The world does not need another article debating the future of Jose Mourinho. There are merits to him staying, just as there are to his departure. One way or another, that situation will resolve itself before much longer.
On Saturday, Chelsea suffered the latest poor result in their calamitous sequence, losing three-one to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. Superficially, it was a disaster, but the scoreline probably didn’t reflect the game’s tight margins and, though it will sound like another one of the Portuguese’s contrived excuses, Mourinho can be forgiven for cursing his luck. Cruel deflections and curious refereeing: for once, his complaints won’t be hollow.
The wider point, though, is how unifying Chelsea’s malaise has been. Football fans specialise in schadenfreude and for as long as professional sport is played there will be a sense of mirth whenever a favourite loses. Chelsea are not liked. They are fabulously rich, they are owned by someone who acquired his wealth through morally dubious means, and throughout their decadent era have been captained by John Terry, probably the most polarising active player in English football.
They attract jealousy and they are symptomatic with just how uneven the playing-field has become. Naturally, people enjoy it when they lose.
But, beyond the tribalism and grave-dancing, there’s a more serious point to be made. Football in 2015 is not very competitive. The Premier League is essentially a shrine to sporting capitalism and has nearly always been dominated by clubs with a material advantage. Over the last decade, both Chelsea and Manchester City have climbed up the division by virtue of their owners’ wealth and that has helped create the perception that, without extravagant investment, there is no hope for the civilian teams.
That’s a terrible belief for supporters to have, because it’s one which challenges the essence of fandom. Emotional investment in a club can be based on all sorts of factors – locality, family influence, history – but, in almost every case, those roots are watered by aspiration. No matter how big or small the step in question, every fan is bound by a desire to see their side move forward.
That’s crucial. Regardless of whether it’s built on naivety or sustained by the heart ruling the head, every supporter has to be able to dream. Without that, what is sport – a joyless grind through the years in which interest is sustained by the overstated importance of turning up and taking part.
Maybe that’s why there’s so much mileage in underdog stories. Even if the team upsetting the odds isn’t our own, they set an example which makes our own dreams seem a little more realistic. There’s something in the British psyche which naturally responds to unlikely success stories anyway, but they’re necessary in modern football like never before – they restore faith and add colour to a world which is becoming increasingly black and white.
Chelsea’s malaise, like Manchester United’s during David Moyes reign of dull terror, may not quite fit into that category. A well-endowed club failing clearly isn’t comparable to a small side over-achieving, but the process has a similarly reassuring property.
Stamford Bridge is a perfect world. Roman Abramovich has an apparently self-replenishing cash reserve, Jose Mourinho – in spite of his current situation – is one of the most successful managers of his generation on merit, and the first-team squad is stuffed full of players who would walk into almost any side in European football. It’s a dream. The rain drops don’t fall in South West London and the sun never stops shining on the Fulham Road.
Their temporary failure, therefore, gives the rest of us something to hold onto. Deep down we know that our own clubs will probably never see the inside of a Champions League final or ever get to lift a Premier League trophy, but that – on this occasion – quality of supporter-life isn’t being guaranteed by assets is cause for, if not celebration, at least relief.
Some fans will point and laugh, others will snark, but most will just enjoy the break from being mercilessly dominated. Call it self-delusion or just savouring a respite from the game’s harsh realities, but supporters need to be able to believe in the fallibility of the super teams and to at least pretend that seasons aren’t predetermined before a ball is kicked.