Loyalty in football has always been a contentious topic. Fans routinely demand it from players yet can be just as happy to throw them under the proverbial bus after a sloppy pass or defensive error. Managers exhort spectators to back their team even if the fare on offer is dire and a ticket to watch it has cost a large slice of their weekly wage.
Loyalty and football go together like love and marriage. Except that there is plenty of evidence to show that those two elements can also be mutually exclusive. It is in this context that the recent furore at the end of Chelsea’s recent 2-2 draw with Manchester United should be seen.
The unseemly sight of the two sets of coaching staff being separated by stewards following an over-exuberant celebration and subsequent goading of United boss Jose Mourinho by Chelsea coach Marco Ianni, sparked an understandable reaction in the stands. Seeing Mourinho attempt to chase Ianni down the players’ tunnel to confront him, some sections of the crowd launched into chants of “F@$K Off Mourinho”.
Now, for the record, I did not join in those chants at the time nor would I ever be inclined to do so. Mourinho’s impact at Chelsea is second only to that of Roman Abramovich. He remains by far the greatest manager the club have ever had and he revolutionised not just Chelsea but the whole of English football when he arrived in 2004. To revise history and try to dilute his achievements is absurd, unfair and borderline heresy if you are one of those that lived through the relative underachievement of the 70s, 80s and early 90s.
Nevertheless, it is also completely understandable if supporters feel compelled en masse to berate somebody that is actively trying to attack a member of their own staff. For all that Mourinho has done for Chelsea, he is now an employee of Manchester United and in a game between the two clubs, supporters’ tribal loyalties will always be black and white between the Blues and Reds.
It should also be noted that Chelsea fans have, by and large, offered Mourinho a warm welcome on his previous returns to Stamford Bridge. When his Inter Milan team visited Stamford Bridge in the Champions League in 2010, his name was sung to the rafters by the home supporters. It was even sung when he first brought Manchester United to west London in October 2016 with many supporters still siding with him over his sacking by Chelsea ten months earlier.
Unfortunately, that was the night when the first cracks in the relationship began to appear. In a classic attempt to deflect from his team’s spluttering display as Chelsea romped to a 4-0 win, Mourinho delivered a pitchside lecture to then Chelsea manager Antonio Conte about the etiquette of goal celebrations. This from a man who has slid on his knees at both Old Trafford and Camp Nou. Just as Mourinho was entitled to enjoy those moments against Man United and Barcelona, Conte had every right to revel in a magnificent performance from his side. Then again, Mourinho, like all great managers, is a master of hypocrisy so his irritation was no surprise.
Mourinho then seemed to follow in the footsteps of an earlier nemesis and cast constant voyeuristic glances towards his former club. During the remainder of the 2016-17 season, there was a steady stream of excuses for his own side’s disappointing displays while using Chelsea as his template. Whether it was defending his pragmatic style of play or the Blues lack of European football, Chelsea were regularly cited in his missives to the press and not in a positive way.
Factor in his complaints about the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge while he was still Chelsea manager and it is fair to say that he has hardly gone out of his way to endear himself. The unbridled love that Chelsea supporters used to have for him has unsurprisingly diminished a touch.
But that obviously didn’t stop other less informed parties from being critical. In the wake of the final whistle there plenty of voices on social media and the blogosphere that weighed in to lodge their derision at the home supporters. One particular Manchester United blog appeared to take it rather personally, both tweeting and posting an article lambasting Chelsea and praising United’s support. Of course, backing your manager is a form of loyalty so that’s only to be expected by a partisan website. Using ignorance to back up the point, however, rather undermines the argument.
There are several errors, flawed assumptions and generalisations in the article and it would take an age to go through every one of them though one of the more perplexing is the assertion that Chelsea fans “hate” Mourinho. A statement that is palpably untrue. I have never met a Chelsea fan that has ever felt this way. Some found his addiction to confrontation tiresome when he was manager and others are still bitter that he released Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne without ever really giving either of them a chance though that is about as much angst as there is.
The chants of “F@$K Off Mourinho” were off the cuff and were sparked by his own aggression which in turn was provoked by a member of the Chelsea coaching staff. The song dissipated as quickly as the argument and should require no further analysis
Ultimately, all the avenues of criticism were about loyalty. In which case, perhaps those taking such a sanctimonious line should look at how Chelsea’s past players are treated when they return to the club. They don’t even have to look far, only as far back as the very same game and the constant ovations that Juan Mata received whether walking onto the pitch, taking corners or being substituted. Nemanja Matic also played in that game and despite making it clear that he wanted to leave for Old Trafford for 12 months until he actually departed, was still afforded a muted reception for his part in two title-winning sides.
Look back just a few days and the love for Frank Lampard was off the scale. The fans would have stayed all night singing his name if they could as here was a genuine legend of the club who has never had a bad word to say about anyone connected with it.
Or you can witness how a player that had a far shorter Chelsea career than Lampard was feted a few weeks ago when the Blues visited Southampton. Ryan Bertrand, the player that made his Champions League debut in the glorious 2012 final, had his name sung by the away contingent for long periods in the second half, a tribute to a player that had played his part in Chelsea’s finest hour.
Mata, Lampard, Bertrand. All players that were disappointed to leave Chelsea but kept their opinions to themselves. Perhaps this is why supporters’ feelings are unrestrained when it comes to Super Frank et al and are rather more ambivalent when it comes to Mourinho. Loyalty, after all, is a two-way street.