Chelsea never change

CHELSEA never change.Throughout their long history they've beaten the best and lost to the worst. "Chelsea will stagger humanity," proclaimed a hyperbolic journalist on their foundation in 1905 and I suppose by and large he has been proved right, though hardly in the way that he envisaged.

Very recently we had hard evidence of that. Over the course of just three days. On a Thursday, Chelsea flew to Norway and lost abjectly 4-2 to Viking Stavanger in the second leg of their UEFA Cup tie; which meant that out they went. Their Roman manager Claudio Ranieri talked nonsense after the game, saying, surely irreconcilably, that the team had many numerous mistakes but it had played very well. Certainly it had given away some shockingly careless goals, and the fact that it lacked the ultra experienced French international Marcel Desailly in central defence, and that another central defender young John Terry (who actually scored what could have been a crucial goal) had only just returned after months out with injury hardly exculpated the side.

So when on the following Sunday they were due to meet at Anfield a Liverpool team, which had just thrashed Manchester City at Maine Road and the day before the Chelsea collapse in Norway overplayed feeble Spartak Moscow at home scoring five goals, Chelsea seemed due for a thrashing.

Not, however, to me; indeed I wrote on the day that Liverpool had better be aware of the fact that over the years the West London club had consistently risen Phoenix-like from the ashes. Which they duly did. Desailly returned to the defence - though a shocking second half error when he sold himself with a reckless challenge and could easily have conceded a goal - and the Londoners' defence held out resiliently - goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini making a couple of fine saves - till the very last minute. Then the defence at last faltered, Cudicini turned Emile Heskey's shot on to a post as he raced through unchallenged and that renowned poacher Michael Owen followed up to shoot home - off a post - for a 1-0 Liverpool win.

Over the past 97 years, no manager has really been able to cure Chelsea of their inconsistency though I suppose you could say the one who came closer too it was the late Ted Drake, who guided Chelsea to the only Championship they have ever won, as long ago as 1955. Ted had been a dreadnought Arsenal and England centre forward between the Wars, and during World War II, giving and taking knocks with powerful indifference, constantly injured, always among the goals.

The winning League team he built was in large part made up of players dug up from the Third Division, though it did have a salient star in Roy Bentley, who was one of the first English centre forwards to play the deep lying, dropping back behind the line, game. And if it took Chelsea 46 years to win the Championship, it took them 65 years to win the FA Cup. So much so that back in the latter 1930s a comedian even recorded a song about it: THE DAY THAT CHELSEA WON THE CUP. "On the day that Chelsea went and won the Final," he sang, "all the human race went off the wheel." Other strange things were said to have happened. "A pigeon laid an egg upon the cat." Chelsea hadn't reached the Cup Final since 1915, known as The Khaki Final, because so many of the crowd in Manchester where it was held were in Army uniform.

Great players graced the team in abundance, not least two famous Scots. Hughie Gallacher and Alec Jackson had been members of the so called Wembley Wizards, the Scotland team which had pulverised England 5-1 at Wembley, with Jackson, the tallest man of a tiny forward line at 5 foot 7, scoring three times. Gallacher was a tough little centre forward of huge skill and an explosive temperament, a heavy drinker, known to be found stretched out on a local pavement on the Friday night, but in gloriously elusive form the following Saturday afternoon. But even with these stars, even when they had both the England and Scotland 'keepers, Vic Woodley and Johnny Jackson, on their books in the late 1930s, Chelsea never won any titles.

They should have been the first ever English club to compete in the European Cup when it was launched in 1955 after their success but they threw it away. Their President Joe Mears - of the family which founded the club - was also President of the Football League whose insular Secretary Alan Hardaker persuaded him to boycott the competition. Chelsea have never yet had that chance. In 1967 they did at last reach the FA Cup Final but lost 2-1 to Spurs. Three years later against all the odds they won it, but not at Wembley. Leads United were the hot favourites but on a heavily sanded Wembley pitch when some strange goals were scored Chelsea held them to a draw. Thus came the first ever replay of a Wembley Final at Old Trafford, Manchester. Chelsea won it through a goal which went in off defender David Webb's shoulder; or was it his cheek? No one even Webb seemed quite sure. It came when a typical long throw from the striker Ian Hutchinson was doubly headed on. With such stars as the centre forward Peter Osgood, the playmaker Alan Hudson and the elusive Charlie Cooke, Chelsea had an outstanding side.

Strange then that Ken Bates, their present autocratic Chairman, should have gone to such lengths to deride the 1970s team of late. Which recently brought a furious response to Bates from its captain Ron "Chopper" Harris who told Bates he should go. But how can he, when the club is some 97 million in debt? Bates says that the hotels and restaurants he has built behind the old Shed stand are a guarantee of solidity. Hard to tell. Matthew Harding, the late financier killed in a helicopter crash, never wanted to build these additions. They loathed each other, just as Bates detests the Mears family, whom he supplanted. They in turn had a kind of revenge selling the ground, Stamford Bridge, to a property company, putting the club on the brink of expulsion and even disintegration for years. But the property market collapsed and Bates got the ground back.

Chelsea did win the Cup twice more, in 1997 and 2000 versus Middlesbrough and Aston Villa. Foreign managers came, won and went. Ruud Gullit, who wanted too much money, Gianluca Vialli, who began well then lost the plot. Now Claudio Ranieri who seemed lucky to get a contract renewal just before the last Cup Final won by the Arsenal when his team selection was badly wrong. Foreign stars have come in spades. Desailly, Gianfranco Zola, Vialli himself, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. But the Championship remains no more than a tantalising mirage. Consistency has always eluded Chelsea.