Have Chelsea suddenly become likeable?

The moment that Didier Drogba profited from Steven Gerrard’s ‘misplaced’ backpass was the moment that I (and many around the country no doubt) resigned myself to the fact that the Premiership crown would probably end up at Stamford Bridge this season. However, unlike their back-to-back victories of 2005 and 2006, my immediate sentiment toward their impending triumph has been one more of apathy than dismay, a strange feeling when considering that a year ago, I had greeted Andrés Iniesta’s last-gasp strike at Stamford Bridge as if it were one scored by Fernando Torres or Steven Gerrard. Although this recent sentiment is tempered by the desire for anyone but Manchester United to win the league, I thought to myself, are Chelsea really becoming more likeable?

It’s indisputable that Chelsea are one of the most disliked football clubs in England. Whilst staunch Blues fans will jovially attribute this fact to rival fans’ jealousy and envy, one needn’t look far to see the other reasons why this overwhelming belief persists. Let’s get the ‘givens’ out of the way first.

The main catalyst behind Chelsea’s ascent towards the mantle of the “country’s most hated” was undoubtedly the introduction of Russian benefactor Roman Abramovich. Abramovich’s financial input into the club almost instantly bore trophies, provoking inevitable cries that the club had merely “bought success”; a gross spend of over £400m since the second half of 2003 (with only £90m recouped in the same period of time) certainly fuels this argument. What was even more reprehensible for rival fans was the way in which Chelsea conducted their business – inflating the transfer market beyond all comprehensible belief and rewriting the book on ‘how to tap-up’ (if considering the recent Gaël Kakuta case, it appears that the club are still writing new chapters in this book).

Having hastily assembled a band of talented mercenaries, the manner in which Chelsea dominated during the early part of Abramovich’s reign made the club even more dislikeable. The dour, yet effective, brand of tactical football employed by José Mourinho was extremely dull to watch and at times seemed to suck the fun out of the sport. And then there was ‘The Special One’ himself. Mourinho’s arrogant, often persecution-complex style persona (a trait which seems to have passed on to many of Chelsea’s fanbase), whilst full of comical character, served to irk even the most well-mannered of rival fans. His constant criticism of other teams and officials, and goading of fellow managers undoubtedly served to intensify growing hatred of the club.

Whilst Abramovich had succeeding in delivering (most of) the trophies he craved, his vision of Chelsea as one of the biggest clubs in the world had still yet to materialise. The profuse disliking of the club has certainly hindered his aim.

With Abramovich still a great distance short of making Chelsea a truly dominant global brand à la Barcelona, it’s undeniable that he needs to make the club more likeable. However, since the instalment of Carlo Ancelotti, it appears that the tide of popularity is slowly but surely moving towards Chelsea. Ancelotti himself has come across as a humble, well-mannered man with a great deal of humility, one who does not seek to criticise officials or other managers. The Italian has also stamped his mark on the team’s performances in the most positive way, with the side notching up 133 goals this season, a staggering 95 of those coming in the Premier League. Now known in some quarter’s as ‘The Entertainers’, it seems that the team’s spellbinding performances this season have done a great deal to erase the ghost of José Mourinho that had plagued Ancelotti’s predecessors.

Credit must also be given to Ancelotti for the way he has managed the enigmatic Didier Drogba. Undoubtedly a world-class forward, Drogba had always been equally as synonymous with his propensity to dive and to over-exaggerate tackles and confrontations (conduct which had failed to endear him to non-Chelsea fans). Under the guidance of Ancelotti, Drogba has managed to stay on his feet and curb his petulant tendencies, resulting in the most productive season of his Chelsea career so far (35 goals and 11 assists in 41 games so far this season).

Another major contributory factor to the rising likeability of the West London club has been the meteoric rise of northern mon…eybags Manchester City, a rise that has seen Chelsea usurped as the nation’s most crass football club. With City now frequently indulging in two of Chelsea’s most favourite hobbies (tapping-up and spending money like it’s going out of fashion), it appears that the nation have found themselves a new club to ‘hate’. At times it has even appeared as if the ‘apprentice’ had been playing the ‘master’ at their own game, after allegations arose that City chief executive Garry Cook had sent Mark Hughes off to Dubai last summer in a bid to romance John Terry.

However, despite the recent tempering of the club’s reputation, Chelsea have still yet to shed themselves of their previous sins. The consensus amongst rival fans is that Chelsea’s perceived nouveau riche fanbase of ‘Johnny Come Latelys’ don’t really have a clue about the club’s history (sic) or the sport itself, and that for the most part, their association with the club began around the same time that Abramovich arrived on King’s Road. Now it’s fair to say that the club haven’t really done a great deal to dispel believers of this myth – if anything the club have fuelled this belief. Prior to Chelsea’s crucial last 16 Champions League meeting with Inter Milan, the club’s website tried its best to ‘motivate’ the Stamford Bridge faithful, stating that, ‘Flags or scarves will be laid out at seats around the stadium for tonight’s game but please bring your own colour and singing voices, and please arrive early to raise the temperature ahead of kick-off.’ I simply cannot find the words to describe how unbelievably cringeworthy this statement is. Can you imagine Liverpool or Manchester United fans being instructed to get behind their team as they prepare to take on one of Europe’s elite? Unforgettably embarrassing stuff.

What hasn’t aided Chelsea’s cause in the popularity stakes has been the fact that they still have two of modern football’s most prominent ‘loverats’ on their books. In John Terry and Ashley Cole, Chelsea possess the two most ‘likely to be booed at an away ground’ players in all the land. For right or wrong, it is evident that the average football fan in the country likes the nation’s elite to have a bit of ‘morality’ about them. In Ashley Cole’s case, repeatedly cheating on the nation’s best-loved woman and famously moaning about Arsenal’s refusal to offer him £60,000 a week (When I heard Jonathan (Barnett) repeat the figure of £55k, I nearly swerved off the road. “He is taking the piss, Jonathan!” I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger.) hasn’t helped endeared himself to the good people of Blackburn, Sunderland, or [insert town name of your choice here].

The recent private life revelations concerning John Terry will have undoubtedly have come as a severe blow to Abramovich’s grand plans. The continued presence of John Terry as one of the club’s “marquee faces”, an emblem of the club, will strengthen the hatred of the club of current Chelsea-detractors and certainly repel potential new fans of the club.

With the club in pole position to land their first ever ‘Double’, the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti appears to have been a masterstroke on Abramovich’s behalf. More importantly for the Russian is the fact that the since the appointment of the former Milan manager, the club have taken strides to shed themselves of their previous image, with many rival fans’ stances towards the club slowly softening. However, whilst concerted efforts to improve their image on the club’s behalf have certainly borne fruit, one mustn’t forget that the growing abhorrence of Manchester City and desire to see anyone-but-Manchester-United succeed have substantially impacted the nation’s general consensus of Chelsea. In conclusion, it appears that Chelsea are now slightly more well-liked, but this is distorted by the increasing and growing hatred of other clubs.

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