Thursday, May 14, 2009
Chelsea and Leeds: Equally unpopular
Few things can serve as a boost to popularity quite like injustice. A perception of unfair treatment can soften criticism and convert neutrals to a cause. Just occasionally, however, the opposite can happen. The persecuted can find themselves with still fewer friends.
Just ask Chelsea. There has been no outpouring of goodwill towards them after their Champions League exit, despite the likelihood that with a different referee, they would have beaten Barcelona. Instead, a dislike of them has been crystallised.
For that, of course, some players must take responsibility. Michael Ballack should be familiar with the concept of schadenfreude and, by haranguing the Norwegian official Tom Henning Ovrebo, his actions led to many savouring Chelsea's misfortune. So, too, did the self-pitying, self-destructive Didier Drogba.
Yet the consequence is that the two things Chelsea appear unable to win are the Champions League and the battle for hearts and minds. While Roman Abramovich may have long dreamt of fashioning a club to rival Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United for glamour and worldwide support, there is a more relevant comparison for Chelsea, given their current place in the football firmament: Don Revie's Leeds.
Certainly the unfortunate Ovrebo occupies the same position in Chelsea notoriety as a previous official, Ray Tinkler, does in Leeds' hall of infamy. They were denied the title in 1971 by Jeff Astle's goal for West Bromwich Albion, despite his team-mate Colin Suggett's position some way offside.
Yet there was a shortage of sympathy for Leeds. Instead, a pitch invasion and Revie's post-match comments cemented opposition towards them. As Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson's excellent book 'The Unforgiven' details, one journalist contrived, the small matter of 15 years later, to blame Leeds for ''setting the tone of national moral decline.'' Even Drogba hasn't quite managed that yet.
The similarities extend beyond that. The European Cup became a holy grail for both. Neither, thus far, has prevailed and Leeds, in the 1975 final, have their own tale of dubious decisions (as they also do from the Cup Winners' Cup final two years earlier). Both teams, despite a remarkable resilience, have become noted more for what they didn't win than the trophies they secured.
Leeds lost three FA Cup finals and were runners-up in Division One five times under Revie. Chelsea could yet come second for a third successive season, in addition to five Champions League semi-final appearances in six years.
Like the cyclist Raymond Poulidor and the snooker player Jimmy White the eternal nearly men often prove more popular than the eventual winners. Chelsea and Leeds provide the exceptions. They attract a vitriol from supporters of clubs who do not rank as their major rivals that perhaps even Liverpool and Manchester United cannot rival.
To many they are 'Dirty Leeds' and 'Defensive Chelsea', bad to watch and bad losers. Neither has managed to shed that image though it can be accurate in some respects and wildly incorrect in others. Chelsea are a team who tend to be damned with faint praise, with references to their spirit, organisation and efficiency, but to win 3-1 at Anfield and then 4-1 at the Emirates Stadium within a few weeks is proof of considerable footballing prowess. In Jose Mourinho's first year, Chelsea were capable of exhilarating when Damien Duff and Arjen Robben were in harness.
At Elland Road, Norman Hunter, Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles may have formed an unholy trinity, but each was a wonderfully accomplished player. In Revie's final season (1973-74), Leeds were the outstanding footballing side in the country. Yet, like their 21st Century counterparts, they had a core of individuals that crowds loved to hate. At Stamford Bridge, it includes Drogba, Ballack, Ashley Cole, John Terry and, most unfairly, Frank Lampard, whose dignity in defeat last week may escape his detractors.
There are, of course, exceptions: Eddie Gray and Peter Lorimer four decades ago, Joe Cole and Petr Cech in more recent times. But none personified a club in the way the more abrasive Bremner did and the more aggressive Terry does.
Yet they started with ambitions to impress, not alienate. Both clubs attempted a rebranding exercise under a new regime. Revie's Leeds adopted the all-white kit of the outstanding side of their - and perhaps any - generation, Real Madrid. Peter Kenyon announced Chelsea's intentions to be ''internationally recognised as the world's No.1 football club by 2014''. Their fame may be global now, but it does not amount to compliments from across the planet.
Both clubs were reliant, too, upon one inspirational manager, who engendered a fierce loyalty among his charges, even if Mourinho's methods probably didn't involve carpet bowls, dominos and bingo unlike Revie. Both clubs have reached a European Cup final under a successor (Jimmy Armfield at Elland Road, Avram Grant at Stamford Bridge) but Leeds never truly recovered from the departure of the architect of their success. Time will tell if Chelsea, similarly saddled with an ageing side after their most successful manager's exit, can rebuild.
But while Leeds weren't always dirty and Chelsea aren't invariably defensive, their troubles have been celebrated. Leeds' humiliation at Colchester in 1971 and Chelsea's embarrassment at Barnsley last year pleased many outside the natural constituency of the winning clubs.
They may be kindred spirits but, with a rivalry that dates back to the 1970 FA Cup final and the Revie era, Leeds and Chelsea don't like each other. But The Damned United and The Damned Chelsea have more in common than they care to recognise.