Jose Mourinho's recent observations about the perceived lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge grabbed almost as many headlines as the crucial late penalty awarded against West Bromwich Albion.
Predictably, his words that the general attitude from the stands is "not very hot" have been used by all those outside the Chelsea fraternity as a slight against the club and the supposed "nouveau" nature of the club's supporters. However, with it coming hot on the heels of compatriot Andre Villas-Boas' comments about White Hart Lane, it shows that this is a problem not just for the Blues but for a number of other Premier League sides as well. It is clearly part of a wider problem that needs to be addressed by the powers that be if they want to continue to sell the division as "the best in the world".
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Returning to Chelsea, while every match-going fan will defend their club to the hilt and seek to claim their support as the best in the land, the fact cannot be escaped that the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge is not always particularly intense. There are the exceptions, however, on most match-days, there are only pockets of the ground who regularly contribute to the communal songbook: notably the Matthew Harding Lower Tier, Matthew Harding Upper Tier and, occasionally, the Shed End. The two biggest stands -- East and West -- are usually silent, give or take the odd last minute winner.
It is hard to be completely accurate when judging the current ambiance with that of the past due to a number of factors: When this blogger first started going to Chelsea in the early 1980s as a wide-eyed kid, the ground was very different from how it is today. The East Stand is the only relic remaining from that era when it stood as a lone feature of modernity in a vast decrepit bowl. In those days, fans in each of the four stands remained a reasonable distance from those in the stand adjacent, due to the fact that some of the terracing was condemned and that attendances were generally low, a result of poor performances on the pitch and the prevalent hooligan element plaguing the club.
Still, to a 6-year-old who was not aware of such issues, it was the greatest place on Earth. In my memory, the crowd was always loud, the Shed always singing and the benches in old West Stand joining in. But was that the truth or just blue-tinted nostalgia skewing the reality? When Chelsea hammered Leeds United 5-0 to seal their promotion to the top flight in 1984, the atmosphere was electric, especially when the stands emptied onto the pitch at the final whistle in unconfined celebration. But I can't be certain that the noise was like that at every game.
What is certain was that expectations were very different then. For a start, Chelsea were familiar inhabitants of Division Two with the only realistic chance of silverware on the horizon being the Full Members Cup. Now, the club and its supporters are disappointed if the season doesn't end with AT LEAST one trophy secured, preferably the league title or the European Cup -- if not both. Whereas once success was a privilege, it has now given way to entitlement with excellence accepted as standard and only the extraordinary truly applauded. Obviously, that is doing a huge disservice to many Chelsea fans -- particularly those who follow the team across the country and continent or keep the banter flowing in the Matthew Harding Stand -- but the atmosphere is much more contingent on the opposition that the team is facing than it ever used to be.
Take the recent home games against Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion, for example. Against title rivals City the crowd were on their feet for the full 90 minutes with a song never far from anyone's lips. Against the Baggies, there were extended periods of silence. Some of that can be put down to the differing levels of performance by Chelsea on those days, though the job of supporters is not simply to wait to be entertained but to create an environment that inspires the Blues and intimidates their opponents. Team display and crowd support are symbiotic and one usually prefaces the other, though while a team can perform well without the backing of their fans, the reverse is rarely true.
Another issue is the growing amount of football tourists who now come to Stamford Bridge; the thought of which would have made your average football fan in the early 1980s wet themselves with laughter. Much is made of Fulham's "neutral" section, though in effect that is what the West Stand and part of the East Stand have become. There is nothing wrong in simply wanting to watch a decent game of football without having an allegiance to either of the teams involved -- I have done it several times myself -- though it certainly dampens the fervour when such a large swathe of people fail to exhibit any passion.
However, the finger can also be pointed at some of the regulars who have been season ticket holders for decades yet are disinclined to join in. Sitting next to me are two lovely blokes who have a great sense of humour and really know their football. They have been going to Stamford Bridge since before I was born, yet I have never noticed them join in a song in the 15 years that we have been neighbours. Not in each of the three times Chelsea won the Premier League. Not when Barcelona have been beaten. I don't even think they booed when Rafael Benitez was unveiled. That is not to say that they are not passionate about their club -- if you could hear some of their language during the game you would know that they most certainly are -- it’s just that singing is not an indelible part of their match day experience.
Singing at football matches is largely the preserve of the younger generations which is why if the atmosphere is to be improved at Stamford Bridge, a greater effort needs to be made to get more young fans through the turnstiles. That means reduced ticket prices not just for under-18s but also for the under 25s -- fans who might have a job but are unlikely to be earning the salary needed to be able to spend 50 pounds to attend a football match every week. The Chelsea Supporters Trust are pushing the issue to the club of enabling more young supporters to attend matches without them having to mortgage their future and their work should be applauded. Whether the money-men in the boardroom will listen is another matter, though with the new bumper Premier League television rights deal kicking in and BT Sport agreeing to pay an astronomical sum for Champions League football, there is scope for optimism.
In the meantime, if everyone can just sing a little louder from the moment they enter the ground and not just wait for Barcelona or Arsenal to roll into town, then perhaps Mourinho will be forced to amend his comments and the team can return to winning ways.
Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell