Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 November 2012.
I travelled up to London fearing the worst. This was surely going to be one of the darkest Chelsea days. In light of Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking after the Juventus game, I was overcome with dread and I could hardly raise much enthusiasm for the day ahead at all. Thankfully the awful weather had subsided – the drive up to London with my friend Steve was thankfully clear of teeming rain – but I was expecting a nasty mood inside Stamford Bridge. Tensions were certainly running high among the Chelsea support. I predicted the most volatile atmosphere that I would have ever experienced in almost thirty-seven years of visits to Stamford Bridge.
Robbie was out, Rafa was in and the Chelsea board were in for a rough old time.
At this point, my story takes an abrupt and startling deviation.
As I write these words, I am not sure if it is common knowledge that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich met a small group of supporters at Stamford Bridge before the game in order to judge the mood of the club’s support since the sacking of Robbie in the small hours of Wednesday morning.
I was one of that group.
I’ll not spend time detailing how I ended up in Roman’s office at 2.30pm on Sunday 25 November 2012, but I will certainly write a few words which I hope will help to explain why that day was like no other in all of my forty-seven years.
Six other Chelsea fans and I sat around a large table with owner Roman Abramovich and his right-hand man, Chelsea director Eugene Tenenbaum.
The little group of us had no game-plan. And I certainly didn’t want to go into the meeting with a set list of questions. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if we would be limited to just talking about the sacking of Robbie or if we were going to be allowed carte blanche. To be truthful, neither Roman nor Eugene mentioned any protocol. We were simply allowed to speak our minds. I was going to see where the meeting went and shoot from the hip. As I think back, my inputs into the meeting were statements rather than questions, but I wanted to see how Roman and Eugene reacted to them. After the introductions were done, the meeting began and I surprised myself by launching the meeting with a warning for Roman.
“I just want to say how much we appreciate all that you have done for this football club. That is beyond question. But you have to realise that there a lot of upset supporters here today because of what has happened this week. When I awoke in my hotel room in Turin on Wednesday morning and heard the news, I could hardly believe it. Because of this, you may see and hear some things in the stadium today that might shock you. The atmosphere will be pretty tough.”
Roman listened intently to all of our opinions and questions. I am sure that he understood the gist of what we were all saying. However, he responded 99% of the time in Russian and Eugene listened and translated for us. After a while, my next comment regarded how the outside world sees us.
“Some fans say they don’t care about what others think, but I have to say that it matters immensely to me how Chelsea Football Club is perceived. This club means the world to me. And I hate to see it perceived in a negative way. There are some people who think that this football club is run in a” – I paused and chose my words carefully – “foolish way.”
The dialogue was incredibly candid. I have promised myself that I will not share Roman’s responses and I hope fellow fans can understand this stance. As the meeting turned to a lengthy and incredibly insightful discussion about managers, I had to comment about something which has often troubled me. It was too good an opportunity to waste.
“There is a school of thought which says that you need to change the manager every two years to keep things fresh. And that’s OK. But every time Chelsea appoints a big name manager…Scolari, Ancelotti, Villas-Boas, the club says…’this is the manager for the next three or four years’ and yet he lasts just six months. I’m not sure if Roman understands this phrase, but the club seems to have a ‘slash and burn’ policy when it comes to appointing managers.”
The meeting was incredibly informal. I found it fascinating to witness Roman’s body language. My last major statement concerned the stadium. There had been talk about the thorny issue of moving away from our ancestral home and I knew that I had to put my views across the table. I caught Eugene’s eye and looked at him as I solemnly spoke.
“I hope that you realise you completely misjudged the mood of the supporters last autumn and you got the CPO bid completely wrong.”
Outside, I knew there were protests and placards, chants and anger. It felt totally surreal to be deep in the inner sanctum of Chelsea Football Club.
I’m still coming to terms with it twenty-four hours later.
Looking back, with hindsight, I certainly wish that I had asked two questions –
“Who are your football advisors?”
“Why did you invite us here?”
The meeting lasted around an hour. We had all found it very worthwhile – of course! – and as we descended the lift and departed to join the other supporters congregating outside the West Stand, I had to pinch myself.
“Did that really just happen?”
The rest of the day is a blur. The caustic atmosphere that I had expected didn’t really amount to much. Sure, there was booing as the teams came onto the pitch, and it was certainly loud, but there were the usual lulls when the crowd resorted to its usual levels of docility. I had not heard that Dave Sexton, our much-loved manager, had passed away and so I was certainly shocked and saddened to hear of his passing. There was a sustained period of applause in his memory. Sexton was the manager who took charge of the team for my very first Chelsea game way back in 1974.
Rest in Peace.
As the game was played out before me, I kept thinking back to the meeting. To be honest, I did feel compromised. Going into the meeting, I could not understand the reasons why the club had dispensed with Roberto Di Matteo’s services and I was angry with our ludicrous policy of hiring and firing managers to the point of absurdity. After hearing the explanation for the brutal sacking – which again, I apologise for not being able to share publicly – my views of Roman and the board had softened.
And I felt very uncomfortable.
Had I fallen for the earnest and reasoned justification put forth by our owner and his, at times, quiet and shy demeanour? I wasn’t sure. I know that I didn’t feel right. I was surrounded by forty thousand disgruntled Chelsea supporters and yet my once strident set of opinions had been compromised by what I had heard in the meeting. I had to balance the two contrasting views. I’d like to think I am a fairly balanced person. I’d need time to fathom it all out.
Watch this space.
Chelsea fans heartily sang out our former manager’s name during the sixteen minutes and I joined in, clapping the entire time. I wanted to show solidarity with my fellow fans. Rafael Benitez, away on the far touch line – dressed in a dull blue suit – stood in the technical area and it just didn’t seem right.
But I couldn’t boo him. That would be, in my mind, one step too far.
It wasn’t much of a game was it? Thankfully, Manchester City seemed to be a pale shadow of the team which ripped us apart during the first twenty-five minutes of the corresponding fixture last season. That was a game in which we registered the eventual champions’ first league defeat of the season. For once, our troubled defence seemed to play a far more controlled game. This was most welcome. It was a start; from little acorns and all that. If anything, it was the players ahead of them who under-performed. Fernando Torres, typically, skied our best chance of the game, blasting high from fifteen yards in the second-half. In truth, Joe Hart was hardly troubled all game. City’s chances were a little more forthcoming, but the game ended 0-0.
I was happy with that. A defeat would have been too hard to bear.
And on this most tumultuous and yet fragile of days, this is where I will finish.