The trouble with Chelsea

It seems that, after a series of setbacks on the field, Ancelotti, double or no double, may be on his way out, writes Brian Glanville.

“History repeats itself,” wrote Karl Marx. “The first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” So is the history in some sense repeating itself at Chelsea? When the club was founded back in 1905, an ecstatic journalist proclaimed, “Chelsea will stagger humanity.” I'm not sure the club has ever done that but certainly through its long life it has provided endless shocks and surprises.

Founded by the Mears family, taking over a Stamford Bridge location on the Fulham Road, which had not long since been a coal yard for a major London Railway, it quickly rose from the old second division into the old first, but once there, all was inconsistency. Indeed, in the late 1930s, a comedian even made a record entitled, “The Day that Chelsea won the Cup”. The FA Cup of course. “On the day that Chelsea went and won the final,” the song began, “all the human race went on the wheel”.

Indeed, Chelsea didn't win the final till far off 1970 and then it took them a replay in Manchester. Since then, their luck broken so to speak, winning cup finals has been a fairly frequent event.

Indeed last season, they pulled off the league and cup double, under the managerial aegis of the former Italian international, Carlo Ancelotti. But now Ancelotti himself seems to be hanging by a thread.

As, indeed, did the club itself not so long ago, when the Mears family, its Chairman by then Brian Mears, amiable descendant of the founder, and son of Joe Mears, the man who flunked and failed to take Chelsea into the first ever European Cup in 1955, ran out of funds. This put Chelsea in fearful peril. When Brian Mears, whom I knew well and much liked, didn't sell the club to its eventual owner, Ken Bates, Brian told me that he told Bates he could have it for £450,000, but Bates couldn't raise the money; it passed into the power of property developers, who aimed to knock it down and build on it. It is, indeed, a prime site, situated in a fashionable part of South West London.

Bates, by that time, “owned” the Club, bought for a pittance, but not the ground. He made a half baked, ill conceived, attempt, via a so called “Save the Bridge” campaign, sending people round the pitch with buckets, touting for funds from fans, who were already paying at the gate. What saved both him and Chelsea was a sudden and sensational collapse in the property market, obliging the owners to give up their building scheme and sell the club to Bates for a relatively modest sum.

Bates, a notable autocrat, proceeded to do some building himself in the shape of the so called Chelsea Village, a hotel, shops and office behind what was known as “The Shed” end of the ground. But financial disasters duly loomed again and he was bought out to the tune of GBP19m, when all seemed lost, by the self made (but then, what was Bates himself?) Russian Oligarch, Roman Abramovich, who, as we know, proceeded to pour money into the club.

Titles were won, one manager succeeded another. Abramovich even dispensed with “The Special One”, Jose Mourinho himself, after flouncing out of the Directors' box at Villa Park, when Chelsea went a couple of goals down. The writing was on the wall for Mourinho, already winner of the European Cup, with outsiders Porto and due to win it again, in 2010, with Inter, then to take over at Real Madrid. Abramovich, it seemed, was keen to see a more adventurous kind of soccer, though there was nothing very adventurous about promoting the uninspiring Israeli Avram Grant, apparently a personal friend, to run the team. True, he got it to the European Cup final in Moscow, where it lost only on penalties. But the players were reported to have little enthusiasm for him, and he would later be replaced by the ex-manager of Brazil, big Phil Scolari. A flamboyant figure and a World Cup winner, but a failure at the Bridge, due to be replaced in his turn by the accomplished Dutchman, Guus Hiddink, who looked the ideal incumbent, but never meant to stay for long.

Now it seems that, after a series of setbacks on the field, Ancelotti, double or no double, may be on his way out. Reportedly, Abramovich would like to appoint the highly successful manager of Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, and has already homed in on his former assistant at Barca and ex-outside left of the team, Txiki Begiristain. There is no doubt about Guardiola's stature and success as a manger, but both as player and coach, he has been Barca through and through, attached to a club adept at bringing talent steadily and successfully through from the junior ranks, welding them into an established and pleasingly effective pattern. Could Guardiola do that at Chelsea?

Chelsea's recent matches, and I've seen quite a few of them, have taken one back to the good old, bad old, days of their inconsistency, beating the best but losing to the worst. Such as that excruciating 3-0 home defeat by modest Sunderland, though that was followed by a 1-0 defeat at Birmingham City which was a travesty of the truth: Only superb goalkeeping by City's Ben Foster kept Chelsea out and they lost to a goal scored from Birmingham's only shot of the game.

Morale, though, has certainly been affected by the abrupt sacking of coach Ray Wilkins, whom I've known since his days as a teenaged prodigy of an inside forward with Chelsea: later to win infinite caps for England, both there and at Manchester United. Ancelotti and the players took it very badly and things weren't improved when as successor Abramovich appointed an obscure Nigerian called Michael Emenalo who not long since coached a girls' under-12 team in the USA. Neither Ancelotti nor his players will have anything to do with him. They were Wilkins' people to a man.

Frank Arnesen, ex-Ajax and Denmark star, then a GBP5m “Transfer” from Spurs as talent finder, is also on his reported way out. The talent he has found has by and large been a failure. You can hardly blame Abramovich for that, and to give him his due, there haven't been many other such fiascos as the acquisition at his behest of a faded Andrei Shevchenko, the Ukrainian and Milan striker for a fatuous GBP30m, plus colossal wages. And injuries to John Terry and Frank Lampard have played a manifest part in the decline.