It is a testament to how pervasive the influence of English club football is on the rest of the world, when English clubs are global household names; even to those folks those who aren’t in the habit of tuning in to watch the game.
In 1999, as a 14 year old with admittedly little real interest in English football, I was nevertheless familiar with the clubs – their names, colors and rivalries. I didn’t have a favourite but I knew for certain I didn’t like Manchester United. Why? Mostly because David Beckham was in it, and everyone knows how jealous all fourteen year old boys become when their female counterparts spent all their waking hours idolizing the guy.
The first English Premier League game I ever watched was the 1999-2000 season’s clash between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge; a game that ended in a shock 5-0 thrashing of the Red Devils – winners of previous season’s treble. I knew then, that very day, I would always be a Chelsea fan. Well, almost.
Chelsea’s famed inconsistency made it hard for anyone trying to get hooked onto the league, to truly believe the Blues were capable of mounting a sustained challenge for the title. If you did believe so, you were either a West Londoner raised in the worship of Stamford Bridge, or hopelessly deluded. That changed for me in 2001, when Chelsea grabbed a sponsorship deal with Emirates – something that did not go unnoticed in a football crazy Dubai, where I grew up. In an atmosphere ripe with anticipation – the kind usually associated with the start of a corny fairytale – I began to naively believe things could only get better for Chelsea. All of a sudden, this was a club I could identify with. This kind of belief sometimes gets rewarded, either by pure chance or by grand design when the universe decides to be kind to you.
In early July 2003, Chelsea fans were all overcome by a sense of uncertainty and surprise after hearing the club was being sold to a Russian billionaire named Roman Abramovich. Some West London resident fans of the club weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of a future where Ken Bates would be sidelined, not to mention the general nervousness of the government at a relatively unknown foreigner taking over the reigns of one of England’s biggest clubs. If it took one unexpected announcement to signal the start of a new era, it would take another – four years later – to bring a second era to a close.
Roman got to work almost immediately. He began fashioning the club in his own image – richly talented, and possessing a single-minded dedication in getting the job done. No surprise then he decided the perfect man for the job of managing his outfit would be Jose Mourinho – a young, dynamic manager with an astute tactical nous and an enviable reputation for making the home-ground advantage count. There was also a small matter of Jose being the reigning UEFA Champions League winner.
It seemed a partnership destined to thrive, and in many ways it did. However, every successful partnership has its Achilles heel. Theirs lay in the approach each man preferred taking while getting the job done. Roman Abramovich, a self-made billionaire who showed little hesitation in filling the club’s coffers with money, wanted the job done flamboyantly. Mourinho, while preferring to dress in dapper suits and never shying away from verbal-jousting, did not share his employer’s enthusiasm for flamboyancy on the football field. As he himself put it, he preferred his players enjoying after the game and not during it.
What that meant was Mourinho would proceed to direct Chelsea to conduct their affairs in an almost mechanical fashion; one that would prove to be very effective in grinding out a string of one-nil victories, although not quite setting hearts aflutter on the way.
We, fans of the club, loved him nevertheless. Here was a manager giving wings to our dreams, even if he wasn’t exactly doing it the pretty way. The results spoke for themselves. A few unwelcome draws notwithstanding, Chelsea lost only one game in the entire season and incredibly only let in a miserly fifteen goals on their way to pipping previous-holders Arsenal FC to the top.
Mourinho was undeniably a genius, but he also owed his amazing success at Chelsea to a crop of young players who were riding the very peaks of their talent under his stewardship. Players whom, Roman Abramovich was able to purchase almost in anticipation of the immediate success they would bring him. The first season under the Abramovich-Mourinho regime, saw Chelsea stars Frank Lampard, John Terry, Petr Cech and Mourinho himself decorated with season-end recognition and awards.
Complacency would prove not to be a hallmark of the Mourinho regime as the next season, 2005-2006, started with Chelsea vaulting to the top leaving perennial threats Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool languishing way behind. This season would, however, unveil a flaw that would prove to be characteristic of Chelsea in the following seasons – the famed mid-season slump.
Suddenly there was panic at Stamford Bridge, as Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United rediscovered their form and came within touching distance of The Blues. It goes without saying that a team’s character comes through to the fore, not when times are good, but in the most trying of circumstances. Mourinho’s men held their nerve and made the most of an uncharacteristic stumble by United and finished the season on top yet again; with an ultimately comfortable cushion of eight points.
Chelsea had won only its third (and second consecutive) league title, in a very special year indeed – the centennial of the club.
The next season, under Mourinho’s stewardship, didn’t end too well for Chelsea. Our characteristic flair for defensive football earned us the least losses and lowest goals conceded but it wasn’t enough in the face of a rejuvenated, more attack-oriented Manchester United. It however served to add to Mourinho’s ever-growing contribution to the English Premier League lexicon – after terms like ‘The Special One’ and ‘voyeur’, this time a mere gesture to Chelsea fans asking them to keep their heads up would give rise to the rousing ‘chin up’.
The unraveling of West London’s version of Camelot began soon after. Mourinho’s differences with Abramovich and the rest of his inner circle were brushed under the carpet during the past few seasons, with the club’s resounding run of successes. After all, nothing succeeds like success. But with the loss of the domestic league, and some unfortunate exits in the Champions League, Mourinho’s unwillingness to engage in attractive football may have made his position even more tenuous.
The 2007-08 season would prove to be Mourinho’s swan song with Chelsea. A couple of disappointing results in the league and an unexpected Champions League draw with lowly Rosenborg resulted in Mourinho and the club parting ways courtesy a mutually agreement – a euphemism to protect the public images of all involved. A stunned club and team were thrown into emotional disarray in that woeful September; leading to an especially painful away loss to rivals Manchester United. Once again, a club direction-defining announcement had been made, when nobody expected it. With that came an end to what is, still to this day, the most glittering part of our club’s history.
The Mourinho era had come to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. The Abramovich era continues, certainly to our good fortune, but every True Blue still yearns in some measure for those good ol’ days when the two eras overlapped for a little while.
In true Chelsea style, the club has moved on, daringly taking on the future with renewed vigor. Mourinho has too, and perhaps someday he will bring another team to our hallowed grounds. Perhaps he’ll win and do his famous run at the touchline. I speak for Chelsea fans when I say I wouldn’t grudge him his moment of triumph, even if he were to do it. The way I see it, he’s earned that right.
Chelsea FC may go on to accumulate all the desired silverware, including the elusive Champions League someday. But there will never again be a time like the Mourinho era. For a club relatively short on history and trophies, the Mourinho years will be remembered not for its victories but for inducing a culture of achievement, spirit, self-belief and invincibility. After Jose was done with us, we would never again be a small club.
If Stamford Bridge should stand for another hundred years, True Blues will still look back at the Mourinho years and say – “That… was our finest hour”