The Chelsea question – football 'expert' Dr. Rogan Taylor enters the debate…

I’ve always been in awe of people who dedicate their lives to study and academia; nuclear fission, the reproductive system of the European earthworm or whatever. It must be quite an achievement to be the leading expert in the field on that particular subject. It brings to mind watching the news and seeing little men in half-moon spectacles with an uncontrollable greying mop of hair in well-worn corduroy jackets, spouting passionately about their particular area of knowledge.

So what has this got to do with Chelsea, I hear you say? Read on. Browsing through the papers is always a hazard, given that at any moment you could find a few hundred words having a dig at Chelsea – Abramovich’s money, our perceived arrogance – you know the drill. But on occasion, you can find some fair comment on the subject. In this morning’s Guardian, an intriguing article caught my eye. “Is Chelsea’s era of domination good for the Premiership” shouted the headline. On further examination, both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps were represented which made a pleasant change.

So if I suggested to you that former Gooner legend Kenny Sansom was on one side of the fence and Dr. Rogan Taylor, academic and director of the Football Industry Group at Liverpool University and a writer / broadcaster for various media outlets, as well as a serial committee member and lecturer on all aspects of the beautiful game was on the other, who do you think would be fighting which corner?

A mixture of experience and no small degree of cynicism made me think that the man with nigh on 400 appearances for Arsenal, numerous caps for England now frequently appearing on Sky as a pundit would have chipped in with the usual anti-Chelsea tirade, tinged with bitterness at a very mediocre season for his former team during a crucial period in their history. Dr. Taylor’s argument, I assumed, would be balanced and borne out of years of studying the subject, watching trends and patterns in the game, talking to those at every level from bootroom to boardroom, terrace to executive box.

It just goes to show how wrong you can be. To my surprise, Sansom fell into the ‘Yes’ camp. The former Arsenal man made some sensible, balanced comments which generally covered the simple facts about the Blues (and the competition) in the Abramovich era that we all know but many seem to ignore. Lots of money yes, but an excellent side that has been simply head and shoulders above the competition which has been largely down to Mourinho and the commitment of the players, amongst other things. His suggestion that the rest of the Premiership need to work harder and smarter also rang true. The concluding point spoke volumes about the issue in the most basic of terms, summing it up perfectly – “Sure, the money has got a lot to do with them doing well but they are not the first side to have a bit of money. I think everyone’s going on about it without looking at what Chelsea have achieved – and obviously I’m saying that as an Arsenal fan.”

Dr. Taylor’s argument, however, despite being borne out of years of study on the subject of football, was so astonishing in its blinkered lack of coherence and selective memory of the game it made me wonder whether the cynical “Well they give out doctorates with Cornflakes packets these days, don’t they” Littlejohn style rant actually carries a degree of truth. It was simply a more eloquently constructed version of the tabloid driven “Chelsea and their money blah blah blah” nonsense that people gorge themselves on and repeat ad nauseum under the guise of having some knowledge of the game. A closer look at Dr. Taylor’s criticisms of Chelsea show a series of bigger holes than those to be found in the Arsenal back four this season.

“I don’t really think of Chelsea being in the same competition anymore…” Really? So which Chelsea is that sitting twelve points clear at the top of the Premier League? Must be another one. Not the one beaten by strugglers Middlesbrough at the weekend? He then pulls out one of the standard anti-Chelsea trump cards at a surprisingly early stage – “This is different from the recent domination by Arsenal and Manchester United – or Liverpool before them – because their success was more about astuteness, youth investment and coaching skills than money.”

This of course plunges a knife into the heart of the average Chelsea fan. He’s right – it’s never been about money before. Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieria, Sol Campbell, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg for Arsenal and Rio Ferdinand, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke for United (to name just a few). All youth products to a man, born within spitting distance of Highbury and Old Trafford respectively, dreaming of playing for the clubs they supported as kids and would probably do it for next to nothing if you asked them nicely. And obviously the likes of Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan, Ian St. John, Terry McDermott, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and many others all grew up a Grobbelar punt from Anfield too. But of course the coaching skills can never be overlooked – Ferguson and Wenger toiled and grafted over their title winning teams, sweating blood over formations and tactics whereas Mourinho arrived in English football, threw a few expensive names onto a team sheet every week and won the Premiership, smashing numerous records on the way, with a very large stroke of luck and no effort, skill or dedication at all.

Then we move on to the “Chelsea can afford to leave a €40m player like Shaun Wright-Phillips on the bench… they can take off €50m worth of strikers and replace them with €60m worth… it’s ridiculous” tirade.

Of course it is, O learned Doctor of football. Aside of the inaccuracy of your valuations of our frontmen, we bought Wright-Phillips to do just that with him and obviously to annoy people like you. Six months into his Chelsea career having taken a big step up, he is competing with the likes of Joe Cole (the Joe Cole who was ‘finished’ at Chelsea prior to the transfer window of January 2005 and set for a cut-price move away), Damien Duff and Arjen Robben. Possibly a little early to suggest a career as a permanent bench warmer? Maybe his development would have been better served at Arsenal, playing every week in one of their weakest sides in recent memory? And as for the strikers – disgraceful! When I think of poor Manchester United, struggling to make ends meet, substituting the €28m Ruud van Nistelrooy for the €18m Louis Saha it saddens me to my very core. Dr. Taylor later suggests that football was becoming more sensible before Roman arrived, only to send everything barmy again. Presumably Rio Ferdinand’s new mega-deal with United wouldn’t have happened without the presence of the Russian? Oh, of course, it was all Chelsea’s fault because Peter Kenyon was once seen in the same restaurant as the United stopper. Please – get real.

But apparently it isn’t just about the quantum of the money, it is the origin that grates. “And you can’t get away from the source of the money. A significant chunk of the wealth of a whole – now largely poverty-stricken – nation has been sunk into a foreign football team and that sticks in the throat.” I’m truly amazed by the number of people who have suddenly taken an interest in the plight of the Russian people since Abramovich turned up at Stamford Bridge. There seem to be literally thousands who felt so strongly that membership of Amnesty International must have rocketed amongst football fans, armies of them willing to march across the Urals to rip back Russia’s natural resources from the hands of the oligarchs and return them to state ownership.

Without wishing to over simplify matters there are people in poverty all over the world, many of whom are in a far worse situation than the average Russian citizen. Their plight is often caused by governments that you voted for, organisations that you work for and companies on whose products and services you spend money on a daily basis. It would be interesting to ask this new socially aware breed of football fan whether he would be happy to pay a premium for domestically produced fuel for his house or car, or to obtain it from Russia at a far cheaper price.

But if we’re on rich sugar-daddies, let us remember that Roman is hardly the first. Take a look at Samuel Hill-Wood – forefather of Arsenal director Peter Hill-Wood – and his family history in the north of England. Samuel Hill-Wood owned various cotton mills, generally acknowledged not to be the most worker friendly of environments, at the turn of the century. In short, he invested his money in Glossop North End’s football team, flung plenty of it at them until they reached the giddy heights of second place in the league behind Manchester City. When the cotton industry declined, he remained true to his roots – no, sorry – he sold up, went to London and invested in property and ultimately Arsenal. Glossop North End could currently exist for about a decade on a week of Thierry Henry’s wages. Most of the money in football has never been particularly ‘ethical’ – whining about it now is shutting the gate after the horse has bolted to say the very least. Was Berlusconi’s cash that catapulted AC Milan back into the big time earned solely from football? I think not; there are plenty of other examples if you dig deep enough. Ours is under constant scrutiny; others are buried in the depths of history – something football fans only feel comfortable referring to when it relates to the number of trophies that their team has won.

Dr. Taylor’s ranting and raving reaches a crescendo on a subject which seems to be closer to his heart than most – fanbase, and a comparison between ours and that of the club we all know and love – Liverpool. Maybe now we get to the crux of his dislike for all things Blue.

It seems that Liverpool sold over half a million copies of their end of season DVD last year, which, even ‘allowing for the Istanbul effect’, puts the 22,000 copies of the title-winning season DVD Dr. Taylor “heard that Chelsea had sold” into the shade (no sources to back this up, of course). So Liverpool are Robbie Williams style mega-unit shifters and we’re not? I’m heartbroken. But he continues – we have a small ‘core’ support and we’re posing as a big club, and apparently “In passion or dedication, they don’t even approach the numbers of United or City fans, Newcastle, Liverpool or Everton for that matter.”

It is certainly true that Chelsea’s support slumped between the late 1970’s and the early 1990’s for a number of reasons. More difficult to argue with is the fact that Chelsea’s all-time average attendance figures are actually greater than those of Newcastle, Everton and Manchester City. The somewhat inaccurate comparison is made with cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle where one or two huge clubs dominate the football landscape with a few lower league stragglers picking up the scraps in terms of available support. Chelsea, for a team posing as a ‘big club’ in a city that houses Arsenal, Spurs, West Ham, Fulham, Charlton, Millwall, QPR and Crystal Palace to name just a few, with numerous clubs in the satellite towns that surround the capital, aren’t doing too badly by my reckoning.

For all Dr. Taylor’s accumulated knowledge, his arguments sadly add up to the same thing – the real ‘big’ clubs are long established and we simply have no business crashing their little exclusive party. The rest of us should know our place, doff our caps politely like subservient also-rans and be happy with the occasional lucky victory over football’s squeaky-clean old guard without daring to disrupt their ritual sharing out of silverware that has gone on for years on end. Dr. Taylor finishes his tirade with the pointed suggestion (borrowed from elsewhere, I might add) that the three hardest words to say in the English language are “Come on Chelsea”. Is this really the best argument one of football’s top academic minds can come up with? Rogan, I’ve no alternative but to finish with another three words that I find trip effortlessly off my tongue, as they do every time these weak, tiresome, biased and baseless arguments are leveled at Chelsea:

You’re talking shit.