One thing I’ve learnt to do in my many years supporting Chelsea is expect the unexpected because the unexpected is so typically Chelsea.
I’ve also mastered the art of pessimism over the years, not just erring on the side of caution with a bit of realism but downright expect-nothing pessimism. Of course, that’s often misinterpreted as a lack of faith but the way I’ve always seen it, if I expect nothing and that’s what I get, then it doesn’t hurt quite so much. The flip side to that, of course, is that anything you do get is a bonus.
Take this season for instance, at the start of it, given we still hadn’t addressed our squad in terms of over-reliance on older players, I didn’t expect much. Ok, so I was excited at the prospect of a new young manager and made the mistake of believing Chelsea might actually regard this one’s contract as a permanent one – but we all know what happened there!
By the time we entered March, we’d found ourselves not only outside the top four but also putting in the sort of performances even Sunday League players with hangovers the size of Mourinho’s ego would be embarrassed to put in. And even if the news that Andre Villas Boas had become another management casualty at Chelsea came as no great surprise, misery just doesn’t cover the feeling around the club and supporters at the time. I suspect the fact Abramovich had let our slide go on for so long suggests he too had hoped AVB could somehow turn things around but with the players clearly as unhappy as those watching them week-in-week-out, the rot had set in too deep.
This time though, instead of replacing a manager mid-season with some halfwit from upstairs, Roman had the decency to hand the poison chalice baton to one of our own in Roberto Di Matteo. Smart move as it turned out because not only did it quieten down those who actually felt aggrieved at AVB’s departure but in the pairing of Roberto Di Matteo and Eddie Newton, Roman was giving us a reminder of happier times – and subconsciously hope.
I know that probably sounds a bit dramatic or airy-fairy but think about it – when we heard the two of them were going to be on the touchline for us until the end of the season, did any of us not think about 1997 and smile? And it certainly seemed to have that effect on the players. Not immediately, because even though results started to improve, it still took a while for the dropped heads to lift and the hunched shoulders to straighten up – but the savvy Di Matteo has shown in handling these players wore down any remaining tantrums that might have lingered under the surface….and the response has been nothing short of incredible.
Whilst the damage was probably already done in the Premier League as far as finishing in the top four was concerned, Roberto Di Matteo has done the seemingly impossible and steered us to not just one but two cup finals. The first of those saw us beating Liverpool this weekend to lift the FA Cup for the fourth time in six years – and we’ve still got the Champions League final to come. Not too shabby for the ‘old lags’ as our ‘old guard’ have been so disrespectfully referred to just hours after lifting their most recent trophy. And I say disrespectfully because whilst it’s true, there may be a few key players in the Chelsea side regarded as the wrong side of 30, the careers they’ve had – and continue to have – warrants a bit more recognition than the seemingly constant derision from their critics.
Roberto Di Matteo has taken the resources he has, resources AVB sadly tried and failed to use effectively, and he’s got the best out of them. He hasn’t tried anything fancy with his tactics or formations, he hasn’t wasted time and energy trying to force square pegs into round holes, he’s taken what he has and stuck with the formula that works – a formula he’s seen work so well in the past. No, it hasn’t always been pretty but it’s been effective – and there’s no FA or FIFA ruling I’m aware of that says football has to be aesthetically pleasing. So whilst Barcelona may now regard us as footballing’s anti-christ for our defensive abilities, let’s not forget we still put as many goals past them as they managed against us – and we’re the one’s going to Munich as a result.
Mad isn’t it? In a season where everything looked to be going so wrong, a season where our ‘old guard’ weren’t expected to serve up anything better than that Sunday League side after a night on the ale, they’ve defied the critics yet again. And whilst the chances might be about as slim as my lottery numbers coming up on a Saturday night, we’re not mathematically out of finishing 4th yet either.
And you know what I love about this season more than anything else? It’s so typically Chelsea!