Do Chelsea fans care that neutrals don't like them? Where has it all gone wrong this season? Have they enjoyed being a bit rubbish like in the 1980s? How can Norwich beat them? Dan Brigham asks football journalist and fan Jack Rathborn
Dan: Hi Jack. A nice, easy question to kick things off: what on earth has gone on at Chelsea this season? I mean, really, while your storyline has been the stuff of dreams for most neutral fans (sorry, but it has been quite fun to watch...), it must have been a nightmare for Chelsea supporters.
You’re 11th, a point below Watford, 20 points off top spot and 12 points off the bottom three. For Norwich, that’s a great season. For Stoke City, that’s an average season. For Chelsea, though, that’s a royal disaster.
How did it all go wrong? Was it really all Jose Mourinho’s fault?
Jack: Well, that is a question Chelsea fans might never be able to fully answer. The feeling from the moment we first heard that Mourinho had been sacked until now has changed somewhat for most fans. Immediately there was sadness that his return and well-documented ambition to finally settle down at a club and oversee a dynasty had been sharply cut short, there was also a considerable amount of disgust: both at the board, who have a frosty relationship with the fans at present, and the players, who some fans feel betrayed Mourinho.
We will never know exactly what led the players to essentially give up on the boss that delivered them a league title just months earlier, but it was something clearly substantial to alienate so many. Now the fans are begrudgingly accepting it was the right decision and some are even excited by the prospect of the next manager's spell in charge being more joyous.
Mourinho must ultimately take the blame for his demise. It is naive to believe players, especially those without any connection to the club, would give their all no matter who was in charge. Jose clearly did not stimulate the majority of the group after the summer and failed to hide his disappointment after a poor summer in terms of transfers. Those players probably initially felt hurt that he was not satisfied with their quality; the rest is sadly hidden to the fans.
Dan: Odd question, perhaps, but have you managed to enjoy this season? A couple of Chelsea fans I know have spoken about enjoying it because it's been different to what they're used to; a bit of a fresh air not knowing whether they're going to beat some shithouse team at Stamford Bridge like they normally do.
It's like a return to the 1980s and ’90s when, rather than picking and choosing from the world's mist desirable managers, you had to put up with the likes of Ian Porterfield and Bobby Campbell. And rather than Didier Drogba or Diego Costa you have Paul Furlong and Mick Harford banging – or trying to bang – in the goals for you. And instead of a succession of the world’s best goalkeepers, you had Dave Beasant and Dmitri Kharine diving over shots and flapping at crosses.
Is there a part of you that pines a little for those more unpredictable times, or are you just desperate to get Italy manager Antonio Conte in and start steamrollering all of the crap teams again and win titles?
Jack: Well, I can't go that far, but it most certainly has given some perspective and that can only be a good thing for those fans who have been following the club for 10 years or fewer.
Even since the upturn in form under Guus Hiddink, a win away to the form team in the league, Southampton, after falling behind was something of a novelty. The team had not won a game after trailing this season, so in that respect it has been refreshing, and some players have demonstrated exactly what characters they have and I think for fans that can be important. It's something you cannot quite tell when the team is very successful as even those on the periphery will happily keep quiet while the team is winning.
The sooner the good times return the better, and, may I say, while there have certainly been some grim days this season, when put into perspective, this form of suffering is nothing compared to some clubs. After all, in the worst season in a few decades, the club have a real chance of winning the FA Cup and an outside chance of advancing to the quarter-finals of the Champions League against PSG, who are perhaps the second best team in Europe this season after Barcelona.
Paul Furlong was starring during my first days as a fan and while it's nice to be able to appreciate a player that most of the footballing world will be unfamiliar with, as a lover of football firstly, you would never be dismissive of the privileged position Chelsea are in to be able to garner the very best players and managers in the game.
Closely observing the strategy and the journey to rebuild is definitely fascinating though.
Dan: Bit of a delicate question, this, but why do you think Chelsea have what appears to be a pretty... bad reputation among neutrals? Even Manchester City, who have also risen rapidly thanks to an enormous, never-ending injection of money, don't get nearly as much sneering as Chelsea do.
My theory is that any club with John Terry and Mourinho is pretty tough to like to start with, and then you throw in the mega-gazillions of Roman Abramovich, and his knee-jerk attitude to hiring and firing managers, plus John Terry again, as well as the perception that some fans have forgotten where Chelsea came from, plus John Terry again, and it makes it very difficult to warm to them for some people.
Do you care?
Jack: Well, the first thing to say is that since Abramovich took over the club in 2003, Chelsea, along with Manchester United, have been the most successful club in England when considering domestic and European trophies. And successful teams aren't usually popular with neutrals.
Admittedly Terry and Mourinho aren't easy to warm to for the neutrals, but their characters are certainly a significant part of why they are great winners. The money is probably the overriding factor, ergo jealousy and that's ok, because nobody likes to see somebody achieve something that they do not believe is earned. That is probably the root of the hate as the investment from Abramovich was the perfect storm: it came at a time when United dominated English football and but for a great Arsenal side, it was always going to be easy with that investment to at least move into that second position.
Man City's owners have deployed a different strategy, though I would argue Chelsea's path has helped them in that respect. It should be pointed out that their success in Europe is nowhere near that of Chelsea's and I'm not talking about once Chelsea got to the final in Moscow and eventually won it. Chelsea were immediately Champions League contenders from year one of the Abramovich era and I think you can put that down to special characters and personalities like Terry and Frank Lampard, in addition to the money.
Do I care? Somewhat, but I would never compromise the prospect of seeing my team win for plaudits, like Arsenal have done so spectacularly. There is a happy medium and I think Abramovich knows that. Achieving dominance and attracting millions of fans in the manner that Barcelona have done is just not realistic, you cannot have it both ways.
It seems Abramovich is still leaning towards success if we are to believe Conte is the next man in charge. Having worked on Italian football for a number of years, I can say he is hardly Mr Popular among the neutrals, so Chelsea will probably to continue to rub the neutrals up the wrong way if he is appointed.
Dan: Do you think that the perception of the club among neutrals is fair? And what would you do to change it? Bringing through young English players usually does the trick, and it must’ve been pretty frustrating not to see too many youth players given a chance in the league with little to play for now?
Jack: I would say the hate from some is unfair. Chelsea have been the most successful club in Europe since Roman's takeover, and without Chelsea’s regular semi-final appearances in the Champions League the Premier League may have lost its fourth place for the competition a few years ago, so they deserve credit for that. Moreover, Chelsea raised the bar in this country, forced United to match that level and triggering a period of dominance for English football in the mid-2000s that we will probably not see again for a while.
I think they are already on the right track to changing perceptions. Mourinho was probably a big issue for some and without him and Terry probably leaving, like you have previously said, it will make Chelsea instantly more likeable. The academy, too, is something the club must capitalise on. It's truly elite and has enjoyed great success at youth level, but the club must now ensure there is a conveyor belt of talent entering the first team. Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be the one who should eventually break in and achieve success with England and that will help too. If neutrals see Chelsea players helping England to be successful, then the club will subsequently receive credit.
It's been frustrating this season not to see more opportunities for Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy, Bertrand Traoré and perhaps a few others, but I think the club are well aware of the issue and it will be changed gradually. The fact Loftus-Cheek has signed a new five-year deal proves he trusts the club to help him reach the top and I am sure it will be imperative for the new manager to involve young players sporadically from next season.
Dan: I never really thought of Chelsea raising the bar, but you're right. They seemed to push Manchester United and, more briefly, Arsenal on to better things. As you suggest, I'm not sure Conte's appointment will help Chelsea endear themselves to neutrals, but he certainly seems quite entertaining... in a sort of shouty, mad way. Like a less fascist Paolo Di Canio.
Moving back to the here and now: you're unbeaten in the league since Hiddink came in, and showing signs of getting back to the relentless team of old – which is actually quite impressive seeing as you really have little to play for in the league. So what has Hiddink changed in terms of style and approach? How do you think Chelsea will set up against Norwich, and what have your strengths been in the post-Mourinho months?
Jack: Yes, we are unbeaten, but do consider we have drawn a lot of games. While Hiddink has done well overall, he is reluctant at times to change games and sometimes belatedly uses his substitutions.
In terms of style, a big difference is allowing Cesc Fàbregas to play deeper and giving him more responsibility on the ball in the engine room, something Mourinho was terrified of in big games. Though through circumstances – Nemanja Matić was suspended – it was refreshing to see Hiddink try to take the game somewhat to PSG a few weeks ago.
Chelsea are building more through the centre of the pitch now. Willian has seen some time as the No.10, and the way he can break the lines with explosive bursts past opponents is really nice to see. Costa is another who has seen an upturn in form and Mourinho tried to make him use his energy through the middle of the pitch more, rather than closing down in the channels towards the end of his time, but Hiddink has really encouraged him to attack the near post and this has given Chelsea more of a presence in the box.
Chelsea should set up with an attacking 4-2-3-1. It could be very attacking, actually, as left-back Baba Rahman made a poor mistake for the Shane Long goal at the weekend, so we may see Kenedy fielded as an unorthodox left wing-back. With Pedro surely injured after coming out early vs. Saints, I'd imagine Willian moves back to the right flank and Oscar gets a start in front of Fàbregas and John Obi Mikel.
Mikel has given a really nice screen for the side to build on and, though he hasn't been faultless, I would imagine Chelsea will look to commit plenty of men forward and trust Fàbregas to find the right man.
Dan: Sounds like another case of sitting back and counter-attacking, then. Another heroic performance... with an 89th winner for Chelsea. But if we can keep Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kanté quiet, I'm sure we can keep Mikel and Fabregas quiet. Definitely. Although I do think you’ll miss Pedro, if he’s not fit, and Willian having to move to the flank is a blow as they’ve both been great recently. But then you get Oscar to come into the side, which kind of offsets those problems…
Right, let's finish this off with a couple of questions. Have you seen much of Norwich this season, and what have you made of them? And what's your score prediction?
Jack: I've seen Norwich several times this season and they seem to have been hard done by on more than one occasion. I'm a fan of Robbie Brady, though he has been inconsistent this season, but when his delivery is right Norwich seem to be at their most dangerous.
From afar I have thought that Norwich lack a striker to keep them up, at least one who is clinical enough. So to still have a great chance of staying up is impressive given some of the other forwards at the teams around them. I was pleased to see Patrick Bamford get an opportunity on loan, though it seems he will have to be patient and of course he cannot feature here.
I predict a narrow Chelsea win, though it could be relatively high-scoring given the prospect of a re-jigged back line. I think there are enough matchwinners in Hiddink's side right now though to clinch this, even with another fighting Norwich display.
Dan: Your assessment of Norwich is pretty much spot on, and it’s nice to hear a neutral giving us credit for not being utterly up shitcreek without a decent finisher. It still baffles me that some are blaming the manager, rather than the lack of quality at both ends of the pitch.
Anyway. I actually fancy a 1-1 tonight. If we keep the same shape as against Leicester, I can see us frustrating you, and it’s very rare that we fail to score at home.