Celebrations broke out on Fleet Street shortly after Chelsea wrapped up the Premiership title with a 3-0 demolition of our closest rivals, Manchester United at the Bridge. But the gentlemen of the press weren’t celebrating Chelsea’s victory, of course; they were celebrating the fact that José Mourinho let slip that he was close to quitting. For two years, these football savvy denizens of the Fourth Estate have burrowed into him like a pack of hungry hounds; but just as they were getting frustrated at the survival skills of the Pompous Portuguese, he reveals they’d actually come close. Twice!
Listening to a partly incoherent and champagne-soaked Mourinho struggle to explain the fact that he hasn’t fully enjoyed the season made me cast my mind back to the beginning of the campaign. Before a ball was even kicked, demonizing Mourinho and Chelsea at home and across Europe quickly became the fad. Thus, after rehearsing their lines rigorously during the summer players’ bazaar, the so-called football purists, the anointed connoisseurs of the Beautiful Game everywhere took to prosecuting us with such gusto that it must have been one of the worst times to be a Chelsea fan. Our great sin was first exposed in the form of a six-match winning run from the beginning of the season. The sin wasn’t that we were winning; it was that we were winning without conceding any goals!
Promptly, such saintly figures as Johan Cruyff and Michel Platini announced the discovery of a corrosive malaise known as “the coaching culture of Jose Mourinho”. This culture had taken continental dimensions as evidenced in goal-barren leagues everywhere and the deployment of eleven athletes (not footballers) as defenders on the pitch against any opposition. In France, a round of Ligue 1 matches resulting in 5 goalless draws and a miserable return of 14 goals from 10 games scandalized Frédéric Thiriez, president of the French Football League so much that he immediately conscripted Michel Hidalgo, coach of the Platini-led French side that won the 1984 European Championship to quickly investigate this matter and propose solutions. Some of the measures considered by Hidalgo included rewards for first goals in a match and the award of bonus points for teams who score or win by three goals or more. Thus, when a few days later Monsieur Arsene Wenger began to make the latter proposal as a way to encourage attacking football, he wasn’t exactly being original, quite apart from the fact that at the time, Chelsea, the continental whipping boys were already outscoring his much touted attack-minded Arsenal side.
But Wenger’s was not the worst case of copycat Chelsea-punching gimmick that we witnessed then. That honour must go to that veritable institution of national conscience, The Sun newspaper. Following in the footsteps of Bitburger, the German brewing company that offered 10,000 liters of beer to supporters of any team that manages to defeat Bayern Munich (which at the time were on a 15-match winning streak) in a bid to banish this apparently Chelsea-instigated boring football, The Sun came up with a bounty. Any player who first breaches the Chelsea defence was promised the princely sum of £10,000 for any charity of his choice. So, when lucky Luke Moore of Aston Villa promptly did this at the Bridge, even Chelsea fans were happy for him. At the time, because of the media-induced hoopla that surrounded the whole thing, we all thought young Luke would never score a better or more important goal in his life. We thought his ascension to the pantheon as a god for football minions was complete, even though he and his team left the Bridge empty-handed. At 19, there was a lot of mileage there in the celebrity circuit. In fact, we all had visions of his pictures on billboards everywhere as advertisers fall over themselves to have him endorse anything from pants to bulldozers, while the great business brains at The Sun laugh all the way to the bank. But sadly it wasn’t to be. Poor Luke Moore quickly faded into seasonal obscurity; the only time we briefly heard of him again was a few weeks ago when he managed a hat-trick against Middlesbrough at the Riverside.
In any case, Chelsea themselves spoilt the fun for everyone by unexpectedly showing further chinks in their armour. First sign of this was at Anfield where they were held to a goalless draw by Liverpool in a Champions League group game. Benitez and the press had roused the whole nation to believe that Mourinho’s men dread playing Liverpool. But his sojourn as a prophet was cut short when Chelsea returned to paste his sorry side 4-1 in their own backyard. Then just as the paperheads began to wring their hands after the vintage 5-1 destruction of Bolton at the Bridge, Everton held Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Goodison. Two weeks later, the great Manchester United humbled Chelsea at Old Trafford – a defeat that almost led to the declaration of a public holiday throughout the British Isle! But Mourinho, rightly sensing that such winless displays do no good for the newspaper business helpfully cranked up his bionic men and they went on another 10-match winning run. By this time, the gap between Chelsea and Manchester United was as wide as China and the tittle-tattle and alarm pages were well and truly filled.
But since the whole idea was to slay the dragon, rather than give it a free ride over the Beautiful Game, the visit of Barcelona to the Bridge provided every patriotic English hack and Chelsea-hater the opportunity to show how much they love their Catalan compatriots. The clash was billed as the Angels of the Beautiful Game versus the Enemies of Football. Not since 1966 has England witnessed such celebrations that greeted the controversial defeat of Chelsea over two legs in the Champions League knockout stage. The fact that Liverpool, the defending champions were comprehensively thrashed home and away by lowly Benfica was no news. Terje Hauge was offered the Freedom of Fleet Street for sending off Del Horno, while Rijkaard, Ronaldinho and Messi were quickly canonized. The vultures hovered over the Bridge cawing for vintage Mourinho blood.
And more blood they got. Middlesbrough obliged them by inflicting the worst defeat of the season on Chelsea at the Riverside and, shortly after, plucky Fulham rode to glory at our expense at Craven Cottage. Mourinho’s substitution of Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips less than 30 minutes into the game in an attempt to try new things after Fulham had gone a goal up became the evidence the press needed to convince the world that Mourinho had lost it. His post-match interview, which said no more than the experts themselves had said, quickly became distorted into another evidence of a sore loser and referee-basher. They booed him off to St Andrew’s where the much-battered Birmingham, fighting for their lives and tattered pride, held his team to a goalless draw. Suddenly, Manchester United were galloping down, the gap had become a mere seven points and Sir Alex was breathing fire and calling upon his clan spread out all over the Premiership to do him the favour of cutting Chelsea down to size. Mourinho, in his self-imposed media silence was rumoured to be heading to Italy, Germany, Spain or wherever the English press fancied dumping him on their pages.
The press then hit jackpot when, in the heat of the media-induced hypocritical anti-diving mania, a section of Chelsea fans booed Didier Drogba at the Bridge after he’d just scored two goals in a Man of the Match performance against Manchester City. Popular fables had Chelsea’s dressing-room up in smoke, Mourinho at war with the whole Chelsea clan with Mr Abramovich shakily resting both hands on the panic button. The Chelsea house of cards was coming down and Sir Alex was on their tail! But just as this popular anti-Chelsea heat was building up nicely, Mourinho came up with his seminal Bird Flu moment and effectively pecked off their dream on the Premiership front. He had no problems with Sir Alex’s optimism he told the gathered press. In Portugal, where he comes from, there are no Devon Lochs, only Dying On the Beach. He was worried quite alright, but only by the swan in Scotland and yes, he would rather do his football talking on the pitch when West Ham show their face.
Now, if there was a game that defined what Chelsea stand for in the face of the barrage of attacks (merited and unmerited) hauled at the club, it was that game against West Ham at the Bridge. By the 10th minute, Chelsea were a goal down and by the 17th, they were a man down as well as Maniche was sent to an early bath for a challenge on Lionel Scaloni. But in a display that had true football lovers everywhere gaping in wonderment, Chelsea’s ten-men rallied to put 4 goals past the sorry Hammers in 41 minutes. It is the stuff of legends and by a country mile, the game of the season in the Premiership, up to that point at least. In fact, football historians would be hard-pressed to find anything in their books to match such a comeback in such circumstances. But Sir Alex was not going to be easily intimidated. He brushed aside Wenger’s men the same day at Old Trafford – still baring his teeth, still growling – until little old Sunderland made him beg for miracles, as Chelsea increased the gap with a win over Everton.
But a week after surviving Fergie’s ferocious fire, José Mourinho flew straight into the frying pan of our overnight football experts whose feast of uppity giggles soundly outed him as a clown moonlighting as football manager. Reading the football pages after Chelsea lost to Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, one got the unmistakable impression that the nation had unearthed such abundant pearls of coaching and managerial talents hitherto wasting away at the sports desks of our newspaper houses, TV and radio stations. It seemed that all that was left for true lovers of the game was to begin the campaign to get these guys to swap their notebooks and creaking keyboards for coaching badges. Surely, with such knowledgeable gems like James Lawton in charge of the English national team and Patrick Collins, Sam Wallace, Richard Williams, Patrick Barclay, Jeff Powell, Tom Dart, Nick Townsend, Matt Dickinson, Simon Hattenstone and so on in charge of the top Premiership clubs, winning the World Cup, the European Championship, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup would be an English monopoly till eternity!
Typical of these football geniuses of the press, the operation was as swift as it was spectacular. Once Mourinho descended on the Old Trafford grounds, waving the team-sheet, they trapped him in their trapeze as the crowd bayed for his blood. They then quickly opened up his brain and began multiple analyses. Every diagnosis returned the verdict that the man was too clever for his own good. Apparently he was trying to outthink Master Benitez, but ended up dribbling himself. In fact, the orgasmic national consensus is that the team selection could only have been made by Feste while wearing his motley in his brain. Mourinho, the token tactician, the beast blighting the Beautiful Game was finally in handcuffs, thanks to our gallant press!
Not unexpectedly, some grieving Chelsea fans joined the mob. In fact, there were those already discussing Mourinho’s future, frantically shopping around the internet for an attack and flair-minded manager to replace him, having belatedly realized that Roman now really needs to get his money’s worth. Seriously, reading some of these fans, you’d think winning the Premiership title second year in a row is indeed a consolation, rather than the big prize. Some of them have actually sworn that with Roman’s roubles, even their grandmas can win the Triple for Chelsea year in, year out. However, my real concern at the time was not with the fair-weather fans who celebrate when we win and who want everyone sacked and sold when we lose. I was not bothered about people who habitually cannot see the big picture or who lack perspective to life and football. I was worried about fans who should know joining the bandwagon and spreading unnecessary alarm over the events of that Saturday at Old Trafford, especially with the deluge of misinformation in the press at the time over the issue.
While all this was going on, Hypocrisy Inc was decidedly ignoring what may eventually turn out to be the biggest tactical cock-up of the season starring Monsieur Wenger. For the very unconvincing reason of resting Henry, the man left the striker out of the team that faced United at Old Trafford. Wenger was playing one of his fiercest rivals away; he needed the points to keep the pressure on Spurs in the race for the last Champions League place, and he rests the Captain, leader and talisman of his team? He left Old Trafford empty-handed and arrived in Portsmouth shortly after, played Henry, but got only a point! By the time Spurs came to Highbury, Wenger still had the opportunity of beating them and reducing the gap to a point with a game in hand; but the tactical wizard again, inexplicably kept Henry out. The result was that at a time they most needed the push, Wenger’s men had only garnered 2 points from a possible 9 leaving Spurs in the driving seat. So, all Spurs have to do now is win against a West Ham side that have nothing to play for in the league, having already qualified for Europe by reaching the FA Cup final and very likely to rest key players against Spurs for that very purpose. Thus, Wenger can very well win his remaining two games in the league, lose the final of the Champions League in Paris against Barcelona and end up with nothing this season. Wenger could be left with only the consolation of talking up his chances in the UEFA Cup next season! Rather than question Wenger’s decision to put all his eggs in one basket by ‘resting’ Henry in those vital games, the press is celebrating him as the ideal foreigner for the England manager’s job, if only we could have him.
Anyway, while Wenger hugged the limelight for reaching the Champions League final and for being mentioned almost reverentially for the England job, Mourinho retreated with his team to prepare for the biggest game of the season against Manchester United. Sir Alex promised to be the party pooper, ready to deny Chelsea that one point to seal the title. By the noon of Saturday, April 29, 2006, the nation was tuned in to see the battle at the Bridge. But Sir Alex and Manchester United stood no chance. Mourinho used the opportunity to emphatically show why those who’re talking of any gap closing are at this moment talking cobblers. Considering what was at stake, the caliber of opposition and the manner of their demolition, the game was arguably Chelsea’s best of the season. The boys were sending a message to all rivals everywhere that next season they’ll have to raise their game to compete with us.
But it may well turn out that Mourinho’s coded message in that claim that he almost quit would prove the most important. I say this because I see that the press once again has failed to understand the underlying message a seemingly vulnerable Mourinho is sending to them. The man is telling them that he’s wised up to their antics and that he would adapt to beat them at this game. He’s saying he’s received their best shots and he’s still standing. He’s saying he’d be here winning with Chelsea until they give us our due. But really, Mourinho need not bother about Chelsea getting their due. Let him just keep on delivering as he’s doing. The press knows it is difficult to ignore success for long. They’ll come around to give us our due in due time. Let’s just say it’s taking them time to get used to us being atop the pile.
In the meantime though, it’s back to the barricades. Every Chelsea fan will have to wise up to what the press and opposition are trying to do to our club. It is their sworn commitment to belittle Chelsea and whatever Chelsea achieve in the vain hope to return us to obscurity. It is no surprise that almost every one of them is using every cheap trick to undermine our back-to-back Premiership victory. Reading the newspaper pages, you’d think our achievement is a footnote to Rooney breaking his foot. They’re all happy to say we have no history, forgetting that we were the club that first qualified for Europe in this country and that we were already European champions seven years before Liverpool won their first. The press is angry with Mourinho because he dares to succeed. They are not happy with him because he isn’t the self-effacing English-kind and, most importantly, because he’s changed their selfish and convenient ‘rules’ of media engagement. Of course, no one is suggesting that even as fans, we must agree with every Mourinho decision or action, be it on the field or off; but it would amount to self-flagellation to criticize him for his attitude (which he’s entitled to as a grown adult) or a few bad results (which he’s entitled to since he isn’t God and football isn’t mathematics).
Mourinho is no different from every other successful football manager or coach in history. These men are brave, single-minded individuals, who believe strongly in what they believe and use such beliefs, no matter what anyone else thinks, to achieve success for their teams. They all have their baggage. We should not allow the media to define Mourinho for us. We should embrace who he is and recognize that we did not employ the Pope as our manager, but an ordinary bloke who simply doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If he’s a bastard, he’s our bastard and we should be absolutely proud of him as far as he’s delivering results and as far as he remains in Chelsea’s employ. That is the nature of this business. You’re a fan, because at some level of engagement, especially against the opposition, you simply don’t want to know. It’s not about being prim and proper, nice and likeable; it’s about being savvy. No one gave us a thought when we were the butts of pub jokes or when they lorded it over us, so why should we be the ones to make their case for them against us – be it about the unusual depth of Abramovich’s pocket, the supposed arrogance of Mourinho or generally the Chelsea way of doing things?
The only thing I’ve signed up to is to give Chelsea my unflinching backing as a fan. And that means ‘blindly’ supporting any manager and player who dons our colours against all others. When next season comes, we’ll be here to take all that the jealous, badmouthing brood has to offer and, in the end, we’ll once again rub their grubby faces in our increasing success until they finally surrender!