Chelsea had to rely on a favour from their cross-city rivals Tottenham to barely secure fourth place in the Premier League on Sunday, and with it, qualification for next season’s Champions League that looked impossible in January yet virtually assured just two weeks ago.
Having already lost an FA Cup final and with a surprise Champions League final still to contest, a compressed season which saw the London side outspend everybody, sack a club legend, and try to break away from traditional European competition altogether, the club’s fans have been through the full range of emotions. But, aside from a severely limited amount at a handful of games, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced those fans to stay away.
So, what is the fans’ perspective on a season like no other which they have had to watch from a distance?
Coming into the season after Frank Lampard had also secured a top-four finish on the final day of last season but another defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup final, expectations were high. This was especially so after a record-breaking recruitment drive that would end up topping £220m, as Chelsea took advantage of the savings they had made under a transfer ban the previous year.Embed from Getty Images
David Chidgey, board member and former chair of the Chelsea Supporters Trust, and host of the Chelsea FanCast said: “My love for Frank Lampard knows no bounds and I would have followed him over a cliff very happily, but the reality was, we’re not daft, we knew he was an inexperienced manager, we still had a young team, we still lacked quality in a few places. But the signings we were very excited about.”
The headline signings were the German duo of £47m Timo Werner from RB Leipzig and £72m Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen, to add to Leicester’s Ben Chilwell and Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech. But the two Bundesliga imports have been underwhelming at times, with Werner struggling for goals and Havertz badly affected after contracting Covid-19.
Dan Silver, another elected member of the Chelsea Supporters Trust board, said: “Everyone who’s come in has had a tough season. Havertz has had Covid. Young kid, he’s come over, he can’t see his family. People forget about the mental issues these footballers have to deal with. They’re all human beings, it doesn’t matter if they’re earning a hundred grand a week.”
It is a position echoed by Chidgey who said: “I don’t think anybody can get their head round how difficult it must have been for the likes of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner to come into a new team, in a new country, in the middle of a global pandemic where they couldn’t bond with their teammates in the usual way.”Embed from Getty Images
But Chelsea fans have a history of supporting misfiring attackers if their attitude seems to be right. Paul Hay, also on the Supporters Trust board, said: “Chelsea fans very much like that. If they can see a player really trying and putting their all in, they will back that player, and that’s happened with Werner. [Fernando] Torres had the same thing. They could see he was constantly trying all the time, and quite often failing, but fans stuck with him.”
For all the attacking reinforcements have not hit the heights expected of them yet, two defensive acquisitions have had a big impact for far less outlay. Hay said: “The biggest change really is one that was a free transfer, and that was Thiago Silva.”
The vastly experienced defender arrived from Paris Saint-Germain to organise a defence that had become notoriously susceptible to conceding under Lampard. And when Kepa Arrizabalaga’s difficulties from last season extended into this one, including a memorable error in a home loss to Liverpool, the Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy was brought in for £22m after input from former keeper and now technical advisor Petr Cech.
Chidgey said of the transfer: “Mendy’s a huge surprise in a sense, because if you look at his background there’s nothing to suggest he’d be as good as I think he’s been. I think he’s been absolutely excellent. I think that speaks volumes for good old-fashioned scouting.”Embed from Getty Images
Once Mendy replaced Kepa in goal Chelsea produced some impressive form in the first half of the season. A 17-game unbeaten run in all competitions from September to December culminated in a 3-1 victory over Leeds which sent them top of the Premier League. After outrunning Marcelo Bielsa’s famously hard-working side in the come-from-behind victory just three days after securing top spot in their Champions League group with an Olivier Giroud-inspired 4-0 victory over Sevilla, everything looked to be coming together under Lampard, in only his third season of senior management.
But the subsequent collapse, including five league defeats, saw them slip to eighth place. Roman Abramovich did what he has done so often before and sacked Frank Lampard in January, although for the first time the owner made a personal statement of thanks for the departing club legend.
Lampard will forever be popular with fans and Hay says: “At the time I think there were definitely two camps. One thinking results were going badly and Frank was out of his depth, but a lot of fans, and I personally, thinking we should give him more time.”
David Johnstone, editor of the CFC Fanzine and another Supporters Trust board member, was not surprised. Despite personally being happy for Lampard to have the job for life, he said: “I know quite a few of the players and to Frank Lampard, John Terry and Joe Cole I’ve said in the past, ‘If Chelsea offer you a coaching role, take it. If they offer you an ambassadorial role, take it. But if they offer you the manager’s post, don’t take it, because it’s only going to end one way.’”Embed from Getty Images
Chidgey felt that it was not just Lampard that was gone, saying: “I really bought in to what I thought Chelsea were doing which was to build a different philosophy. But when Frank got sacked, we realised that was never the club’s idea at all. It was a reaffirmation of what we know they are deep down but don’t want to admit. They are a grey, cold, corporate business.
“It was the end of the dream, from an emotional point of view, seeing young kids come through, seeing a manager like Frank do it organically and over time. However, if you take the emotion away from it, undoubtably it was the right decision,” he added.
Lampard was quickly replaced by Thomas Tuchel, recently sacked by PSG, and the German oversaw a significant defensive improvement which generated a 14-game unbeaten run in all competitions on the back of 12 clean sheets.
Silver had a realist’s view of the managerial change, saying: “My head says it was the right decision to get rid of Frank because he was vastly inexperienced. My analogy was it was like giving someone who’s just passed their driving test the keys to a top of the range Ferrari.
“It’s been a season of two halves. The heartbreak of losing Frank, but Tuchel came in and he’s really galvanised everybody,” he added.Embed from Getty Images
The improved form saw victories over Tottenham, Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City, Porto and Real Madrid, and certainly made the divorce from Lampard easier.
“Thomas Tuchel’s come in and there’s no denying that he’s really changed things around. Given where we were at Christmas, I don’t think any of us could have thought we would be [finishing in the] top four, we would be in a cup final, albeit that we lost it, and that we would be in the Champions League final,” said Hay.
And Chidgey said: “I now suspect that they approached Tuchel before [Maurizio] Sarri, so I think Tuchel was always in their plans. He is clearly a superb coach and a superb manager.”
It has not all been plain sailing though, and Johnstone tempered the praise, saying: “I like Thomas Tuchel, I think he’s done brilliant since taking over, but he got it wrong against West Brom, he got it wrong against Arsenal, and unfortunately he got it wrong against Leicester in the FA Cup final.”
But of Lampard Chidgey added: “One wonders, would he have got the boot so readily had 40,000 of us been in the stadium singing his name week in week out? We’ll never know.”
The truly defining feature of this season is the fact that is has been conducted almost entirely without fans. Whereas ‘behind closed doors’ matches were previously seen as serious punishments for supporter misbehaviour, the spread of Covid-19 has forced it to become the norm, with a restricted amount of Chelsea fans allowed inside Stamford Bridge only for the Leeds victory in December, followed by a drab draw with Krasnodar, while London was in Tier Two of the government restrictions, before rising case numbers kept them out again until the league victory over Leicester last week.Embed from Getty Images
Chidgey thinks this has had a big effect on fans, saying: “I have felt a huge disconnect from the football club, the football, and all of it really. I just feel really cut off from it. And I think if we do look back on this season in years to come, you’ll be going, ‘Oh well got to an FA Cup final.’ But I wasn’t there. I’ve missed two FA Cup finals since 2000 and that was last year and this year. It’s a huge part of my life and not being able to go there leaves a huge vacuum.
“It is our way isn’t it to grit our teeth and carry on, but we don’t really fully understand the impact that might have had on us. I’m a psychotherapist in my day job so I would be thinking about that more than most but it’s hard to know what that impact has been.”
But Hay can see a certain benefit to the wider Chelsea support, saying: “In some ways perversely, it may have had a positive effect. The ones who wouldn’t normally go to the ground are actually seeing a lot more of the club. They are just as engaged as anybody else because it’s not as if they are any different to [those] who used to go to the ground. Everybody’s the same, we’re just having to watch it on TV.”
Johnstone feels that there has been too much of a push to continue football during lockdown whatever the cost, saying: “What sickened me was, there were thousands of people dying or getting ill from Covid-19 and all the people running football were worried about was, ‘When can we get the football on again?’ No, get your priorities right. Let’s get this country safe, so people can get back to some normality, and then worry about the football.”
In highlighting his views on football without fans, he added: “I’m not going to say I feel sorry for them, but for Liverpool to have won the league last season with no one there. It’s not going to be the same as 50,000 people inside Anfield.”Embed from Getty Images
But with the final two rounds of league matches rearranged to ensure each team could have home fans in, Silver summed up the return when he said: “There’s a lot of things I’ve missed but spending a day at the football, it’s good for the soul.
“Horseshit and hamburgers I call it. Just all those little things, it’s so evocative. I don’t get those emotions anywhere else in my life. Chelsea winning 2-1 on Tuesday, they’re almost unique emotions to football.”
The fans may not have been in the stadium all season, but they made themselves heard in April outside the ground before the draw against Brighton.
Two days earlier, Chelsea had joined the rest of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’, along with Juventus, Inter and AC Milan, and Barcelona, Atletico, and Real Madrid in signalling their intent to form the long-threatened European Super League. An extraordinary response from the world of football saw governing bodies, broadcasters, players, pundits, and fans mobilise to reject the proposals.Embed from Getty Images
Petr Cech was seen pleading for time with angry fans before the Brighton kick-off and soon news broke that Chelsea were preparing to pull out. By the end of the night, all six Premier League sides had backed out, but there is still a lot of bad feeling among fans, with Chidgey calling the proposed Super League: “The end of football. I think it was that existential, I really do.”
“A lot of us have been following Chelsea since the 1970s, and we’ve seen a steady erosion of what football meant to that generation of supporters. The European Super League would have been the absolute final nail in the coffin.”
Silver concurred, saying: “They didn’t do the right thing, they stopped doing the wrong thing. I think it was a massive own goal. Badly executed, no fan engagement. Had they had fan engagement they could have saved themselves a lot of reputational damage. Nobody had any appetite for it. We don’t want to play Real Madrid three times a season.”
Johnstone felt that it was just the latest symptom of fans being taken for granted and thinks UEFA and Sky are as much to blame as the clubs themselves, saying: “Without people like me professional football wouldn’t exist, but for the people running professional football, people like me are the last to be considered.
“Until the European Super League, the clubs were thinking, ‘We don’t really need the supporters.’ It’s a lot easier to run their clubs without the supporters. We’re a nuisance,” he added.Embed from Getty Images
Hay highlighted the difference between Chelsea and Manchester United, where fan protests have continued since: “They’ve got bigger issues there because they’ve got owners who are taking money out of the club, whereas we’ve got an owner who has constantly pumped money into the club.”
But he does not feel that lets the Chelsea ownership of the hook: “There’s still a bit of suspicion because they only backed down because of the fans’ opposition to it. What would have happened had we not had that opposition? It would have just gone ahead and suddenly we’re all part of it.”
Chidgey gave the analogy: “You’ve been married to somebody for 30 years and you get drunk, and you sleep with a gorgeous supermodel. Then you go home guiltily and tell your wife and say, ‘It was only because I was drunk’, she’s not going to say, ‘Well that’s alright then!’ is she? But that’s where we are.”
But he added of the club: “I know because I’ve had meetings with them, they are very contrite about it. But they’ve got to now earn our trust because they’ve broken that trust.”
Johnstone’s thinks it will not be long before top clubs make another play for more revenue, saying: “What is going to happen in the next 10 or 15 years, top-flight clubs like Chelsea have realised that they’ll soon have the ability to negotiate their own television deals. Chelsea apparently have got 200 million fans around the world. If they can get 50 million paying one pound to watch a game, Chelsea will do it.”Embed from Getty Images
Against that turbulent backdrop, the team still then reached the FA Cup final after victory over Manchester City in the semi-final and will also meet the league champions in the showpiece European final next week. Some shaky form and bad luck saw Leicester win their first FA Cup at Chelsea’s expense, and assistance from Tottenham was required to secure a place in the top four. There are mixed feelings about the finish to the season but on the whole opinions are circumspect.
“It’s a case of absolute minimum expectation is for us to get to the Champions League. We’d much rather have a trophy. I think we are where we should be. Champions League final is incredible [but] losing the FA Cup final was hugely disappointing because we’d have much rather taken that. Nobody really remembers who came fourth in 20/21,” said Silver.
Chidgey was particularly unhappy about the FA Cup loss, saying: “I felt that [Tuchel] hadn’t taken it seriously. It’s the oldest cup competition in the world, it means a lot to supporters, and even stupid things like not wearing a suit, that pissed me off for some reason.”Embed from Getty Images
But of the Champions League final he added: “We have fallen a long way behind in terms of being a European powerhouse so to get to a final, without sounding too much like Spurs or Arsenal, it is an achievement because they have punched above their weight in this competition this year. So even if they don’t win it, you can take a step back and say they did pretty well.”
While he would have prioritised the FA Cup above all, Johnstone feels: “We still are going through a transition period. Top four, two cup finals, has been a great achievement.”
Overall, the fans have endured a difficult year, only partly redeemed by the late-season achievements. But one thing everyone agreed on was their player of the season. “He’s been my player of the season the last two years, Mason Mount,” said Johnstone.
The 22-year-old was voted by fans as men’s Player of the Year in only his second season in the first team, and Chidgey added: “I actually voted for him in the Football Writers Award which is a bit one-eyed and myopic of me, but I have my reasons. He is the real totem pole for Chelsea supporters because he’s been at the club since he was eight, he could be the new John Terry in that respect. His work ethic and desire is Lampardesque, but he’s got more naturally ability and technical skill than Lampard. This kid’s got it all.”Embed from Getty Images