With the best will in the world, it can be said that Chelsea have never been overly popular with neutrals.
In the 1960s and early ‘70s they were the ‘Kings of the King’s Road’, synonymous with the swinging era that ushered in Cool Brittania MkI. This only served to rub rival fan-bases up the wrong way across the capital while those in the north choked on their black pudding at the gaudiness. They were flashy. They were all fur coat and no knickers.
Soon after, the age of hooliganism saw the rise to prominence of the infamous ‘Headhunters’ meaning a trip to Stamford Bridge became a highly precarious and unsavoury one. At the other extreme in Ken Bates they had an outspoken chairman who advocated the electrification of pitch-side fences.
Then in 2003 Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the club for £140m and Chelsea began buying players as if they were going out of fashion. Jose Mourinho was installed in the dug-out and though the media liked to portray the Portuguese coach as if he was the human incarnation of Marmite.
In reality he was anything but as every person who didn’t own a copy of Blue is the Colour in their record collection hated his caustic manner.
More so, it was the style – or lack of – in which Chelsea won their titles that left outsiders cold. Under Mourinho Chelsea was a machine, robust and always prioritising athleticism over aesthetics and this perhaps explains why the media was so utterly enthralled by the man at the helm while writing about his side’s achievements with the detachment of a weather report. He was charismatic, unpredictable and box-office for all of his flaws. His teams were none of these things.
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As time went on detractors stopped dismissing their top billing as the inevitable consequence of prosperity and instead other grievances came to the fore, namely their relentless chopping and changing of managers and a buy-to-loan transfer strategy that seemed wholly unedifying.
In the past fifteen years 13 coaches have been hired and fired with some of their departures leaving a sour taste in the mouth, while the Blues’ stockpiling of talent meant that last season they had 41 players loaned out across the globe. Forty-one.
An off-shoot of the latter charge is perhaps the most persistent of the reasons why Chelsea would almost certainly finish low down in a Premier League popularity contest. Because despite boasting a youth academy that has consistently been the most successful in the country – by way of example Chelsea have won seven of the last ten FA Youth Cups – the club’s reluctance to promote from within and choosing instead to buy made-to-measure superstars has long aggravated neutrals no end.
We all know the damning fact but here it is again anyway – until the recent emergence of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi the last player to come through the ranks and establish themselves in Chelsea’s first team was John Terry.
However remiss that is remains subjective, but what is indisputable is that the British public love nothing more than to see young home-grown footballers breaking through into the big time and staking their claim to be there. It’s life-affirming, or at least football-affirming; a reminder that the game is still not entirely all about the money and alienating glamour.
In short, it’s PR gold, instantly raising a club’s likeability by the power of ten even if they have previously been viewed unfavourably. And here was Chelsea, with numerous chances to blood their kids but choosing not to. It is little wonder they were so disliked.
That has all changed now though, or more accurately the process is underway, and it’s a transformation of Chelsea’s general perception that has come about courtesy of circumstance and a singular appointment.
That’s all it took: circumstance and putting a popular figure in charge. It makes you question why they didn’t do this sooner.
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Regardless, whisper it quietly, but is a club that for some time has been perceived by many to be a richer, bigger, more palatable Millwall actually now becoming…likeable?
That certainly appears to be the case 12 league games in with Chelsea easy on the eye and entertaining one.
This rollercoaster of fortunes has been ridden by Fikako Timori at the back, Mason Mount scheming in midfield, and Tammy Abraham firing on all cylinders up front with the young trio becoming more and more exceptional before our very eyes with every passing week. Aged 21, 20, and 22 respectively all three are English – for whatever that is worth – and all three possess blue blood having come through the Chelsea academy. It’s great to witness, even from afar. It’s fun too.
Granted, their fast-tracking has largely been facilitated by the club’s transfer ban but who cares for the whys when a team with a 21-year-old in the centre of defence and an 18-year-old winger in Hudson-Odoi ripping things up for kicks and thrills goes to Ajax and secures a mature and disciplined 1-0 away win the Champions League. That evening Willian was the oldest head in the side. Willian.
And how about following that up with a dramatic turnaround from 4-1 down to clinch a 4-4 draw in the reverse fixture?
Overseeing this youthful revolution is a former player – a club legend no less – liked by all, a man whose decency shines through in everything he does and says. It would be quite wrong to dismiss the Frank Effect in Chelsea’s new-found popularity under Lampard.
An away trip to Burnley at the end of October saw Chelsea compete in a goal-laden, entertaining game, something that is becoming a custom of late. The young side took on Sean Dyche’s bruisers and the intimidating atmosphere head-on and found a way. Their passing was slick. They looked always to attack first then ask questions later.
It was disconcerting to want them to win in that game and fixtures that followed against Watford and Crystal Palace.
That has never happened before and it may not be the last time either.