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As Petr Cech examined his handset, which had slipped through his hands and clattered off the paving, a helicopter circled above and furious fans gathered en masse on Fulham Road ahead of Chelsea’s game against Brighton.
If Cech was a little shaken up, it was understandable — so were the rest of the so-called ‘big six.’ But he had just clambered his way through the angry gathering and found himself in a position the decision-makers at each of the Premier League’s rebel clubs have been so desperate to avoid.
He was front and centre, facing up to the very supporters who have been treated with such disdain by European football’s ‘Dirty Dozen,’ hell-bent on creating a league of their own.
“Give everybody time,” he pleaded, as he tried to act as mediator.
As Chelsea’s technical and performance advisor, he knew moves were already in motion to break away from the breakaway.
The decision to pull out of the European Super League was not a result of this protest — rather the weight of feeling across the sport. Crucially, the voice of the fans was heard — and the sight of so many turning up with placards and flares felt symbolic.
While confirmation of Chelsea’s withdrawal did not come until nearly 1am, it was fitting that word of Roman Abramovich’s cold feet was the first to break as the Super League plot began to crumble, barely 48 hours after its inception.
The Russian owner had quickly gauged the mood and acted with typical speed. His legacy was at stake.
Fans who arrived chanting ‘We want our Chelsea back’ quickly amended it to ‘We’ve got our Chelsea back!’, as the news filtered through. All of this before a ball had been kicked, with the game against Brighton delayed as team buses fought to get through the crowd.
As the house of cards began to fall, next came news of Manchester City’s plans to back out, with the Premier League leaders managing to become the first to officially formalise their exit.
By this point the game had kicked off, not that anyone noticed. And as if to try to avoid becoming an unwanted distraction to events unfolding elsewhere, it went by almost without incident other than Ben White’s late dismissal for a second bookable offence. All the drama was happening off the pitch.
Ed Woodward became the first high-profile casualty, as the Manchester United chief’s latest attempt to reform the game collapsed around his ears.
His decision to walk away at the end of the year had already been planned, it was claimed, and not related to the Super League shambles. Given the timing of United’s announcement, supporters will draw their own conclusions. He, his club and its already hugely unpopular owners have been humiliated.
Woodward has been a driving force in two spectacularly ill-conceived bids to reform the game — from last year’s disastrous Project Big Picture to this latest shameless power play. The failure of both is a source of major embarrassment to all involved.
The swift back-tracking of England’s elite does not erase the damage they tried to do. The fury of the Chelsea fans echoed the sentiments of supporters around the world. Through the power of social media, they mobilised and made it impossible to be ignored.
“Having joined the group late last week, we have now had time to consider the matter fully and have decided that our continued participation in these plans would not be in the best interests of the club, our supporters or the wider football community,” read Chelsea’s statement in the early hours.
Arsenal at least had the good grace to offer an outright apology. Yet, bridges will need to be rebuilt.
The decision to sack Frank Lampard still does not sit well with sections of Chelsea’s support, who chanted the former manager’s name on Tuesday night. They described the club’s involvement in the Super League as the “ultimate betrayal”.
The hope is the willingness of clubs to back down so soon could represent a sea-change in football, where fans are treated as more than mere customers.
“This is a victory for supporters,” said the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust. “We did this together. We shouted and they had to listen.”
Meanwhile, back on the pitch, a goalless draw moved Thomas Tuchel’s side up to fourth place but meant they failed to put significant distance between themselves and the rest of the Champions League-chasing pack.
On a night when they broke away from the breakaway, their hopes of returning to the top table of European football next season remain in the balance.