A rebellious chant has become popular in a corner of north London but on Wednesday night the song found a new home.
With Chelsea stumbling to a second goalless draw at Stamford Bridge in the space of four days under Rafael Benítez, supporters decided they could stomach no more. As Roman Abramovich looked on from his executive box high in the west stand, Chelsea fans railed against the club's direction. "We want our Chelsea back" reverberated around the stadium.
Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, knows the tune well and it would be safe to assume Benítez will be familiar with the words by the time he packs his bags at the end of the season. Subjected to the silent treatment when he emerged from the tunnel beforehand, Chelsea's interim manager listened to the name of his predecessor, Roberto Di Matteo, echo around Stamford Bridge in the 16th minute – something else he is going to have to get used to – before supporters sent out what felt like a wider message of discontent about their struggle to identify with the club they love.
What, though, did the fans really mean when they chanted: "We want our Chelsea back"? Were they calling for a return to the flamboyant football that swept the club to the top of the table at the start of the season before results fell away and Di Matteo was fired? Do they pine for the days when John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba formed the spine of the team and José Mourinho was calling the shots? Or are they turning on the oligarch who has bankrolled their success?
Tim Rolls, a lifelong Chelsea supporter who writes for the CFCUK fanzine, was at the Fulham game on Wednesday. He has been following the club since 1967 and says that the only other occasion he has heard fans singing: "We want our Chelsea back," was at Oakwell four years ago, when the team were dumped out of the FA Cup by Barnsley during Avram Grant's brief reign as manager.
"It's not an historic chant but I don't think it's people getting at Abramovich and saying we want to go back to the days of Ken Bates and the war of attrition – Bates against the world," Rolls says. "People might moan about the board and the Benítez-Di Matteo business but it's not aimed at Abramovich. He's got a board of people and various others whom he presumably takes advice from.
"On Wednesday I think the chant was a reference to the fact Chelsea weren't playing very good football and they don't see Benítez as part of the club. People were pretty disgruntled and that chant is just a cry of frustration. It's a reference, I think, to the style of play and what's going on at Chelsea. People don't feel engaged with the club. Obviously you can't expect the fans to decide who the manager is going to be. But I think they feel the way Di Matteo went and Benítez came in was inappropriate. And that's being polite."
So what does "our Chelsea" actually mean? "It's a Chelsea that people feel proud of and part of; that would be my interpretation," Rolls says. "People feel disengaged because a popular manager has gone. It was the same when Mourinho went. Fans have got no real power, so all they can do is chant, and endless chanting at Benítez is very dull. I don't know who started the 'We want our Chelsea back' chant but my take would be it was because the football was so poor."
In many ways the past two matches have confirmed the concerns many fans had when Benítez was appointed. If the derogatory comments Benítez made about Chelsea in the past ensured that the former Liverpool manager was never going to be well received, the fact that he has a reputation for playing cautious football hardly helped. Two games into his tenure and Chelsea have failed to score in successive home matches for the first time in five years. It has been more of a turn-off than a charm offensive.
Pat Nevin was against Benítez's appointment from the start and admits the Spaniard would not have been included in his list of top 20 candidates but the former Chelsea winger also believes fans must accept these are changing times. With Drogba leaving at the end of last season and Lampard and Ashley Cole almost certain to depart in May, it feels like the end of an era, which perhaps makes it harder for supporters to relate to the team on the pitch.
"I think it's really important to put across that this is an absolute 100% transitional season for Chelsea," Nevin says. "It doesn't matter if Mourinho, [Pep] Guardiola, Robbie or Rafa is the manager. This is a season where you change from something that was 10 years in the building, that was kind of adapted as it went along, to something with a different style and different in personnel. Whoever the manager who is in place to do that is, he is going to find it tough."
The bottom line, though, is that Di Matteo's brutal sacking, followed by the arrival of a manager almost universally disliked by Chelsea fans, was the catalyst for the mutinous chants heard at Stamford Bridge. Supporters want to see the best players and enjoy success but they also like to feel that the club respects them and listens to their views.
"I think 'We want our Chelsea back' is more to do with how the fans relate to the club – they feel that they don't really have a voice," says Sam Poplett, a 22-year-old season ticket holder who has followed the club since the age of seven.
"We tried to make that voice heard last year at Birmingham after [André] Villas-Boas was sacked, with the anti‑Rafa chants and the banners, but I think the fact that less than a year later the club have just ignored all of that and appointed someone we really don't like, shows there's a real disconnect at the moment."
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