You would imagine that Sir Alex Ferguson will channel all the frustration from Tuesday’s unjust result against Real Madrid in to Sunday’s Cup game against Chelsea. Our opponents also lost in Europe this week but their players seem far more resigned to losing than ours this season. Still, in one off cup games, with both teams having a point to prove thanks to the rivalry they’ve enjoyed over the past few years, you never know what could happen.
Chelsea fan and all-round good bloke, Russell Saunders, has taken time out to discuss Chelsea’s current season, their hopes for the future and Rafa Benitez.
Scott the Red: How would you assess Chelsea’s season so far?
Russell Saunders: This season should have been one long celebration after Munich, watching the likes of Mata, Hazard and Oscar play free-flowing football and Lampard reaching the goalscoring record. Instead it’s just been a mess.
We’ve got some great players. Mata is arguably the best attacking midfielder in the league at the moment and Hazard is fantastic in spells. Oscar could go on to be one of the best there is, and Luiz is box office… Some of our attacking play has been outstanding, particularly early in the season.
But overall on the pitch we’ve looked just as we have off it: prone to the odd good thing but also unstable, unpredictable, inconsistent… We’ve lost and drawn way too many winnable games, half the team is in awful form and now it looks increasingly like we could end up paying for it with a 5th place finish. The squad has its problems but, on paper, we’re better than that.
STR: Given Chelsea’s decline since Benitez took over, do you feel as though your fans have been vindicated in protesting against his appointment, in the face of the press wanking over him and telling you that you should give him a chance?
RS: In a sense, yes. We didn’t want Benitez, and not only because of his comments about Lampard, Drogba and Chelsea fans, but also because he’s an awful manager who has teams playing awful football and getting awful results. That’s all he’s brought to Chelsea.
His methods are old hat, he never tries anything new and he sets up negatively. Tony Evans couldn’t have got it more wrong.
But I hate the idea of vindication on this anyway. We’re the only ones (bar Roman, I guess) who pay to be there. We watch every week. I’m bored of journalists and other fans casting judgement on what we should say, feel and do when it comes to our club.
We had a principle, and we stuck by it. I would have expected criticism if we’d done anything else.
STR: Where does the decision to appoint Benitez rank amongst Abramovich’s worst decisions as Chelsea owner?
RS: Assuming that these are all unilateral decisions that he makes, of course…and we don’t really know…it is the worst, probably alongside dismissing Mourinho. The club knew his record and they knew the fans’ opinion.
But it kind of fits the pattern. I don’t think it’s been Chelsea’s fires that have been the issue – it’s the hires that have been the problem. Hiring Grant was insane, and Scolari and AVB absolutely weren’t up to it. Firing them was the right thing to do. Ancelotti bucked the trend – he was a good manager, and while his lack of imagination in his second season was frustrating, sacking him was clearly a bad move.
In reality though, the problems at the club are probably the result of a huge number of smaller mistakes made by either Roman, his cronies, our board, or a combination of all three.
Bringing in Arnesen and Grant behind the scenes under Mourinho, and allowing their influence to mess with things, was probably the start of everything. Other than that: some terrible buys, contract negotiations, our approach to youth, the lack of a plan, catastrophically bad communication with fans around their attempt to buy-out the Chelsea Pitch Owners…the list goes on.
It’s bigger than just a hire or a fire – however much he’s wrong at Chelsea and we hate him, Benitez is actually just a symptom of a wider set of problems.
STR: I was impressed with how long Chelsea fans supported Torres, despite him not scoring, as that would never happen at United for whatever reason (Berbatov got nowhere near as much support, despite being the Premier League top scorer in the season we won the record breaking 19th title!). What was the turning point for your fans? He doesn’t seem too popular any more…
RS: He’s had unbelievable, totally out-of-proportion support. It was Kezman-esque – the only difference being that when Kezman was shanking shots wide and we sung his name, Chelsea were winning every week.
I’d never boo him, but I’ve had less time for Torres for ages. I’m ok with players making mistakes (and he makes them every time he gets the ball). It’s the not trying. He puts in the odd run to close down a defender or keeper, and commentators bleat on about him ‘putting in a good shift’. But when it comes to putting his neck on the line and doing the job he’s paid for, he hides. There’s nothing worse than that.
The turning point for fans I think was Benitez, and Ba coming to the club. There was a period of games where Benitez kept leaving Ba on the bench, and then not bringing him on until the 81st minute when we needed goals. I think persisting with a broken Torres when there was a real striker on the bench just set things off. Even so, the anti-Torres stuff has hardly been vitriolic. Don’t believe what you read.
STR: We’ve heard the chants of “we want our Chelsea back” from your fans. What would you regard as your Chelsea? How would you respond to people who say having a manager you hate is just the downside to having Abramovich as owner, and is balanced out by the silverware he’s bought you?
RS: All Chelsea fans are grateful for we’ve got and the success we’ve had. But does that mean we can’t complain when we disagree with something? I don’t think things are that black and white. I mean, I’m grateful for my job, but it doesn’t mean I don’t tell my boss when I think something isn’t right.
Either way, I’d like to know what fans – any fans – really mean when they sing that. It’s easier to define your club by what it isn’t, than what it is – after all, break it down and a football club is its fans, players, a pitch, memories, how the team plays and results. One is just a variation on the next. I reckon leave Arsenal fans to whine on about ‘identity’ – most of it is made up.
The bottom line: of course Benitez isn’t ‘my Chelsea’. Harshly sacking club legend Di Matteo isn’t either. Neither is the ongoing circus. I’d like to see Chelsea treat its managers better, show its fans more respect, and have a bit more humility.
Blindly accepting all those things because that’s what ‘supporters are supposed to do’ – that’s bullshit.
STR: Chelsea seem to go from one huge story to another. Why do you think your club attracts so much negativity?
RS: Because it has made mistakes and has sometimes acted without sentiment. And because some players have screwed up too (not going to bother going into that). I’d also say though that because we’ve been successful, in no small part because of Roman’s money, fans and particularly the media have enjoyed those mistakes more than they might otherwise…and found it easier to ignore the good stuff. I’ll get over it.
STR: How keen are you for your club to start bringing through your own players? How realistic is it to expect Chelsea to achieve that? John Terry was your last one, 15 years ago, right?
RS: I’d love to see it. I think all fans want to see young players – especially those with a longer history at the club – get a chance. When the likes of McEachran, Kakuta and Hutchinson have had their limited chances over the last few years (and Ake in recent weeks), it was great.
But, with the exception of Bertrand, it hasn’t worked yet, and it would take a change of mindset at the club. The potential is there though. Chalobah (on loan with Zola at Watford) has a great chance. Ake too. Patrick Bamford and Islam Feruz are promising forwards. McEachran’s career has stuttered, but he still has potential. And there are other established young players like Cortois, De Bruyne and Lukaku who already have the ability to add something, and shouldn’t be out on loan…
STR: Who has been your best player this season?
RS: For scoring goals, making them, running games – it has to be Mata. He was fantastic last season and has been doubly good this time around. Oscar and Hazard have been great, but Mata’s been consistently great. No-one else gets close – we’d be bottom half without him.
STR: Which current United player would you most want in your team?
RS: As tempted as I am to say Rio Ferdinand…
It’s a boring answer, but it has to be Van Persie. Know he’s going through a lean spell (not in Torres’ league), but that’s the best £25m Ferguson has ever spent. He will have won you the league all on his own. He’s quality.
STR: Whilst he’s been class for us, having scored just over a quarter of our goals in the league this season, I’d disagree he’s done it by himself! Anyway, predictions for the game?
RS: If Chelsea turn up and we get the balance in midfield right to provide Mata and Hazard (don’t think Oscar will play), anything could happen.
But sadly I can’t see it. Heart is hopeful, but head says Ferguson will set up to stifle our forwards, we’ll struggle to get a grip of the game in midfield, and you’ll run out winners in a carbon-copy of the Man City game the other week.