This is from a purely literary perspective, obviously, but right now I really wish I was a Chelsea fan. Just think how much better a book The Road to Moscow would be if I hadn't been fortunate enough to be born an Arsenal fan. The story so far this season has it all, hasn't it? The crooked Russian billionaire owner does away with his charismatic (and, let's face it, pretty bloody sexy Portuguese manager) because the team has only won the two league titles, two FA Cups and 2 Carling cups in the space of just three years. Not content with that, said Russian billionaire proceeds to replace the beloved Portuguese geezer with a virtually unknown former Mossad agent who doesn't even have his scout's badge in putting the blooming nets up and the petrobillionaire appears to be, to all intents and purposes training and picking the side himself.
Obviously, if you were writing a book, you'd add a few completely incredible touches for comic effect; like hard as nails defender John Terry being stretchered off after having his blusher smudged by an implausibly named American centre forward, called something preposterous like, I dunno....Clint Dempsey - yeah, that'll do - or something equally far-fetched. You might even conjure up a scenario whereby Didier Drogba (Nijinsky*) contrives to get himself sent off for arguing with the referee over a trifle and then kicking someone in the face. But, no, really; it's best to just let the laughs come out naturally; all you'd have to do is sit and watch, then write it all down. And some lucky, pen-pushing bloody Chelsea fan is doing just that as I type, while my team sits on top of the league, our season about as eventful as a zen buddhist convention pausing to unwind during a break. If it wasn't so awful, it would be hilarious. WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT??? IT IS BLOODY HILARIOUS!! So, there you have it, the world has been deprived of one of the great comic novels due to a simple twist of fate, but who cares?
Mind you, it wasn't so funny for the protagonists themselves. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich (Harry Enfield playing Damon Albarn in Blur: the Motion Picture) watches his team's laboured goalless draw with West London rivals Fulham from a cosy slab of reconditioned blue plastic in the notorious Shed End at Stamford Bridge. There among the empty Diamond White bottles and carefully nurtured and tattoed beerguts, he peers out from behind a thick cordon of private security guards as the action unfolds, wincing as much at the crowd's baying for the return of their hero, the sacked Portuguese manager as at the array of gilt edged chances that Salomon Kalou fails to convert. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the harmonious bosom of the crowd, his Chief Executive Peter Kenyon is being "verbally abused" and spat at by the home support. And no, before you ask, it's not Dennis Wise. He's on the receiving end of a "fuck off" from a referee and thus deserving of all our sympathy after a life in football lived beyond reproach. You can take the boy out of Chelsea...
Mind you, it may have been no picnic in the Shed, but by all accounts there had been a bit more espirit de corps there than in the home dressing room. When the assorted 'senior players' are not slagging off Avram Grant (Mick Jones from the Clash in twenty years time) and his old fashioned training methods (running through nettles playing invisible ping pong was good enough for Stanley Matthews, so it's good enough for you, young Ashley Cole...) they're presumably throwing lovingly assembled, ink bottle-bearing Mig fighter planes made from carefully folded copies of the Kensington & Chelsea Informer at "teacher's pet", Andrei Shevchenko. It's an ill wind that blows no good though; we do at last now know the answer to that time-honoured riddle, what do you buy the man who has everything?
It's all rather reminiscent of Friends, isn't it? The ones where Monica goes out with the millionaire computer software guy. Not content with the millions and the horny girlfriend who makes the best brownies in Christendom, he just has to go one step further and become the Ultimate Fighting Machine Champion of the World. He keeps the millions, but loses the girl (and, if they'd pursued the story line beyond his split with Ms. Geller, a couple of limbs into the bargain, we can safely assume.) Substitute the millions for billions, the software for oil and the Ultimate Fighting Machine Champion of the World for the Premier and Champions Leagues and the similarities are almost uncanny. Only Abramovich isn't going to be written out as easily as Pete.
In his recent interview with France Football, Arsene Wenger reiterated the questions he asked of Chelsea around the time of the Ashley Cole affair. Not wishing to drag over old coles, but simply for the benefit of non-avid followers of the beautiful game, in Wenger's own words, Chelsea "nicked" Cole from Arsenal after a high profile (and highly illegal) meeting at London hotel. At the time, the implication was clear; if we want one of your players, we'll come and get them. Cole had come through the youth system at Arsenal and was a fan of the club. So that's what Chelsea stood for then; the sheer financial clout of one man's wealth with no ethics or politesse to coonstrain it. But things have changed with the departure of Mourinho. I think Ambramovich has taken the bait. We're about to find out what his values are, and in a most unusual way.
"I want to win it better". Remember Cloughie's words? And that's what Abramovich wants too; to win with style. Like the Dutch in 1974. It's the sort of thing that fans will say, too, isn't it? We had it at Arsenal during the 'Invincibles' era. Just have a look at any copy of The Gooner from that period when no one in the Premier League could beat our team and still you'lll find them there; the moaners, the carpers, the bloody-know-it-alls. Most of it was directed at Sylvain Wiltord, obviously (that's the same Wiltord who scored the goal that gave us all the chance to sing "we won the league in Manchester") But then, they're fans; they pay for the right to expect the best, to ask for the impossible. The game can't live without them, but don't expect them to live in the "real world" whatever you do; for most of us, this is our escape. And so it is with Chelsea now, maybe this Roman's escape hatch too. They've had their cake and now, as is only right and proper, they want to eat it too. The game has grown so big because we're all of us who follow it gluttons. We literally cannot get enough; enough success, or even just enough of the game. So this is not a dig at the blues; it's probably what we would do too.
Abramovich must be a fan; because only a fan would have let Mourinho go, the way he did, for the reason that he did; for winning enough, just not in quite the right way. Anyone who's followed football over the last decade will have an idea of the kind of things that can go wrong when a self-confessed fan takes charge of his club. Leeds United under the Chairmanship of Peter Ridsdale went close to achieving glory in the Champions League. They lived the highlife, even the club goldfish was extravagently well fed. They are now in League 1 - old division three - consumed by debts and foretunate still to be a functioning club. Oh, I realise that Abramovich is not Peter Ridsdale; he has the wherewithal to suceed where Leeds United failed and, who knows, maybe Chelsea will win the two European Cups in the next five years that the owner seems to crave. But equally, for all his other indulgences, Ridsdale never tried to pick the team.
There's a been a lot of talk about the game of football losing its soul recently. If you don't believe that a mere game like football is awash with ethical and philosophical debate, just look at France Football's questioning of Arsene. With its talk of morality and values, guardianship, goods and evils, rights and wrongs, it is, I suppose, indicative of how much the game means to us. And now, at long last, we're about to find out what Abramovich's values are. This will be his side and they'll play his way. It promises to be a fascinating view into the mind and the soul of an oligarch. It's going to be tough, but do you know something? I think he'll manage...
*That's the race horse, obviously; not the dancer...
L.U.V. on y'all,
Hear Bob read extracts from his diary of the 2007-08 season, "The Road to Moscow"!!
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