Chelsea PR machine wakes from its slumber

Posted by Phil Lythell

Ian Kingston/AFP/Getty ImagesChelsea management tried to suppress this type of sentiment from supporters, but has relented in an attempt to make amends.

Football club boardrooms and their fans have nearly always represented two definitively opposed sides of the same coin. The distrust between the moneyed men in their dark suits has always grated heavily against the gristle of the man of the street, and at Chelsea it has rarely been any different.

Financial mismanagement and ill-advised stadium expansion in the 1970s saw the club fall from almost the pinnacle of the English game to the lower reaches of the Second Division as they struggled to stay in business. The rise of anti-establishment sentiment and hooliganism around Stamford Bridge represented a very clear disconnect between the two entities.

The saviour of the club was incoming chairman Ken Bates. Though his era was regularly punctuated with spats with supporters -- the notorious electric fencing the most symbolic example of the disdain many felt he had for the paying fan -- he did ultimately build the modern stadium as we know it today

Which all means that the current antipathy towards the Chelsea board is nothing new. However, it is hard to think of a more stark division between the executives and the supporters especially given the fact that the club are -- until May -- the reigning champions of Europe and, according to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, currently the best team on the planet.

These pages have already seen at least one concerted rant against the strategic failings that owner Roman Abramovich, chief executive Ron Gourlay and chairman Bruce Buck have instigated together with the harem of sycophants that surround them with the season planning and ensuing squad imbalance the points of criticism. However, those issues could possibly have been contained had the public relations machine at Stamford Bridge not broken down so spectacularly this campaign.

Even putting the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand case and the Mark Clattenburg furore to one side, this season has seen the board shoot themselves in the foot in the eyes of the club's fans and the football world at large on more than one occasion. The firing of club legend and European champion Roberto Di Matteo had an incredible ruthlessness to it and was a shock to many supporters even if the impulsive nature of the owner was not.

It felt a tad premature at the time – recent results bearing that out – though it could have been accepted had the issue been handled with a bit more class considering the affection fans had for the Italian.

The hiring of Rafael Benitez then ensured that the decision to change managers would never be accepted, The removal of a legend and the hiring of a stated enemy was too much for the Chelsea faithful to stand. To add insult to injury, the club then began confiscating flags and banners from fans entering the ground that disagreed with the club's decisions.

That policy would be understandable if the banners were full of expletives or were in extreme bad taste, though even those simply saying “Come back Mourinho” have been removed from match-going fans who paid a not-insignificant amount of money to watch their team.

This myopia on behalf of the clubs and subsequent alienation of loyal supporters has seen many seriously question whether they will renew their season tickets next season. With social media buzzing with such contempt and season ticket renewals due to be made by the end of May, it is no surprise to see Chelsea's PR department return from their year-long sabbatical and put in place the first steps to placate the natives.

The first step has been the abolition of their totalitarian banner policy following talks with Chelsea supporter groups. Fans can now express their literary displeasure with Benitez while extolling the virtues of former managers without fear of recrimination and a midnight trip to the Gulag.

That refreshing appearance of common sense has been quickly followed by the announcement that ticket prices will be frozen next season. To be fair to Chelsea, while the tickets have always been expensive, they have forsaken the trend made popular at another London club of raising ticket prices year on year. Freezes have happened more regularly than rises during the Abramovich era.

The makeover was almost complete when reports emerged that Gourlay told a press conference in Thailand that talks about extending Frank Lampard's stay at Chelsea were “ongoing”. Sadly, his comments were misquoted, so that particular saga will continue to run.

Instead, the next step in the club's rehabilitation with supporters will come at the end of the season, though there is no doubt that the process will have already begun. That step is the appointment of Abramovich's 10th manager.

Many fans believe that man should be in place now following Benitez's outburst after the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough, though practically speaking there is little sense in making a change at such a crucial juncture. Should there be an outstanding candidate currently unemployed and actively seeking work, then perhaps it would be a possibility. As it is, options are sparse unless anyone on the Chelsea board is daft enough to genuinely think Paolo Di Canio is a viable option.

The next man in the hotseat has to be the right man, not just to generate success on the pitch but also to harness the goodwill from the terraces. Obviously, much will depend on whether Chelsea qualify for the Champions League, as failure to do so would effectively rule out any top-tier manager and leave the Blues fighting for scraps and being forced to consider the likes of Marco Van Basten or Frank Rijkaard.

There have been more than a few mentions that Abramovich is desperate to regain favour in the eyes of fans, so it will be intriguing to see whether he opts for the populist option or if he decides to have the courage of his convictions and go for somebody with potential if not a huge track record. For those options, read Jose Mourinho for option one and Juventus' Antonio Conte or Atletico Madrid's Diego Simeone for option two.

Clearly, each of those men would need to want the Chelsea job, which is hardly the most stable or reputationally enhancing position in the world. In the Blues' favour is that the owner usually has a way of convincing people to do his bidding, often with the use of his chequebook.

Chelsea are indeed making the first welcome steps to re-creating a bond with their disaffected fanbase though the journey is incredibly long. But the sooner this season is dealt with and Benitez has gone, the quicker the relationship will be mended.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

ESPN Conversations