“Where were you when we were sh*t?” was the chant from Chelsea supporters towards the players as their team took a 2-0 lead against Sunderland. Roman Abramovich remained unmoved. Thirteen minutes in, and this was mutiny.
‘We don’t care who you bring in. We want Jose,’ read one of the many banners in the crowd. ‘With you Jose’ another proclaimed, while an alternative talked of ‘Judas players’ playing for 30 pieces of silver. Nobody spends money at a Hobbycraft like a grumpy Chelsea fan. A reminder that Jose Mourinho’s pay-off is likely to sit somewhere around the £20m mark.
Tim Rolls, chairman of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust, promised a “febrile” atmosphere at Stamford Bridge; bizarre would be a fairer description. Fans booed the names of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa before cheering two early goals. It was the first time Chelsea have been 2-0 up after 15 minutes of any home game since March 2014.
This is the real Jose Mourinho effect. He is a manager so divisive that he forces supporters to totally buy into his vision and management style. That buy-in is so entrenched, creating a siege mentality around the club, that any split will be soaked in acrimony and discord. The highs are high but the fall ends in a bumpy landing. Alex Ferguson’s famous mantra was that no player should be bigger than the club. Mourinho had become bigger than Chelsea. This sacking is his story, not theirs.
Blaming the players therefore becomes a comfort blanket for supporters, an understandable stance from those unable (or at least yet unwilling) to admit that their Jose Mourinho, their champion, had underperformed so vastly. It was the only way to explain the unexplainable.
The first-half performance against Sunderland was emphatic vindication to the contrary. Sam Allardyce’s team are desperately low on quality, but the verve with which Chelsea started the match was striking. Oscar performed flicks and tricks in the final third, Branislav Ivanovic was resolute in defence and marauded forward, Cesc Fabregas completed 53 of his 56 passes before the break. Five Chelsea players created a chance before half-time. Chelsea played with a freedom we have not seen for too long.
A cloud had been lifted. Guus Huddink, sat with Abramovich and Didier Drogba high up in the stands, does not need to instigate revolution. Scooping up the dirty laundry and opening the curtains will be enough to give Chelsea’s squad a spring clean. Febreeze had been sprayed across a musty, dank squad.
The second half brought substantial wobble to accompany Chelsea’s third goal, but the progress was still obvious. As many goals in 90 league minutes as in the previous six matches combined. As many wins too, all played out against the backdrop of a toxic atmosphere.
For those defending the parted manager, some reason. In its purest form, the job of a successful football manager is to make a squad of players greater than the sum of its parts. That is done through a combination of inspiration, motivation and protection of players and suitable delegation of responsibility. This season Mourinho spectacularly failed on all four fronts.
Chelsea supporters booing the club’s players would do well to at least consider the cause rather than effect. Why were Oscar, Fabregas et al so different just 48 hours after Mourinho’s departure? Why the severe drop in performance across multiple key players this season?
The answer lies in the Portuguese’s treatment of his squad. Public condemnations of his players. Freezing out senior members of the squad. Hounding out a female member of staff in the most unpleasant manner possible. All make motivation a far harder task.
Managers who rule through control and a climate of fear do so out of an inbuilt paranoia. They feel that they must be omnipotent and omniscient in order to succeed. It rarely works. Fearful players take fewer risks for fear of being attacked, publicly in Chelsea’s case. Mourinho’s personality forced players into their shells. Oscar looked reborn in his absence.
‘Our Jose sacrificed, why?’ asked a banner as Costa was withdrawn to yet more boos. ‘It’s because he had the champions down in 16th,’ is the easy answer. The inability to motivate key players has led to the downfall of many managers, Andre Villas-Boas for one. How can you be so vehement that previously it was the Portuguese manager’s fault, but not this time?
Mourinho is a man whose mass PR is unsurpassed in world football. At one point on Saturday afternoon his name was sung by supporters of Chelsea, Norwich City and Manchester United. Yet even those at Stamford Bridge who remained committed to the principles of Mourinhism must at least concede their leader’s role in his own downfall.