It must be spring. The lighter evenings, an increase in temperature, the sudden flurry of April showers interspersed with bursts of brilliant sunshine. The daffodils are out in time for Easter and some barmy University types are rowing up the Thames.
And as is customary at this time of year, Sir Alex Ferguson has stuck his wily old red nose out the cave after a long, hard winter and scented blood. Seizing upon the opportunity for a few mind games, he has growled menacingly at his favourite Portuguese partner in claret.
Seven points, eh Jose? Eighteen at one stage, wasn’t it? We’ll be down to see you soon…
Yes, back by popular demand after a long absence from top-flight football in England – it’s the return of squeaky bum time!
For all of the game’s unpredictable twists and turns, the script for the coming seven days will be more simplistic than that of the average TV soap. Gary Neville will fix his steely, faux-Pacino glare upon an interviewer and proclaim that United can still win the title. Rio, Rooney and Riverdance Boy will all stick their four penneth in – it ain’t over yet Jose, we’re right behind you and gaining fast being the message.
After dropping five points in two away games, we’ve started to think the unthinkable. We couldn’t blow it now, could we?
Were Kevin Keegan on repeat fees for his decade-old classic “I’d love it…” rant, he’d be watching the royalty cheques hit his doormat faster than Robben hits the deck after experiencing a sudden increase in barometric pressure synonymous with the season.
But the great Newcastle collapse of ‘95-96 would pale into insignificance next to a loss of the vast lead that we held just a couple of months ago. With the Grand National taking place the day before our crucial clash with West Ham, visions of Devon Loch are popping into the Blues’ collective psyche with a degree of regularity that might best be described as ‘unnerving’. The tension is being cranked up and large sections of the Chelsea faithful are running around Corporal Jones style, shouting “Don’t panic!” It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it?
Jose and the players clearly didn’t think so. The boss looks desperately unhappy, the pressure and annoyance at twenty months of misquotes clearly starting to tell. The team is out of sorts; Lampard looks a world away from being the world beater he was last season. We’re goal-shy and a shadow of the merciless, robotic force that ground out win after win earlier in the season.
And even worse, on Saturday we managed to make Olivier Tebily look like a decent player. It was all very strange indeed.
What seemed like a procession for the second season in a row looks to be mutating into the mother of all grandstand finishes; the type of breathless climax that the world predicted would never happen again, what with Roman’s money making the Premiership a rather pointless pastime.
So, six games to go and everything is still up for grabs. Only those with the spirit for the fight should stay tuned and for the rest, in the words of a newsreader announcing the football results before Match of the Day, you might want to look away now. Even against the backdrop of a Chelsea century that has lurched from near bankruptcy to untold riches, from Bates to Abramovich, from relegation to title glory and from Rougvie to Robben, the next few weeks could be one hell of a white-knuckle ride.
The importance of the league games against West Ham, Bolton, Everton, United, Blackburn and Newcastle cannot be overstated. At the most basic and obvious level in terms of our hold on the title, but the lasting consequences should we fail to cope with the pressure are difficult to comprehend. Lose it now and you’ll never hear our name in football circles again without the word ‘Blackburn’ being mentioned in the same breath. And that’s only after you’ve hidden under your duvet for about six months to avoid the hysterical laughter of an entire nation. We’ll be a failed billionaire’s experiment, the world’s most expensive busted train set. Jose will be damned eternally as a charlatan, some of the players might never recover mentally from such a blow.
As Newcastle’s history post Keegan-meltdown shows, losing a seemingly nailed-on championship in such a manner can have a deeply unsettling effect on a football club in the longer term. Not an ideal platform if you’re planning to launch a bid for world domination.
At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, for the visit of West Ham next week the team need our support. What they don’t need is for the red top-minded to start booing them when things aren’t going our way. To digress for a moment, a word or two on the business of booing. You pays your money, so you’re entitled to voice your opinions, right? Of course you are – it’s just like booing the chef if your starter is a disappointment. Or booing the garage mechanic when he doesn’t fix your car properly. You do that all the time, don’t you?
Football is of course a more emotive issue than repairs to your Toyota, but booing your own team (especially when they are winning) is for the bully who cannot function without numerical superiority or the comfort of having his gang around him; the last refuge of the terminally fuckwitted when all of the toys have been thrown from the pram. It is for the people who get their football opinions from the back pages of the Sun and they seem oblivious to the fact that their mindless berating of the team helps do the tabloids’ weasel work for them. They shout “Twenty million quid and you still can’t hit the target!” like the player himself had anything to do with his price tag; they proclaim that despite their advancing years, twenty-a-day habit and possession of a beer gut that has its own postcode, they could do a better job on a hundred grand a week. You’ve probably been unfortunate enough to sit near one of them at the Bridge at some point.
One question; if an individual or a team isn’t performing well, is hearing a chorus of boos every time they touch the ball likely to inspire them to greater things? Shutting out games when holding a lead might not be stylish, but in the light of recent events it is an effective and often necessary tactic. Criticise the manager for it all you like, but don’t boo the players for (successfully) carrying out his orders.
Saturday at St. Andrews could be categorised in football terms as ‘one of those days’. Two disallowed goals and numerous chances went begging against a team who had conceded twelve in their previous three games. Another determined second half performance followed an indifferent opening forty-five minutes, but we failed to breach a resolute Brummie rearguard action.
A trademark Chelsea late show was clearly not the required tactic against a team in Birmingham’s situation. Liverpool and United had recently shown that an early goal against a struggling side is a sure-fire way to shatter the fragile confidence that comes with a relegation scrap, whereas the Blues added weight to the theory that allowing strugglers to gain a foothold on a game is the best way to help build their resistance into a defiant wall that wins points. It is this first half malaise, along with our general lack of sharpness in front of goal that Mourinho and the players themselves need to address in the coming days.
So we have to wait a little longer for our membership of the elite back-to-back title winners club to be confirmed. Keys to this particular executive washroom are hard to come by without a fairly epic fight; anyone that harboured the belief that the title was all sewn up in January was sadly mistaken. Are the players and Jose mentally prepared for the battle after the lingering disappointment of defeat to Barcelona? It remains to be seen, but to draw a parallel our Catalan nemesis strolled towards the ‘La Liga’ title prior to their Champions League exit at our hands last season; thereafter they stumbled and stuttered before lifting the trophy later than had been predicted.
As the Blue bandwagon wobbles, the Euro-hardened Arsenal juggernaut (written off by many, including plenty of their own fans not so long ago) visits Old Trafford next weekend and those friendly Cockney types from the East End of London pitch their caravans up at the Bridge. If April Fools Day was the point when the title race kicked into gear, the joke could be on either us or United come next Sunday evening.
To put a typically English spin on the unique melting pot of drama, intrigue and outright barking lunacy that is the Premier League and our current predicament (if a seven point lead with six games left, one of them being a home fixture against our nearest challenger can be called such a thing), Sir Alf Ramsey’s legendary full time team talk from 1966 comes to mind:
“You’ve won it once. Now you’ll have to go out there and win it again.”
Jose predicted that the title would be won on the last day of the season at Newcastle; my nerves hope that it comes quicker, but if it does go down to the wire then so be it. But he, the team and the rest of us need to remain ice-cold in the face of Sir Alex. When victory finally comes and our celebration pint is downed, it will have been worth waiting for.