“The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” we sometimes sing at the Shed End at Stamford Bridge. I probably shouldn’t tell you how it goes after that. It’s certainly more profane than sacred. Suffice to say the Holy Father is less than effusive in his welcome to the North London visitors. The Pope loves Chelsea, so the song goes. And so do I.
But recently moving house has posed something of a challenge to the Chelsea love in my household. We now live a stone’s throw from Brentford’s new stadium. And my boys have decided — perhaps to rile their father — that this is where their loyalty now lies. Local, family-friendly, plucky underdogs come good, and not owned by a KGB asset — I see the attraction.
Last month, I went to see my team get smashed by Real Madrid. The man sitting in front of me spent the whole game making hand gestures at the away fans. He hardly watched the football. It was as though he was only there for the loyalty, that order of belonging that is premised on a strong sense of them and us. He didn’t watch as Real striker Karim Benzema produced a masterclass of finishing. Chelsea was his family, his whole life I imagine. As his face contorted in rage at the celebration of the away fans, I began to reflect on what a terrible club I support.
I have always known we are a rotten lot, corrupted by bad money. Our owner made his billions in the wild east of perestroika. Despite having gone to prison in 1992 for the theft of government property, in 1995 he was allowed to buy half of an oil company for $100 million in a rigged auction. Abramovich has admitted in court that he paid billions of dollars in bribes to acquire Sibneft. Ten years after he bought it, he sold it back to the Russian government for $13 billion.
Abramovich’s co-investor in Sibneft was Boris Berezovsky. Abramovich and Berezovsky fell out, with Abramovich’s friend, Vladimir Putin, siding with Abramovich. Berezovsky survived a number of assassination attempts by Russian agents. Several of his friends and associates, like Alexander Litvinenko, were murdered or died in suspicious circumstances. Berezovsky apparently hanged himself in 2013, though the coroner recorded an open verdict. It’s all very dodgy. And as FSB agents were roaming London, Chelsea were doing very nicely thank you on the pitch. During Abramovich’s time as owner, the club won 18 major trophies. Our rivals accuse Chelsea of having bought all this silverware on the backs of the ripped-off Russian public — and perhaps even a few dead bodies under a flyover somewhere. And they may be right. Our owner is now sanctioned, his assets frozen.
I wish this was the end of the catalogue of accusations against my terrible team. I might be happy enough to sing about the Pope’s welcome to our Spurs rivals, but the gas noise that Chelsea fans used to greet Tottenham players as they emerged onto the pitch — a reference to the gas chambers — was so disgraceful, I probably should have walked out there and then, never to return. If the Jewish Roman Abramovich did one thing good, it was that he stopped the fans doing this. Mostly stopped.
Surely my boys are right — lovely Brentford would be a better fit, especially for a man of the cloth. So why do I still support them? Out of a sense of loyalty, I suppose. “Once a blue always a blue,” as Chelsea star Mason Mount proudly proclaimed.
Loyalty has long been seen as a virtue. We criticise friends when they are not loyal and praise our dogs for being so. Loyalty names a kind of perseverance in human relations, something without which human society would be based on a succession of short term alliances or contracts. Some may say that it is an outdated virtue, one that is rooted in the relationship of subject to monarch, or vassal to lord — oaths of loyalty having a terribly feudal feel, out of place in a democratic society. That said, the importance of family bonds is still something most of us would subscribe to; loyalty to family members, even those who are embarrassing or morally suspect.
My mum used to propose a toast on family occasions: “Here’s to us and balls to the rest,” she would say, raising a glass. Feels a bit like the Shelbys now I come to write it down. But it was intended and received as a kind of “welcome home” family hug. It was that kind of sentiment that kept us together. Loyalty is often love in its least attractive form.
That’s something of the moral valence of “Once a blue, always a blue”. Except, if press rumours are to be believed, midfielder Mason Mount might be about to become a Red, with Liverpool leading the pack to secure his signature. And it’s not good timing ahead of the FA Cup final next weekend, when a worn-out Chelsea are, I expect, going to be crushed by Liverpool.
I don’t expect an iota of sympathy, especially not on Merseyside. Back in the Eighties, Chelsea fans would enthusiastically wave £50 notes at visiting Liverpool supporters. As I looked down at my programme, embarrassed, pretending I wasn’t with them, Chelsea would sing “Get a job, get a job, get a job”. Liverpool fans would chorus back: “Thank you very much for paying our dole.” That was 1-0 to them.
I say this through gritted teeth, but I don’t really blame Mount for seeking fame and (greater) fortune on Merseyside, despite all his badge-kissing expressions of Chelsea loyalty. The days when a player like Tony Adams spent all his playing career at one club (19 years, Arsenal) are pretty much gone. For Mount, as for pretty much everyone else these days, the “once a blue” line doesn’t have quite the same gravitational pull as it once did. Capitalism dissolves human relationships. As Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, whenever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal and idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties… and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.”
So I will stick with this ghastly bunch, and won’t be crossing the bridge to Brentford — just as I won’t ever cross the Tiber to Rome, despite the Pope’s sometimes attractive embrace. Loyalty is one of those old-fashioned virtues that cements human relations, even if it means our loyalty to those who don’t really deserve it. Because for every boorish thug or Russian oligarch that wears the same colours as me, I still lie awake at night and dream of Hazard and Drogba and James. Once a blue, always a blue.