At the start of the 1980’s, a financially-stricken Chelsea Football Club were knocking around the second tier of English football. An institution with a proud history had gambled on success almost ten years earlier with delusions of building the best stadium in the world and now found itself on the verge of destitution. A successful team that had been fighting at the business end of the top division after the likes of Ted Drake, Tommy Doherty and Dave Sexton had brought trophies and glamour to Stamford Bridge had reprised its role as a music hall laughing stock. The drab, hulking East Stand loomed over the three crumbling stands and the incongruous cars that ringed the pitch, serving as an unmissable reminder of what happens when you fly too close to the sun.
And yet despite the delapidated terracing and the sparse crowds, that was when my life-long love affair with Chelsea began. As a kid you look past all the rough edges and see what you want to see. Stamford Bridge was a place of wonder and the players in blue were unquestionably heroes. Even Doug Rougvie. Fixtures might have lacked a certain glamour but then occasionally the mighty Liverpool would visit in the FA Cup and get turned over, imbuing the place with an even greater sense of awe. And then the team would finally get promoted with Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin dazzling all comers and putting Leeds in their place before opening the next campaign with a 1-1 draw at Highbury, thanks to that man Dixon again.
Back in the early and mid-eighties I watched wide-eyed and slack-jawed as Liverpool won the European Cup, Tottenham lifted the UEFA Cup and Everton beat Rapid Vienna to claim the Cup Winners Cup. Being a kid and knowing no better, I would cheer on these English sides, seeing it as probably the closest I would ever get to having a side compete at such a stratospheric level.
Fast forward three decades and there I was in the Allianz Arena, leaping around the seats and hugging anybody within striking distance while bawling uncontrollably after Didier Drogba sent Manuel Neuer the wrong way to secure that elusive maiden Champions League crown. It felt like I had completed a journey, from walking the precipice of falling into the Third Division all the way to the very pinnacle of global club football. It was a journey that could only happen in football. It was Chelsea’s equivalent of Wimbledon winning the FA Cup, Leicester winning the Premier League or Nottingham Forest winning back-to-back European Cups. All of those achievements were possible because of the ability of fans to dream and the opportunity of a well-run club to climb the slopes of the football pyramid and earn the right to forge its own destiny.
Well, those dreams have just been shat all over for the next generation of supporters thanks to the formation of the European Super League and the avaricious instincts of 12 so-called “clubs”.
Shamefully, Chelsea is one of them.
While there have been several times over the decades when I have disagreed with the actions of the club, I have always remained steadfastly loyal. I have never questioned whether I would renew my season ticket, whatever the results on the pitch. I might have voiced my displeasure at a managerial sacking or the poor commitment of certain players, but it has always been fleeting and I have always returned to supporting the team after I’ve had my say.
But this latest development is troubling. For what would be the point of supporting a club that so contemptuously disregards the wishes of the vast, vast majority of its fans? Of course, fans have been disregarded before and continue to be yet there is normally a sop paid towards them and at least at Chelsea in the last 25 years there has also been the prospect of winning major, meaningful trophies which is always an excellent way to keep fans on board.
But now? What would be the point if the cornerstone of every campaign is simply a glorified version of a pre-season tournament, a jolly with no pitfalls for the losers against teams with whom there is no traditional rivalry?
Some might argue that age-old rivalries are born from single key moments such as the 1970 FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leeds and that it could repeat itself with a contentious game against, say, Atletico Madrid. But the essence of a football rivalry is the relationship between the fans and their opportunity to rub the other side’s nose in it. I don’t know any Atletico fans. Or Barcelona fans. Or Real Madrid fans. Or AC Milan fans. You get the picture.
I do, however, know plenty of fans that support West Ham or Aston Villa or Fulham or Leeds or Everton or countless other clubs that dot the English landscape. Winning those games are just as important as beating Barcelona. Perhaps not in terms of glamour or international prestige but as a supporter there is nothing better than greeting your mate with a knowing grin as they suddenly wish that they hadn’t decided to meet you for a drink. Sure, we would still get to laugh at Tottenham and Arsenal to an extent but then we wouldn’t get to see them eliminated from the competition when they inevitably finish at the foot of the table.
And if Chelsea are no longer playing domestic competition, presuming that they are expelled from the Premier League, what would they now actually become? One of a bunch of Harlem Globetrotter style entities, serving to entertain rather than compete? If I want mindless entertainment, I’ll go to a gig or watch a movie. Football is about tension and jeopardy and the fact that it could all unravel at any moment. It’s about the hopes and the dreams that make you contemplate the wildest of outcomes and let you fantasise about what might just be. And sometimes, just sometimes, those dreams even come true.
The advent of the European Super League will end all of that. If it is somehow ratified by the football authorities, the supporters of thousands of clubs around Europe will be denied the opportunity to dream. If the offending clubs persist with their misguided ambition while being banned by UEFA then they will become husks of their former selves, footnotes in history.
Ken Bates and Roman Abramovich have been much-maligned figures in the football world yet between them their efforts took Chelsea from the brink of bankruptcy to playing in a proper football stadium while fielding some of the best players in the world. Now the latter risks undoing all that good work by repeating the mistakes of the past and gambling the future on delusions of grandeur. And when the crowds inevitably drift away from this artifice, one of the only things that will remain to remind everyone that Chelsea Football Club once existed will be the sage old East Stand looming large over a footballing wasteland.