms, while we are away.

Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Chelsea supporters cannot moan about others having more money in 2018, as Chelsea revolutionised the English game with the Abramovich millions. Aha, I hear you say, that is why the club are redeveloping the ground, to get our capacity up with the Tottenhams and the Arsenals and above that of City and Liverpool, to commensurately improve our matchday revenue. That analysis is entirely legitimate when matchday income was a club’s primary source of revenue. Less so these days, when it is dwarfed by TV money and commercial income.

The torrent of television money may be in danger of stagnating or slightly reducing domestically but is still far higher than two deals ago. Overseas TV rights go for ever increasing sums. Commercially, global expansion means opportunities for world-wide exploitation of sponsorships and commercial partnerships. The explosion of these income streams has reduced the importance of match-day revenue. With regards to the redevelopment, very simply put, say 25 games with 19,000 extra people means a maximum 475,000 extra punters in Stamford Bridge a season. If they pay say £120 (and most of the extra seats are aimed at the corporate market so this may not be a totally unrealistic price) then that is an extra £57 million in revenue a season, against a total stadium redevelopment cost of (to quote one popular figure) £1 billion.

The payback on the new stadium is therefore not going to be quick and this presupposes, of course, that the games sell out, that the team is sufficiently attractive to pull in well-heeled floaters, people interested in watching the club but without the emotional commitment to turn out every week regardless of results. And what will bring in these tourists, these glory seekers? A successful team. And how do you create and maintain a successful team in the modern era? You invest in it. Which is where we came in.

Enjoy your meal…


Tim Rolls is ex-chair of Chelsea Supporters Trust. His first book, ‘Diamonds, Dynamos and Devils’ about Tommy Docherty’s 1961-67 reign as Chelsea manager, is available from Amazon, or from the cfcuk stall before home games. He is in the early stages of researching a book on Chelsea in the early 1970s.