BLUE EXPECTATIONS FOR THE COMING SEASON
The continuing failure of Chelsea Village to make a profit, the spending freeze caused by the club’s financial difficulties and the possible sale of star players to raise cash have put a massive dent in Blues fans’ hopes for the coming season. Mark Wheeler tries to find a bright side.
In somewhat of a break from recent seasons, expectations are not at all high among Chelsea supporters right now. Money has been spent as freely as water in the run-up to the past few seasons at Stamford Bridge — although for every Zola there has been a Bogarde. But this pre-season it seems that the Chelsea Village well has run as dry as the Sahara.
Consequently, hopes are now similar to those experienced by Blues fans in the 1980s. Returning to the top-flight under John Neal, the supporters expected Chelsea to hold their own and ruffle a few feathers. Two sixth-placed finishes followed. Now aspirations are of finishing high enough to qualify for Europe — a similar league position. With expertly timed irony, the club recently announced the appointment of Ian McNeil, deputy to John Neal in the 80s, as Claudio Ranieri’s number-two.
So why the sudden drop in hopes after having aimed at Champions League qualification in the past few seasons? The limited summertime transfer activity goes a long way to explaining it, but the deeper reason for the lack of spending is an even greater concern. When Ranieri announced that “Chelsea cannot afford to spend a penny” it was a bombshell to many fans. But with the payment deadline on a multi-million pound loan looming on the horizon, no repeat of the sole lucrative Champions League appearance and the ongoing failure of Chelsea Village to turn in a profit, others claim to have seen it coming a mile away. But all Blues supporters share the worry that the bubble has burst.
The more optimistic ones may attempt to find a few positives in the current situation, especially after Slavisa Jokanovic’s contract was allowed to expire. A bit more judicious trimming of the deadwood in the squad (Mario Stanic, Winston Bogarde), having younger players who are hungry for success breaking into the first team (Carlton Cole, Joe Keenan) and the benefit of a settled squad all offer hope to those with rose-tinted glasses. But when talk turns to selling our top marksman to raise cash, the bright specs are sent flying.
The rumour that Chelsea would listen to offers for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and the interest soon expressed by Barcelona, condemned fans to gnawing on fingernails until they see him in a Chelsea shirt again. Hasselbaink’s importance to the team cannot be understated. Neither can you put a price on the guarantee he carries for 20+ goals a season. A significant sweetener, in the form of Patrick Kluivert plus £6-10 million, could appease many. But if Hasselbaink is allowed to leave for anything less than that, Stamford Bridge will be a very angry place come the first home game of the season. That happens to be live on television, against Manchester United. Delia Smith would surely call it a recipe for disaster.
Eidur Gudjohnsen — the other half of the country’s best Premiership strike force last season — was another star up for sale, or so the press told us. Stories like that get you worried about who could be leaving when you should be getting excited about who is likely to join. Sam Dalla Bona is the only player to have been sold so far, at the time of writing. AC Milan bought the Italian midfielder for around £1 million. He came to Chelsea as a seventeen-year-old and worked his way through the youth team and reserves to earn a crack at the first team. While he impressed at the Bridge, Dalla Bona was rarely more than lightweight away from home. His departure has been on the cards for a year, so it is unlikely to upset the squad.
Enrique de Lucas is the only acquisition this summer — not an immediately familiar name for most Blues fans. The Spaniard arrived before the spending freeze became apparent, but was signed on a ‘Bosman’ free transfer. Judgement will have to be reserved until we have had a chance to see him play, but given the mixed success of Ranieri’s signings so far, confidence is not high.
The supporters’ confidence in the manager himself has grown from none to medium in Ranieri’s two years at Chelsea. Having two hugely popular direct predecessors was never going to be easy though. However, the fans chanted Ranieri’s name for the first time last season — at Liverpool, before conceding a late winner. But Ranieri was never going to emerge from the shadows of Gullit and Vialli overnight. This will be his third season and it should reveal whether or not he is up to the job — a topic of much conversation among the fans. If results fail to impress though, Ken Bates is not one to loiter when typing up a P45.
The chairman himself is another divider of fan opinion. Bates is revered by many for saving the club and developing Chelsea Village. However, others are angered by non-football activities costing the club dear. The village is supposed to generate income to pump into the football club, but it is yet to produce a penny of profit. For his detractors, Bates Motel has become Bates Folly. You would have thought that the chairman would be keen not to upset the fans further then, especially on the back of the transfer kitty disappearing. But what does Bates do? He sacks Chelsea legend Peter Osgood from his corporate hospitality job at the club and a “clash of personalities” is cited as the reason. Ken’s copy of ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ remains unread.
While Bates excels at offending, he will not last forever. Supporters are the one constant in football. For those in SW6 to regard the coming season as a success will ultimately depend on qualifying for Europe. Another foray into the Champions League is the ultimate hope. Most fans would sell their right arm for a repeat of the 3-1 victory over Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. But a place in the UEFA Cup is a more realistic target. Anything less will not to be tolerated in the footballing quarter of Chelsea Village.