Early Doors

An exercise in stupidity and futility

Early Doors

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Imagine being a Chelsea fan. Imagine waking up all excited on the day that the European champions play the English champions and remembering you have an errand to run before you grab your season ticket and wander down to your beloved Stamford Bridge.

Imagine popping into PC World for some new colour toner for your home inkjet printer and nipping into the local craft shop for a new ream of A4 paper. Imagine getting home, firing up the computer and waiting expectantly as Microsoft Paint loads up.

Imagine the glint in your eye as you start typing, resizing, designing, your mate by your side. 'Yeah, that looks good Dave.' 'What about Calibri?' 'Nah, Arial Bold does the job just fine.' 'Should I underline this bit for added emphasis?' 'Why not? Oh, and I think that bit would look great in red.' 'Great stuff Nige.'

Imagine standing back and gazing in awe at your handiwork. Imagine folding said work of art into your pocket and setting off for the ground. Imagine taking your seat and then seeing your brand new manager, here for his first game no less, emerge from the tunnel. Imagine booing him, chanting at him, telling him to "f*** off".

Imagine unfolding that bold, brilliant A4 piece of paper and unveiling its devastating message, printed in blue and red ink, to the new manager, on his fourth day in the job: 'Rafa Out.'

Congratulations, you have just imagined being one of the most ridiculous football fans on the planet.

Because on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, Rafa Benitez was treated to one of the most conspicuous yet futile displays of stupidity English football has ever seen.

We knew, he knew, his appointment in place of Roberto Di Matteo was not a popular one, but who could have envisaged the enthusiasm with which all corners of the crowd booed Benitez upon his emergence from the tunnel?

'Rafa Out!' was the joke on Twitter in the days after he accepted the challenge of becoming Roman Abramovich's ninth manager, but did anyone really expect a significant number of Chelsea fans to actually turn up with placards demanding his removal before a ball had even been kicked?

And was anyone prepared to hear the shocking sound of "We don't want you here, we don't want you here, f*** off Benitez, we don't want you here" emanating from the Matthew Harding Stand?

We knew a febrile atmosphere awaited Benitez but this was an exhibition of borderline self-immolation from Chelsea's support, while all the time not a soul dared turn their fire on the untouchable owner, sat up in his box, completely unmoved by the popular protest taking place in front of him.

Early Doors recognises that Chelsea fans have legitimate grievances with Benitez. During the reign of Jose Mourinho - a man who inspired religious fervour in West London, and understandably so - Benitez constantly assumed the role of villain as his Liverpool side proved a barrier to Chelsea's Champions League aspirations. He was a caricature, a baddie, for Chelsea fans to vent their disappointment at.

As Liverpool manager he also made some marginally snide comments about Chelsea supporters and their penchant for flag waving. How fitting, then, that a group of supporters who are apparently a bit precious about little plastic flags chose to protest with little paper posters on Sunday.

We get it. In a world of Mourinhistas, Benitez is seen as beyond the pale, the enemy. Fine. Football is a tribal business and all the better for it. But times change, and whether Chelsea fans like it or not - and my goodness they do not - Benitez is now head of the Blue tribe.

No one was expecting those supporters in attendance to lay ferns at his feet and fawn at the first sight of that famous goatee, but remarkably Benitez was subjected to what surely must be one of the most hostile receptions ever afforded to a manager in the long history of English football. It was genuinely astounding.

There was a bit more to it of course. The boos were so loud, the banners so proliferate, because it wasn't just any manager who had been sacrificed in order that Benitez should arrive, but 'Robbie' Di Matteo - legendary player, winner of the FA Cup and Champions League in only eight months of management.

The anger was understandable: sacking Di Matteo was horribly ruthless and no way to treat a fine servant of the club. But it wasn't Benitez who made the call to human resources.

In the set-piece of recrimination and fury on Sunday, was there one dissenting voice who questioned the role of Abramovich in all of this? Was there one banner which meekly read: 'Excuse me, Mr Abramovich sir, I may have some slight reservations about your decision-making process over the last week'?

To expect any kind of revolt against the owner is fanciful. He has purchased the club league titles, FA Cups, League Cups and the Champions League. He has rejuvenated it from top to bottom, installing Chelsea as a formidable power at home and abroad. He holds the destiny of the club in his hands. These are all very good reasons for Chelsea fans to admire and respect him, perhaps even love him.

But if sacking Di Matteo and bringing in Benitez was such a loathsome act, why no scrutiny for the man who made the decision? Why no pointed questions for Abramovich, instead of overblown abuse for the man he appointed?

The answer must be the unspoken fear of what happens if Abramovich walks away from the club he has propped up for so long. He remains untouchable as long the future is so uncertain without him, and the fact Chelsea fans don't appear to feel empowered to hold him to any kind of standard must be a concern. There is no stomach for dissent and what that might entail, no possibility of questioning the man who rules Chelsea, so dislocated anger at the dismissal of Di Matteo focused around his replacement.

While Benitez was being assailed by abuse from his new supporters - supporters! Ha! - and cries of 'One Di Matteo' rang out around Stamford Bridge, the TV camera cut to Abramovich in the crowd.

His eyes had glazed over, his face was set in stone. You wondered if he even cared, if the anger of the fans even registered with him at all, if all those placards, posters and banners were completely, absolutely, utterly futile. Imagine that.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I don't hear what the fans say or do when I'm concentrating as a manager on a game of football. They shouldn't be doing things like that, should they? But it's the least of my worries at the moment. I never heard it so I don't know. What do you want me to say? If I didn't hear it, I can't condemn it. I'll make a comment after I've listened to what they've said. I don't want to be a political animal. I'm here to talk about football, not what fans are saying or singing." - Sam Allardyce handles a rather hot potato after West Ham fans were heard singing songs about Hitler and Spurs fans being stabbed in Sunday's London derby.

FOREIGN VIEW: Lionel Messi was at it again last night, scoring twice for Barcelona in a 4-0 win over Levante. Barca have now enjoyed the best ever start to a Liga season with 12 wins in 13 games, but a more incredible stat comes in the fact that Messi has now scored eight braces and one hat-trick in La Liga this season. He hasn't scored one goal even once.

COMING UP: Jan Molby has his say on the Rafa Benitez debate, while we bring you our European and Premier League Teams of the Weekend. Oh, and we check in with Pitchside Europe to catch up with events in France.

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