Whisper it quietly – particularly if you know who is within earshot – but there’s something happening at Stamford Bridge… and it’s not what you'd expect.
Amid the wreckage of a miserable defence of their Premier League title, FFT has uncovered evidence of something truly extraordinary: despite the doom and gloom, the tantrums and stadium bans, Chelsea’s fans aren’t wallowing in self-pity. No, they’re actually enjoying themselves.
Record in ruins
For a decade Stamford Bridge regulars have been drunk on success (as well as the overpriced lager they queue 15 minutes to sample at half-time), turning up at their fortress expecting routine victory and rarely leaving disappointed.
That, though, has all changed. In this campaign the previously impregnable Bridge has quivered like the Forth Road Bridge in a force nine gale. Southampton, Liverpool – hell, even Crystal Palace – have inflicted defeat on the champions at home this season. In Palace’s case it was a first win in 33 years. Little wonder the natives are jittery.
“There was 20 minutes to go in the game against Norwich and there was a real sense of nervousness,” says Ian Edwards, a Chelsea season-ticket holder who watched his first match in the club’s promotion-winning season of 1988/89.
“We were all saying 'this is ridiculous, it’s bloody Norwich', but no one around me was confident we were going to close the game out. The thing is, though, I think we’re all enjoying it a lot more. If anything, it’s a chance to show the people who are constantly having a go at you for being there only because you are winning that you’re still going to turn up whatever happens. When you expect to win it becomes a bit of formality – you do sometimes forget that it’s up to the fans to sometimes lift the players, not the other way around.”
Bored of winning
The anxiety as Norwich failed to mount attack after attack would have been unthinkable last season when Chelsea started like a train and then, with the title as good as won, turned winning narrowly into an art form. Edwards, though, admits that winning the title for the first time since Mourinho’s return to west London felt very different to his first triumph a decade before.
“We were great for the first half of last season but we coasted home in the end,” says Edwards. “And the feeling to winning the league last year was far different to the feeling when we first won it under him. There was real excitement about going to games (in 2005) because you knew you were on the cusp of something. Last season we were going to games, meeting up for a beer but almost not even talking about the football.
“It was complacency, no doubt about it, but you just knew we were going to win. There were also times when we went in 0-0 at half-time last season when there were almost a few boos. It was crazy, people just forgot that winning football matches isn’t that easy.”
The irony, of course, is that just 12 months ago, Mourinho was complaining that the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge was almost non-existent. After Chelsea beat QPR in November 2014, Mourinho moaned that it was almost as if his side were ‘playing in an empty stadium’. Turns out, that all he needed to do was lose a few games – something he has achieved with aplomb so far this season.
Old Trafford sympathisers
So is supporting a losing side that’s used to winning better than supporting the side when they’re routinely beating all and sundry? Maybe it is.
“The problem is that when you’re winning everything in sight, even the extraordinary becomes routine,” says James Hall, a Manchester United season-ticket holder for 18 years. “There were times when you turned up at Old Trafford knowing that United were going to win by two, three or four goals. You would sit there waiting for the players to get the crowd going. That’s not how it should be.”
He’s right, but that’s the reality of supporting a team at the top. At many home matches in the top flight involving the likes of United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, the expectation from the supporters can often lead to a flat atmosphere. Things even got so bad at Old Trafford that a permanent ‘singing section’ was introduced in April 2014, much to the mirth of other fans in the top flight. Now United fans are united in another sense – using their collective strength to encourage Louis van Gaal’s side to ‘attack, attack, attack, attack, attack’.
They were left sorely disappointed (again) on Wednesday night as the Dutchman’s side again drew a blank in the Champions League.
“There was an acceptance that teams would come to Old Trafford and park the bus – to borrow a phrase from Mourinho – when we were winning everything,” says Hall. “Now, as we’re seeing, United fans won’t just sit there and accept the team not giving everything to go out there and win a game. That’s what they’ve been brought up on.”
City still in heaven
Across Manchester, however, City fans have rarely had it so good. Champions of the old First Division in 1968, City supporters have had to endure more than most in the intervening period – much of it witnessed by Mike Carson, author of The Manager and a lifelong City fan. So does the struggle to get to the top better the feeling of getting there and lording it over everyone else?
“I wouldn’t swap this period for anything,” he tells FFT. “I used to get so much stick for supporting City, people would constantly ask why I did it to myself. My wife even told me that I would be happier if I supported United. I always responded by saying that it would be truly glorious when we rose again – and it has been. Nothing in sport could ever match how City fans felt when Sergio Aguero scored that goal against QPR on that final day (in 2012).”
Carson also offers some solace to the Chelsea fans who have endured some unaccustomed pain so far this season.
“I think when you support a team at the top there’s an acceptance that any blip isn’t going to last too long,” he says. “You have that confidence that comes with knowing the stature of your club. Even at City, when we had a rocky run earlier in the season, we knew that as soon as Vincent Kompany came back we were going to be fine. City’s blips used to last a decade – now they’re probably over in five matches.”
In all likelihood, City fans will be smiling – and maybe even singing – come May, unless Leicester pull off something truly remarkable. Chelsea fans, though, are having a ball, despite finding themselves in the most unfamiliar of holes. Looking for a good time this season? Go and get yourself to Stamford Bridge. But maybe make it swift. The nerves that accompanied their win against Norwich might not be around for long.
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