After taking time to reflect on the season that has done the same as a Frank Sinclair back pass does to his goalkeeper — just flown by — Jez Walters passes judgement on the ups and downs of the campaign.
Many fans have been disappointed this season, and quite rightly so. After all, with an average season ticket price of £650, punters could be forgiven for wanting to kneecap Ranieri after some of the horrific displays that we have been subjected to. Even worse, we never came close to challenging for the championship — in September we lay ninth, ‘progressing’ to seventh in December. The final humiliation came when an abject display to Villa on the final day saw Leeds pip us to fifth place.
Many of this season’s games would make a decent compilation for a Chelsea ‘House of horrors’ video. The rot started in earnest on 30th September when, after taking a two-goal lead against the smog monsters, we duly capitulated to draw against woeful opposition. However, it was the nature of our second round defeat against a two-bit Israeli side, Hapoel Tel Aviv, that saw us plumb new depths.
After the World Trade Centre disaster, the prospect of a trip to Israel, in what was fast becoming a war zone, raised a clear dilemma for the club management. If they had coerced the players to travel to Israel for the first leg, they could have stood accused of heavy-handedness and bullying at a time of great world uncertainty. In the event, the club chose to allow the players a free choice on whether they wanted to travel to Tel Aviv. Eidur, Petit etc decided to stay at home along with the ‘injured’ club captain, Desailly. It was a high-risk strategy that would only have paid off had we won. We duly lost the game to two late goals and for the next two weeks Chelsea became a national pariah. The club could only redeem itself by winning the home leg. However, once Tel Aviv scored it was game over and, like last year, our Uefa Cup journey ended before it hadreally begun.
Subsequent poor displays against Ipswich, Everton and Blackburn saw the knives sharpen for Ranieri. The 0-0 draw at home to Blackburn even saw the players booed off the pitch. With the team lying in a distant eighth place, more than a few fans expected Bates to see what the metal blade could do.
The season turned around for the manager and the Blues when in the space of a week we beat Leeds away (2-0) and trounced Man United away (3-0). The players returned to a hero’s welcome, renewed optimism and promptly lost 1-0 at home to Charlton. Still, the signs were beginning to appear that, given fit players, Claudio could mould a team capable of beating the best sides in the country. The early December mauling of Liverpool at home (4-0) emphasised the fact.
The rest of the season simply saw a continuation of our Jekyll and Hyde form. How many years have we said that? Our potential was there to be seen with superb away victories at Newcastle and West Ham United and sublime home wins against Rottenham and Sunderland, only to be tempered by catastrophic home defeats to Southampton, Manchester United and Villa.
While many fans have been disappointed with the season, those with longer memories can only be satisfied. During the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s, we were either perennially flirting with relegation or actually embracing it with a huge stiffie. A good away day was a victory at Swindon Town. The prospect of a team full of world-class players, finishing in the top six and an FA Cup final appearance would have made any Blues fan drool.
We have come a long way and the signs are evident that, in Claudio Ranieri, the club is in safe hands and progressing slowly, but in the right direction. Ranieri’s teams have always been exciting, attacking sides and the three 4-0 victories in a row served notice that with a fit squad, Claudio is able to fashion a truly great team. While the Italian may only have won over half of the fans, who could argue with the way that we demolished Spurs 4-0 home and away in the same week? Or the way we matched Arsenal blow for blow in the FA Cup final, only to lose to two world-class goals? Overall, for every low (5-1 semi-final defeat against Spurs), there has been a high (1-0 semi-final victory against Fulham).
Despite the fact that Ranieri commands great respect from the players and management — Ken Bates may be a fool, but he is not stupid enough to hand a manager a five-year contract unless he really thinks that Claudio can give us sustained success — his future depends on this summer’s transfer dealings.
Players like Jokanovic, de Goey, Morris, Zenden and Stanic need to be moved on faster than an overweight Palestinian at an Israeli checkpoint. Players like the Gronk and Melchiot need to be told that unless they can show greater consistency, they can start looking for a house on Teesside. More importantly, Claudio needs to buy a creative midfielder, a new winger and a left-sided defensive midfielder to cover for Baba and Le Saux. Then we might really have a team — mind the pigs as they prepare for take-off. Only time will tell.