The well-worn sporting cliché which asserts that ‘a week is a long time in football’ has been applicable to the fortunes of Chelsea FC and its die-hard followers on a number of occasions during the course of this season and I have no doubt that following the dramatic events at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League Quarterfinal 2nd Leg tie with Fenerbahce there will be more seemingly lengthy seven day periods before the referee blows the final whistle of the final game of this campaign.
This latest protracted week started for me in Istanbul within the intimidating confines of the 50,000 capacity seething cauldron of humanity that is the Sükrü Saracoglu stadium where the fanatical followers of the so-called Yellow Canaries, Fenerbahce, created the kind of atmosphere that the Blues players representing Chelsea Football Club and the intrepid fans who had journeyed to the banks of the Bosphorus to cheer them on, can only ever dream of being recreated at Stamford Bridge.
The debate about Avram Grant rages on and on and on and on ad nauseam. It is Grant’s fate that he is blamed for all that goes wrong at Chelsea Football Club regardless of whether it is his fault or not. He is dammed if he does, and doubly dammed if he doesn’t and I cannot see this situation changing … ever! Even if Chelsea were to beat Manchester United 5-0 at Stamford Bridge on April 26th to usurp the Red Devils at the summit of the Premiership in the midst of dumping the Hub Cap Thieves out of the Champions League, the Israeli remains in the invidious position where credit for this success would be given to the players, whereas blame for any failure will as ever be flung firmly at his door. So be it.
This being the case, my thoughts on life following the Blues have deviated from trying to fathom out the grand master-plan that Roman Abramovich has for the Club he owns beyond that which can be surmised from the utterances of the man he controversially appointed to the role of manager. ‘I can tell you what I’ll do at Chelsea next week, next season and in two years time. Maybe even more,’ quipped Avram Grant after the 2-1 defeat in Istanbul. ‘I have my ideas and my plans. We’re planning for next season already. There is a vision for the club and it’s very clear. We want to get better over many years.’
It would appear on this basis that Mr Abramovich is oblivious to the ongoing dissent shown to Grant by some of his players to say nothing of an audible number of Blues fans. The Israeli clearly has a mandate from the owner, the chairman and the board of directors which embraces all we hold dear to our Blue footballing hearts and so it seems that for the time being at least no amount of protestation on the part of the supporters of Chelsea Football Club will provoke a change.
Those of us who made the trip to what is Europe’s most populous city had enjoyed the pre-match opportunity to soak up some of Istanbul’s rich cultural and historical heritage to say nothing of a few flagons of the local hooch, Efes Pilsener. But rest assured though, memories of the former Constantinople’s minarets, mosques, churches, palaces, towers and castles were consigned to memory as the pitifully small contingent of Blues fans of which I was a part was escorted by the Turkish police across the bridge that spans the Bosphorus strait which separates the West from the East, Europe from Asia.
Less than 1000 Blues fans (interestingly enough, in the main it was all the old familiar faces from the famous days when we were sh*t) made the effort to travel to Turkey despite Chelsea having been given a ticket allocation of 2,250. Much had been made about video messages which had been posted on the internet threatening that we would ‘burn in hell’, but I refuse to believe that this ‘fear factor’ was responsible for the poor showing especially since the “Welcome to Hell” greeting has been a staple of Anglo-Turkish footballing rivalry since an infamous banner was spotted on the terraces during a Champions League group match between Galatasaray and Manchester United as far back as 1993. Where was ‘new’ Chelsea in Turkey I wondered? Johnny and Joanna Come-Lately? At home watching on TV with a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc in one hand and the remote control in the other? Yeah … you know that!
To use a hackneyed Football Factory phrase, the Turkish Old Bill were ‘on top’ from the moment we left the city centre and headed East, to the moment we arrived at the departure terminal at the airport. Looking out of the windows of our coach as we approached the ground there were visible potentially trouser-browning signs of the fanaticism of Fenerbahçe’s support. “This is Kadiköy (the area of Istanbul where the Yellow Canaries sing loudest and proudest) there is no way out,” one banner read, while another simply said … “You will burn in Hell.”
There was no heavy-handed Mediterranean or even Fulham bully-boy TSG-style policing here, we were politely deposited within a few meters of the ‘visitors entrance’ and ‘shown’ to the secure corner of the stadium and with well over one hour to kick off there was plenty of time to absorb the electrifying atmosphere generated by Fenerbahce’s support which I have to say was probably the most passionately fervent, vocal and colourful I have ever witnessed. Forget hell! This was a carnival with a Brazilian samba flavour to it. To put it simply, it was brilliant!
What happened on the football pitch? Well that was old school Chelsea … maddeningly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, something’s will never change … trust me. Fenerbahce went a goal down to a Chelsea side which in the first half played some of the most scintillating football I have seen them play in recent years. What got the home side back in it? Quality football? Don’t make me laugh … it was their fans!
They say at Liverpool that the Kop in full song is like a 12th man to the Reds … Fenerbahce’s board have actually ‘retired’ the number 12 shirt in honour of their vociferous fans, and on this showing they should consider retiring number’s 13 and 14 as well. Quite simply they were phenomenal. Whistling every time a Blues player touched the ball and coordinating their chants in all four sections of the stadium. We gave it a go. We tried to respond. ‘Your support is f*cking sh*t’, we’d chanted, laughing as we did so. When they equalised and then scored their winner I thought my eardrums were going to burst, I’d love to know what the decibel reading of the Fenerbahce crowd in full flow is when compared with the recent measurements taken at matches in England.
With a final whistle lock in until 12.45am … that’s right a quarter to one in the morning … there was plenty of time to ruminate on what I’d just witnessed and I was still cogitating about football’s equivalent to ‘the missing link’ several days later as I clambered aboard the CFCnet luxury charabanc which was bound for Eastlands the all-new home of gritty Northern tryers and perennial under achievers Manchester City.
Ah the ‘missing link’ … we’ve all seen programs about it on TV … you know those Sunday evening documentaries during which scientists get all moist about important fossil finds … the ones that become icons of evolution in action … like Archaeopteryx, the famous fossil that bridged the gap between reptiles and birds or that moody crocodile-like animal, Tiktaalik Roseae, a missing link between fish and land animals whose physiology demonstrated how creatures first walked out of the water and on to dry land more than 375m years ago.
Ah the ‘missing link’ … and so as coach forayed to the frozen North I wondered if Fenerbahce’s supporters and fans of their ilk could indeed be proved in some way to be the ‘missing link’ between winning and losing a football match. Eastlands would yield more damming evidence to suggest that this indeed was the case, as indeed did the empty seats around me. Manchester is hardly Istanbul … so tell me ‘new’ Chelsea, what was your excuse on this occasion? A traditional 3pm Saturday fixture and still you don’t turn up!
The home support was stunned into silence by an early own goal and the appalling football City were playing didn’t do anything to encourage the crowd to oxygenate the atmosphere at Eastlands which remained rarified throughout, a stark contrast to what I had experienced in Istanbul several days earlier. Whilst Chelsea’s opponents were truly dreadful, I did wonder if a concerted vocal effort on the part of their fans might have roused them from their torpor.
And so to Stamford Bridge and the ‘must win’ quarterfinal 2nd leg against Fenerbahce. Sadly for the Yellow Canaries, their traveling support, despite a visually impressive ‘bouncy bouncy’ opening, was swiftly muted by Michael Ballack’s early opener. Chelsea proceeded to grind out a result, suffocating the life out of a woefully unimaginative Fenerbahce side who failed to take advantage of the latest goalkeeping mishap to affect the Blues.
‘We’ve got Hilario,’ was the nervous chant as Carlo hobbled off as early as the 26th minute, but the result was never in doubt. Cometh the hour cometh Hilario. He’s been there, seen it and done it all before for Chelsea and in the 83rd minute kept the visitors at bay with two top-drawer saves that Messrs Cech and Cudicini would have been proud of. Minutes later, Super Frank settled it … and the disjointed Blues, with Drogba sadly looking as if he was playing for himself, and himself only, go marching on on on.
So the European City of Culture beckons once more. Anfield’s celebrated 12th man will be in full effect and Avram Grant’s blue and white army will be asked to stand firm against a relentless red onslaught. Just over a year ago, the normally fearless John Terry admitted to having been intimidated by the Liverpool crowd, but this time Chelsea will enjoy the advantage of playing the decisive semi-final 2nd leg match at Stamford Bridge on April 30 so it is vital that every Blues fan attending this game plays a part in vocally supporting the team.
Much time and effort has been spent this season by many spirited groups and individuals to bring back the atmosphere to Stamford Bridge and, despite the best endeavours of certain jobs-worth ‘security’ stewards, on occasion it has all come together but sadly not for long enough. Amongst the regular fans, snap-happy tourists and Johnny Come-Lately’s there are still pockets of have-a-go’s who are all too ready with a you don’t know what you’re doing or a Jose Mourinho when things don’t go to plan. Just supposing we get a creditable 1-1 draw away at Anfield, but concede an early goal in the return leg … what then?
There was something faintly ironic about the Mathew Harding Lower bursting into a rousing refrain of you’re supposed to be at home during a particularly dire second-half passage of play against Fenerbahce … I couldn’t figure out if it was directed at the players or the more somnambulant sections of Chelsea’s support gathered to the East and West.
Whatever misgivings supporters may have about the departure of Jose Mourinho and the appointment of Avram Grant, there is some merit in the Israeli’s wry observation on the Blues current situation. “I took over after a poor result against Rosenborg in the Champions League, with five teams ahead of us in the Premier League. I said I believed we could do good things this season and we’re close.”
Too right we are, and I for one am grateful. Look at ‘the’ Arsenal … another trophy-less campaign all but over whilst gloriously unpredictable Chelsea in the twilight of an intense and turbulent season still have a couple of irons in the fire. I’d love to bask in the reflective glow of its dying embers remembering the sound of the crowd, Blue is the Colour, Chelsea’s 12th man, when John went up to lift something up. Passion, fervour, ardour, obsession, infatuation, excitement, enthusiasm … CHELSEA … CHELSEA … CHELSEA.
See you at the game.
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’, his new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ is out now. Copies are available to buy with a discount of up to 30% and free postage within the UK at www.overlandandsea.net