Martin Samuel Article In The Times
Chelsea’s critics guilty of switching from the historical to the hysterical
Whenever Liverpool play Chelsea, the fans sing a song about history. Chelsea have none, apparently, whereas Liverpool, with five European Cups and 18 league titles, have an abundance.
This is not strictly true, of course. What Liverpool’s 23 trophies represent is achievement; history is just stuff that has happened, good, bad or indifferent. Every football club has history, even Milton Keynes Dons, and certainly one such as Chelsea that dates back more than a century.
Chelsea won a European trophy two years earlier than Liverpool and beat them to the League Cup by 16 years. They have produced an England captain, John Terry, while postwar England captains from Anfield have either been bought in, such as Emlyn Hughes and Kevin Keegan, or in the case of home-grown internationals such as Phil Thompson and Steven Gerrard, have received the accolade only temporarily as a result of injury. Also, Chelsea fought a battle for their very existence when developers wanted to turn their Stamford Bridge home into luxury flats.
There is history in London SW6 all right; what Chelsea lack in comparison with Liverpool is sustained success. Liverpool claimed the league title more than half a century before Chelsea and subsequently won it more than any other club. They lead 5-0 on European Cup victories, 7-3 on FA Cup wins. Within the record books, Liverpool’s status as the heavyweight champions of English football is undisputed; why worry?
Simple. Chelsea make the Kop hot under its collar because their recent success represents a challenge to the established order. The defence mechanism is to crow about history as if Roman Abramovich and José Mourinho cannot be part of it; as if Kenny Dalglish was not also an expensive import to an already successful club, much the same as Andriy Shevchenko; as if it would be possible for a business to use anything but its bank balance to meet the challenge laid down by Liverpool and their G14 allies, and the privilege and self-interest they represent.
The same emotion came to the fore when Lucas Neill chose West Ham United over Liverpool. It was as if the new money had no right to be at the same table. Yes, maybe Neill did go south for the wrong reasons — certainly West Ham have got about as much from their spending spree as Robert P. McCulloch, the American entrepreneur who in April 1968 paid $2.46 million for London Bridge, supposedly in the belief he was getting the one with the towers. Yet either way there was an awfully arrogant presumption on Merseyside, where it was treated as heresy that Neill should not respond to a click of the fingers, as if the hierarchy of English football should never be subject to change.
Arsene Wenger was at it, too, this week, denouncing a system that allows Chelsea to thrive with operating losses of £80 million, while pretending the structure of high-end European football is not the root cause of this problem. Those who despise Chelsea invariably fail to answer one basic question: how else are a team meant to break into the cosy club that is the Champions League, and remain there, without spending beyond their means?
There are occasional interlopers, such as Celta Vigo, of Spain, but they do not last without sustained investment. The Champions League is set up selfishly to maintain the needs of a tiny elite — that, fortunately for Wenger, includes Arsenal, despite their limited success in European competition (two trophies, 24 years apart, since entering the Fairs Cup in 1963) — and the only way around that is for an emerging club to plunge into debt in the hope their gamble brings reward. Some try and fail, such as Leeds United; others, such as Chelsea, are insured against financial oblivion by the wealth and ambition of their owner.
The parvenu nature of Chelsea’s arrival makes the G14 cabal resentful and good old-fashioned jealousy does the rest, but to bleat on about fairness or even history misses the point. What is better for football: that Liverpool win a sixth European Cup, or Chelsea win a first? And, if not Chelsea, then who would we like to see at the top table? Blackburn Rovers? Bolton Wanderers? An efficiently run small club, punching pluckily above their weight? Oh, please.
Wenger’s regard for lesser teams was demonstrated on Saturday when Blackburn earned a hard-fought if unappealing draw at the Emirates Stadium in the FA Cup fifth round. Did Wenger congratulate Mark Hughes, the Blackburn manager, that with a fraction of Arsenal’s resources and some of his best players missing, against a team with some of the finest technical footballers in the world, he had conjured a stifling stalemate and reduced Arsenal to a handful of attempts on goal? No, he called for replays to be abolished because they interfered with his Champions League schedule, not to mention Arsenal’s bold and fascinating assault on third place.
If Wenger had his way, Blackburn’s reward for holding firm for 90 minutes away from home would be to play another 30 minutes at Arsenal’s ground and then, if necessary, take penalties before a partisan home crowd. Sounds fair.
Wenger did not suggest that if a single encounter was to decide Cup ties, perhaps a seeding system could operate so that the higher-positioned side on the day of the draw always played away. Nor did he advance the reappraisal of wealth distribution to compensate smaller clubs for loss of earnings, FA Cup revenue clearly being of more importance to those denied the lucrative drip-drip of endless European group games. In fact, Wenger made no attempt to see beyond Arsenal’s point of view at all. Noticeably, he is no advocate of settling Champions League fixtures in such a slapdash manner.
He is not alone in this self-absorption. When pushed, he admitted he would not necessarily practise what he preaches given the same opportunity as Chelsea, conceding that Arsenal would have welcomed Abramovich’s millions, too. When tested, very few pass football’s morality test. The Liverpool supporters who mocked Chelsea’s Russian revolution were not so negatively vocal about the arrival of George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks, the new American owners, despite some awkward references to franchises and Liverpool Reds at the press conference. Even Manchester United diehards, while still paying lip-service to the antiGlazer movement, have been forced to admit that the impact on the club has been minimal. Same manager, improved squad, better league position, what is not to like?
Yes, it would be lovely if all clubs could be run by the local pork butcher with a lifetime of devotion to the cause and a shrine to some bygone wing half in his office above the shop, but in times when the game makes millionaires in months, not even years, that is not going to happen. History will be written, in part, by gatecrashers from Siberia and if your club are lucky enough to find one that wants to give your best player 100 grand a week, why argue?
So much of the antipathy towards Chelsea is hypocritical anyway. Wenger rightly questioned the connection between Chelsea and PSV Eindhoven, but what of Arsenal’s links to Beveren, the Belgian team? “There is one difference — they do not play in the Champions League,” he said. The follow-up question surely concerned when Wenger had first been aware of his ability to forecast the future.
Right now, it must be said, Beveren show no signs of Champions League potential, lying third from bottom in the Jupiler League. They have, however, competed in the European Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup twice each, the Uefa Cup on four occasions, and reached the Belgian Cup final as recently as 2004.
The cooperation agreement with Arsenal lasted from 2001 to July 1, 2006 and was considered complex enough to warrant investigation by the FA and Fifa. It was alleged that a loan of €1.5 million (about £1.007 million) from Arsenal to a company called Goal had helped to secure Beveren’s financial position, representing a breach of club ownership regulation. Arsenal claimed that this was an interest-free loan that had no impact on club administration and the FA and Fifa absolved all parties.
Less satisfactory was Beveren’s status as a glorified clearing house for the youth academy founded by the former manager, Jean-Marc Guillou, in Abidjan. The squad contained a majority of players from the Ivory Coast (and still does) who take advantage of Belgium’s loose work-permit regulations to find a shop window in Europe. A recent graduate is the Arsenal right back, Emmanuel Eboué. So while Chelsea’s links with PSV deserve exploration, they have not been alone in requiring the attention of football’s lawmakers. Yet what is this — all of it, positive and negative — if not history? Arsenal’s Ivorian production line, Liverpool’s proposed move from Anfield under the auspices of their new owners, the Russian who transformed Chelsea and English football, almost on a whim. Even the theft of Wimbledon FC by an opportunist from 80 miles north will one day be part of football folklore. While stick-in-the-muds such as the one on this page are still spitting out the words Franchise FC, a new generation of supporters in Milton Keynes will be drawing on our disdain to fuel their identity, in a no-one-likes-us-we-don’t-care kind of way.
No, it is not 18 league titles and five European Cups, but that was never just history anyway. That was genius. And, for the moment at least, Chelsea, Arsenal, MK Dons and the rest are a long way from there.