With rumours circulating about financial difficulties and the possible sale of star players such as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen, Martin Doubtfire attempts to make some sense of all the scare stories.
It is all very good, isn’t it? JFH to Barca, Eidur to anyone, Ken Bates… aaargh. Same old, same old, but we are Chelsea fans, are we not? Judging by what I have seen so far, most correspondence on these pages is not from the small boy in the latest kit sat next to CFC puffer jacketed mother and father, all clutching bulging megastore bags, smiling at each other when someone screams some such ‘Jokanovicism’ at players fifty yards away. It seems to all be from those who know their Joey from their Vinnie and their Graham from their Butch.
Which brings me to my point, or sort of. Back to the not-so-distant past when Bobby Campbell was king of promotion and Dave Webb the salvager of the latter’s work — anything prior to that was good times. I am 35 years old, so I am not talking about being at Old Trafford in 1970. I am talking about what is a pretty fair average age based on the contents of the pub and those who sit around me. By a stroke of luck or genius, Glenn Hoddle became manager. The side reached an FA Cup final and was trounced 4-0. Disgraceful? No way. A combination of David Elleray and the crossbar robbed us. We stood and applauded because we are fans and our team had done us proud.
A few Ruuds, Hugheses and Dans later we were watching arguably the best football seen at the bridge in many years and it was very much appreciated. However, we were not anything like an accomplished side. Gawd bless Furlong, Johnson and Myers, but that is still what made up the bulk of the team. Some players learnt from the new talent — look no further than the improvement of Wise. Some fell by the wayside — Duberry, Stein, Peacock — but we were all enjoying it. I distinctly remember Gullit playing a forty-yard overhead pass to Furlong’s feet. Furlong fell over it but I never noticed that — I was still in awe of the pass, as were the other 12,000 who had bothered to scatter around the stands.
Gullit comes and goes, then Vialli. Quite a few bob started to be spent and not just on the team, but on the surroundings too. We all joined orderly queues to be deprived of £30 for a computer-image photo of ourselves with our choice of silverware in the megastore. All this was four years ago. We all felt good and thought that we were going to win the league in the next few seasons, followed by the Champions League and the Grand National, as the saying goes.
The team was mainly foreign, but we fielded a complete starting eleven of World Cup-level internationals. We were watching Flo, Zola, Desailly, Wise, Le Saux, Poyet, Di Matteo and Ferrer. Gone were the days of three pure quality masters and their happy followers. This was a team of top-drawer players throughout and that season we came close to winning the league. Chelsea lost just three times and Ed de Goey broke the club record for clean sheets — even better than the legend that was Peter Bonetti.
We should have won the league, but didn’t. We were kept aside by two teams with years of experience competing in every top competition there was. We took Arsenal and Man Utd to the wire with just four years previous experience of competing at their level. Yet it was at a home game against Leicester when the rot set in. Chelsea were 2-0 up but the match finished 2-2. Unbelievably, the supporters started to echo the tabloids. Were Chelsea good enough?
In 1999/2000 we witnessed the assault on the Champions League. Chris Sutton was bought for £10 million and Didier Deschamps arrived fresh from lifting the World Cup. Things looked good. No one saw it, but Sutton went the way of Casiraghi and Fleck before him and despite a superb run in the Champions League, Chelsea faltered in the domestic version. The rot started to eat even further into those supporters.
At the start of 2000, complete with FA Cup and Charity Shield, despite all the trophies and the last five years of undoubted brilliance, on the opening day of the season I heard: “£15 million for a Leeds reject? All that he’ll do is upset everyone and leave. Eidur who? £5 million for some first division rubbish? Fancy letting West Ham get two goals against us while we only score four.” The rot was now complete. All it took was five years. Vialli went after a few away losses. Rani-who-wotsit came in and by now the once feared and famous Chelsea support has become a bunch of spoiled, moaning miseries. In fact, it is not even support any more as team selections are rubbished, tactical changes jeered and, embarrassingly, a player wearing the blue of Chelsea is booed. His crime? Not being good enough. I am only glad that some of you were never there more than five years ago.
Now, just four weeks away from the start of the 2002/03 season, here we all go again. “Why are we selling JFH? Why are the prices going up? What’s the point of having restaurants?” The point is clear — Chelsea have to balance the books. The club cannot spend £30 million on Rio Ferdinand — it cannot even spend 30 pence on Mark Stein. Chelsea invested money in a gamble to achieve top European status and Champions League residency. Sadly, it failed — live with it.
Chelsea have to start again and if that means selling their current top players to do so, then I say go for it. Seven years ago I sat on a wooden chair after using a corrugated iron sheet toilet because I had drank warms cans of Hofmiester in the West Stand, after paying what was then a lot of money to get in. Seven years later I sit on stadium seats in the shed upper after entertaining myself at one of the most modern and pleasant football stadia around. I still pay a lot of money to get in, but some things never change.
The point of all this is that we have had a very good time — remember it and milk it. Chelsea are our family. We might not agree with them all of the time, but we defend them to the hilt. We back the team, we back the manager, we sing throughout the game, we applaud, we ooh and we aah. We are supporters and most of date back to times when we had nothing to be happy about. The original 12,000 should infect our love of this club on the one person sitting directly to our left and right and have them do the same. That way the miserable disease that has infected our support would be eradicated.
Twelve-thousand real Chelsea fans used to be a sight and sound to behold. Thirty-six-thousand would put us back on top of the pile. If you want to sit and moan, then do it down the road at Fulham or QPR. Do not bring your sullen attitude to Stamford Bridge. You do have a right to moan, but do not do it in public. Back the team. Whoever is sold will be sold. We applaud and get behind their replacements, be they bought in or promoted from the youth set up. Zola and Desailly will not play forever; get over it, age happens. The kings are dead, long live the kings. We all follow the Chelsea, over land and sea. If you sing it, mean it.