Chelsea – Killing Football For Us All

Posted by Paul Tomkins on September 22, 2005, 11:11:12 AM

There is much naval-gazing taking place in football at the moment. A lack of goals in big games; two-thirds of the Premiership looking to avoid relegation with stifling tactics; the empty seats at many stadia; and, in the case of Liverpool fans, the dip that follows any 'high' in life, be it heroin, caffeine or sugar. If you go up, you can only come down again. Sometimes with a bang.

Romance in football may have been on the decline for a while; but last season's Champions League proved it is alive and well, just obscured from time to time. But Chelsea are the equivalent of a man who has never given his wife a bunch or flowers, and who goes down the pub with his mates on Valentine's Day. Chelsea are the death of footballing romance.

First of all, I don't have any great hatred of Chelsea. Sure, they've never been one of my favourite clubs, and there's always been plenty to dislike about them (not least,  the loathsome Ken Bates). But there was always plenty to like, too: namely their annual soft-bellied capitulation at Anfield. They rolled over, and were tickled.

Chelsea suddenly got some money in the 1990s, but it was a wealth comparable to other top clubs. They shopped in the same stores as the rest, albeit ones in a more trendy milieu. Now they don't so much shop as own the shop. And not just any shop. They own Harrods. (Actually, the owner of their neighbours, Fulham, owns Harrods –– but this is Footballing Metaphor Harrods).

They have it all. Money, talent and a prime location to entice the world's best. They have a collection of brilliant footballers, marshalled by a remarkable manager.

How can football ever be a fair competition with such radical financial disparity? Plenty of clubs have had outside investment in the past, but it's been of a smaller nature, and a temporary boost. As much as £100m might buy you some good players, and maybe even the occasional trinket, but not sustainable success. Unlimited money buys you a chance at unlimited success.

Other 'rich' clubs have built their wealth on the back of success on the pitch, and a broad fan base. It's been assembled over a period of time. Football has never seen anything like Abramovich's Chelsea before.

It's one thing having lots of money, another spending it wisely. For the most part Chelsea have done just that, and in Mourinho they have a man who can control the players and get them to subvert their egos. The players themselves know that they are all dispensable.

Chelsea are in the envious position of being able to pay tens of millions for a player and happily sell him twelve months later for a massive loss if a better player comes along, or the first one fails. It simply makes no difference.

Liverpool, Arsenal, even Manchester United, have to justify any significant outlay; just one expensive mistake in the transfer market can lead to long-term problems. I'm sure Alex Ferguson will eternally regret not spending the £28m on Seba Veron in a more effective manner.

Since Abramovich arrived in 2003 Chelsea have spent approaching £300m on transfers. In return they have recouped a incredibly small percentage from sales. Again, it makes little difference to them. Abramovich spending £10m is like you or I spending £10 on a CD, and if we don't like it, we'll just write it off as a mildly inconvenient loss. It might irk us, but it won't break us.

Premiership clubs need to be careful, prudent; Chelsea do not. They could go out and buy a whole new £300m team in January if they wished. They have that massive safety net. Money doesn't buy success; but unlimited money makes it far, far easier to succeed.

Sour Grapes

It's not bitterness or sour grapes at Chelsea's success. It's just that, in my eyes, it's hollow success because of the grotesque expenditure that ensured it.

In the hands of Ranieri that money wasn't necessarily a godsend; that could have been interesting. In the hands of a top manager, it makes them virtually unbeatable. How did they attract a top manager? By having tons of cash. Without that money, Chelsea would almost certainly not have Mourinho.

While I (obviously) never liked Man United's dominance in the 1990s, I couldn't help but grant them grudging respect. Ferguson spent money, but he also developed his own players. I also felt that a good team could always come along and usurp them.

That team was Arsenal. For a while the Gunners had a sublime football team, built on a medium-range budget. They spent big occasionally – only when they had to. But they're entering a transitional phase just as Chelsea step up another gear. I never resented Arsenal their success. I do resent Chelsea.

I don't find Chelsea's football boring. I find their money boring. Their style of play may not please everyone, but it's the age-old formula of world-class goalkeeper, super-tight defence, strong midfield, and a clutch of players who can score goals, allied to strength in depth.

The 4-5-1 formation doesn't make it less exciting. I'm sure Real Madrid would kill for some of Chelsea's defensive stability. Chelsea have some great attacking players, but they don't take the risks associated with other great attacking sides. And why should they? They don't need to. When you don't concede goals, you only need to score one. None of that bothers me.

Had Chelsea evolved over a number of seasons, making the odd expensive signing but picking up players of the quality of Robben, Essien, Wright-Phillips, et al, for reasonable fees by good scouting, then I'd respect them. But they were all the 'obvious' players that only the biggest pot of gold could buy.

Although they'd have struggled to attract him, I'd like to have seen Mourinho managing Chelsea without Abramovich's backing (i.e. the Russian had not come to England). Mourinho would have them challenging for the top with his canny methods, but he'd have to work with players who were not his first choices. Or his second, or even third choices.

It would be a really interesting four-way race for the title, without Chelsea's obscene wealth. As it stands, Chelsea can spend their way to another league title. I'm sure even Chelsea fans would enjoy that more; they may not admit it now, but it will dawn on them in time.


Chelsea's wealth does so much. It allows them to unsettle their rivals. They have the power and wealth to influence the media. A bid for Gerrard, a rumour about Henry, an approach for Ashley Cole. You just know stories will appear in the papers ahead of the Champions League game next week. You can set your watch by it.

Their expenditure has also driven up the prices for other teams. Just when transfer fees were getting sensible, Chelsea blew it all out of the water. They can't have it all their own way, but they can have what they want often enough. They can't buy everything: Gerrard said no, Henry said no, and others have failed to be enticed. But they can still buy the best players at clubs unable to resist the ruble.

Cup competitions remain the best place to beat Chelsea. Any team can have an off day, and underdogs can prosper in the lack of pressure. Liverpool were able to do that very thing last season. The pressure was all on Chelsea. We've seen it in the Carling Cup this week.

Chelsea's quality and depth will see them win nearly all of their league games. Those they don't will be rendered insignificant.

Cup competitions – devalued for so long – may return to become the only interesting thing in English football. Teams cannot dominate cup competitions. Cup competitions rely more on luck, and that element of risk, of chance, could add spice to an increasingly predictable footballing landscape.

And 'competition' is the operative word. Look at the sport of the summer in England: cricket, and the Ashes series. The Australian cricket team are like the Man United of the mid-90s: snarling, intensely competitive, arrogant, talented, and hard to beat.

And yet the Aussies looked almost happy to lose the series. Unbelievable! I've never seen such smiles from men not used to being beat: it would be like Keane, Ferguson and Neville happily applauding a crushing defeat. The Aussies were not happy at being second best, but because at long last they'd been given a good game (or rather, five five-day tests) that could have gone either way.

Their sport became meaningful again. And that's the danger football faces: Chelsea's success will be great for them, just a death knell for the game itself. (At least until Abramovich disappears.)

And then Chelsea's success will become meaningless. Because no-one else will care.

©Paul Tomkins 2005

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