Why would anyone spend £48 to watch a foregone conclusion? The champions could guarantee a win, but that seems to have hit their chances of a full house Barney Ronay was sufficiently intrigued to go along

Chelsea fans are an unusual breed. But then, Chelsea is an unusual place. A house here will cost you upwards of £2 million. As for renting – unless you’re considering where to station the consulate building for your oil-rich Middle Eastern state – probably best to forget about it. In spite of which Chelsea FC remain wedged in between some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Consider the Chelsea fan in these circumstances. If you actually live anywhere near the place you’re either a) extremely wealthy; or b) someone forced to spend their whole life with their nose pressed up against the über-consumption, the impossible lifestyle, of your extremely wealthy neighbours. Or you could be someone who lives nowhere near the place but wants to support the most successful team. Either way this is a club, a place and a brand name that carries serious economic weight for ten million class-conscious Londoners. Shouting out the name “Chelsea” every Saturday – that’s got to do something unusual to you. Particularly when suddenly you’re winning everything in sight. And there is, definitely, something about Chelsea fans.

In the first decade of the Premiership it became fashionable to dislike Manchester United. Everybody cheered when they lost a game. Now the focus has switched to SW6. Somehow, as a Londoner, it seems more natural. This, you feel, is easy to do. But why? Ten minutes before the start of play in the club’s second home game of the season as champions, a large, shaven-headed man in a suit sidles on to the pitch to announce the team line-ups. “It’s a bit of a weak bench tonight,” he grins into his microphone, arriving at the home team’s substitutes. “Robben. Duff. Crespo. Cech. Carvalho. Let’s try and do better next time lads, eh? And that’s your teams for CHELSEA!!!! [pause for mass chests-puffed-out applause] againstWestBromthankyou.” And suddenly everything becomes slightly clearer. Yes, you think to yourself. Forget your fossil-fuel oligarchs and devastatingly efficient Portuguese coaches. This is the problem with Chelsea.

Twenty minutes earlier, under a smudged London sky, and with a samba version of We’ll Keep The Blue Flag Flying High echoing around a two-thirds empty stadium, it really did look like something interesting was about to happen. A few days before the game the club had unexpectedly placed an advert in the Evening Standard to boost ticket sales. “Have a hot night out in Chelsea,” it read. “Watch the Premiership champions scorch up the league on Wednesday.” Hot, presumably, being a polite way of describing the price of tickets: £48, to watch a West Brom side resting players ahead of a game against Birmingham they think they can win. On the night there does seem to be a great deal of blue plastic scattered about the stands, in among the early arrivals standing as one to watch adverts on the big screens placed in every corner.

These days, going to watch Chelsea play is a deeply modern experience. This is a modern super-club, a modern business at the sharp end of 15 years of financial hot-housing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, like most other very modern things (global warming, for example), being here feels like the end of something rather than the beginning. When clubs are scouting other clubs’ scouts, signing other clubs’ players just to stop other clubs signing other clubs’ players, and when a chief executive has his own weekly page in the programme (“Building for the future” with Peter Kenyon) then football, clearly, has begun to eat itself. None of which is anyone’s fault, of course. It’s just the market. Money has been given its head. And nobody in this stadium, barring the knot of West Brom fans – shunted into a corner away from the dugouts, rumour has it, on the orders of José Mourinho – is likely to have a bad word to say about it. For a start the market brought them Michael Essien and Shaun Wright-Phillips, at a combined cost of £44m, both of whom are making their debuts tonight. Even warming up there’s something glitzy about the Chelsea team, a swagger to players such as Frank Lampard and Joe Cole which, in Lampard’s case, certainly wasn’t there when he was at West Ham. But, of course, we’re in Chelsea now.

I’m sitting in the luxurious duplex press box, a highly evolved combination of high-speed buffet (sticky cakes and hot-plate dinner service) and secluded viewing gantry. Tonight it feels like the place to be. Chris Kamara’s here with a teenage clone who could be – and must surely be – his son. A few minutes before kick-off Garth Crooks appears, spots someone he knows, and proceeds to ask a two-minute question containing multiple sub-clauses that could best be summarised as “How are you?”

By now the evening sun has appeared and the turrets of Chelsea Village are glowing a sallow gold. In spite of the vast debts accumulated on its behalf, and even with the mineral wealth of a large Siberian province behind it, this is not a great arena. Approaching from the King’s Road, Stamford Bridge could be a new university or an out-of-town TK Maxx superstore. But at least it seems to be almost full. As the players run out on to the pitch the patches of blue in the stands have been replaced by a flood of latecomers. Two things are immediately apparent. First, Chris Kirkland is absolutely huge. The other West Brom players look like mascots next to him (which is a good thing because the Chelsea team, of course, have two of those). And second, José Mourinho really does know how to make an entrance. Poised at the mouth of the tunnel, he soaks up the applause of a suddenly very excited crowd with a practised show of nonchalance. When shortly after kick-off he strides suddenly right to the edge of the pitch you feel something incredibly important is about to happen. His gestures of impatience as Thomas Gaardsoe takes a while to pick himself up after a foul are delicious.

In fact the most interesting thing about both teams is probably their managers. There is almost something of the old social-class sketch featuring the Two Ronnies and John Cleese about them: “I expect to win the Champions League in the next two years.” “I know my place.” “I have a coaching staff of 14 world-class Portuguese.” “I have Nigel Pearson.”

Mourinho is an unusual figure: a manager who outshines every player in his squad when it comes to star quality. José is the ace face at Chelsea; not Lampard or Terry or Duff. Meanwhile, on the touchline in front of me, Bryan Robson will stand hunched in the same position for the entire 90 minutes. Chin propped on his fist, shoulders drooping, from this angle only something Popeye-ish about the back of his head suggests Captain Marvel. In front of him his assistant Pearson points and shouts and whistles. For minutes at a time he stands directly in front of where Robson is propped up, completely blocking his manager’s view of the match. Weirdly, Robson doesn’t move when this happens but stays hunched in the same position, now apparently just staring at Pearson’s terrible shorts.

Meanwhile, back on the pitch Chelsea are gradually, and very calmly, taking charge. This is a very efficient team. In front of me Robson begins muttering “Fuck! [pause] Fuck! [pause] Fuck!” to himself. It’s like a premonition. A minute later Frank Lampard has scored and the Chelsea players are doing that baby-rocking celebration invented by Brazil’s Bebeto, this time in honour of Lampard’s new daughter. As the game restarts Mourinho is shrugging, pouting, chatting to people in the crowd and generally having the time of his life, unmoved by the pointed chants of “Ing-er-land, Ing-er-land” from the West Brom fans. This is a new one. I wonder what Gaardsoe, Gera, Albrechtsen, Kamara and Kanu make of it.

Half-time is greeted with the mass holding-aloft of mobile phones as Chelsea leave the field to a wave of self-congratulatory applause. What is it about this place? One aspect of the mass protests at the Glazer takeover of Manchester United was the light it threw on Roman Abramovich’s empire-building further south. I don’t remember anyone complaining around here. But then of course Chelsea already had their enormous debts. And more importantly, perhaps, this is a club that started out as a rich man’s plaything.

Other football clubs tend to have their roots in the factory floor, the church, or simply the pub. Chelsea were created out of entrepreneurial ambition. In 1904 HA ‘Gus’ Mears needed to fill the vacant Stamford Bridge athletics stadium, left empty after Fulham refused to take up an offer to play their home games there. So Stamford Bridge – host to track and field and later greyhound racing, speedway and American football – became the home of Chelsea FC. That a club founded as a money-making concern should reach a position of pre-eminence in a league now geared solely towards the generation of funds seems, not so much a moment of dramatic historical irony, but quite logical. Maybe that’s the thing about Chelsea: a collective sense of entitlement, even in the middle of wild and improbable good fortune. This is an aspirational kind of place. Certainly, it all seems rather easy as Lampard scores number four. By now Mourinho is nowhere to be seen, Robson has resorted to titillating the scattered Japanese presence by sending on Junichi Inamoto, and the whole place feels a bit like someone else’s party, an extended hangover from last year’s title celebrations. “We are top of the league,” the Shed End chants. Yes, these are very status-conscious Londoners. And with ten minutes to go the Blue shirts are already flooding out of the exits, with the feeling that we’re all done here.

At the post-match press conference there’s a tangible sense of expectation. The place falls silent as José wanders in, and as he bats away questions with phrases such as “it doesn’t matter” and “why?” you can see that the hacks love this guy. “The position and mobility of the triangle was very good,” he drawls, and as one they lap it up. Of West Brom he shrugs: “They played rudimentary football. They feel at home with this.” Moments later Mr Rudimentary himself, Bryan Robson, appears in the doorway to take his place. Seeing Robson close up you get the feeling that this and a few other blue-chip away dates are not even part of the game plan for West Brom. Tonight was a day out, a trip across the tracks. For Robson the season exists elsewhere. And this, more than anything else, can’t be a healthy state of affairs for everybody concerned. Even, dare it be said, for Chelsea.

As I’m leaving the ground I get a final close-up of José, emerging out of the gloom in the car park signing autographs with both hands, simultaneously giving an interview to Japanese TV and waving to a group chanting his name behind some railings. As he passes he raises an eyebrow and collectively they swoon, hands raised to blue-scarfed throats. Being a Chelsea fan certainly is an unusual business.

From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month

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