Another week and it was another three points in what is turning into an outstanding run of form from the team. I will admit to being a little concerned beforehand, not by the team but because we were missing Jorginho against Palace at the weekend. Anyone I mentioned this to before the game had the same answer however - ‘N’Golo Kante is actually quite good as a central midfielder you know’. A fair point indeed that proved to be perfectly right.
Jorginho just seems so central to everything but of course N’Golo and Mateo Kovacic were both excellent in that engine room as our suspended no.5 sat it out. This is the wider point. When changes have been made they have been at least as, if not more successful than we could have expected this season. Centre-back has been the most obvious example. Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori have brilliantly stood in for Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger who would have been presumed the obvious choices in August. Now there are no certain choices just about anywhere.
As the fans surveyed that back-line of Reece James, Kurt, Fikayo and Emerson, there must have been a ripple of happiness though the stands. It is a young, quick and talented back four and most importantly every single one of them is improving. That clean sheet might have been almost as important as the three points when you consider the bigger picture going forward. An average age of less than 23 years is astounding for the Premier League, especially for the top four. Man City at the weekend were averaging nearly 28 years at the back and even Liverpool were over 26, including the youthful Alexander-Arnold.
Maybe that is why the chant of ‘We’ve got our club back’ arose from the Matthew Harding End during the second half. This relationship between both sides of the white line is astonishing just now. Chelsea fans have always backed their team, but this is an extra-special moment. I was at Everton the other week and the silence was deafening in the first half of their game against Spurs. There has been a breakdown in that relationship and it can be hard to build again unless those fans, who are normally so partisan, can truly believe in the mission. The effect of a special atmosphere is obvious, just look at the reaction to being 4-1 down to Ajax when the fans stayed onside!
There were other great moments from the crowd at the weekend, maybe none better than the long and loud singing aimed towards our former player Gary Cahill. Throughout the second half the entire stadium sang his name and stood to applaud him for all he did for our club. It was gracious, heartfelt and very moving. Gary would have been pleased but also in the moment hugely conflicted as those who are now to him opposition fans chanted, especially when it came to one particular refrain aimed at the Palace faithful - ‘He’s won more than you, he’s won more than you, Gary Cahill, he’s won more than you’. Ouch!
Gary couldn’t react during the game obviously, however much he might have been tempted. It just isn’t on, especially if the team you are playing for is losing at the time. That would be a sure-fire way of alienating his current supporters.
At a push you can acknowledge that singing during the game if you are winning and your old fans chant your name, but even that is frowned on to a degree. Gary did the professional thing of course and indeed the correct thing. He waited until after the match and made it clear to all who had stayed how thankful he was for their support and their appreciation. He was also careful to go over to applaud his current fans. They had after all been pretty noisy for the most part themselves.
I know precisely how he felt. Like Gary I left Chelsea at the end of a season without having a chance to say goodbye.
— Pat Nevin
The fans gave me a wonderful reception on my first trip back to the Bridge and if he was half as moved as I was back then, he would have been close to tears.
Even so it might not have been the best fan-to-player interaction of the day. Of course, the noise was brilliant when Tammy Abraham and Christian Pulisic scored their goals but after the final whistle, there was the now normal sight of our players and Frank Lampard walking round and applauding everyone.
Others have done this before. David Luiz rarely left the field without going around personally thanking all four stands whether we won, lost or tied the game. I always admired him for making this effort, he cared about the fans deeply.
This is however different in that more of the players are doing it together and lingering longer than just about any other team around. I have watched this happen before at other clubs and to be brutally honest it can seem a bit forced and a bit fake. Some players at other clubs do not want to be doing it but are under orders from the coach. It seems much more natural from the current Chelsea players. The bond isn’t being forced but it is certainly being reinforced by these actions.
Many fans do leave at, and quite a few before, the final whistle most weeks. I understand it even if I have never done it before myself. As a kid back in Scotland my Dad ensured that I stayed to cheer and applaud the players at the end of every game, even and perhaps especially if the team had lost. As he often said to me, this is when they need you the most.
Sometimes there are situations when you need to get off quickly and that queue at Fulham Broadway on a cold and rainy day isn’t always pleasant, but I would urge as many fans as possible to stay for this part of the day.
By the time I was a professional player, I myself always recognised this as a vitally important relationship that cannot be taken for granted. There is a feeling that something special is happening at the club just now and everyone should feel that they are a part of it. So hang around if you can, to give your appreciation but also to receive it from the team. We are looking like one of the best teams again right now and at this moment we have a decent argument to say we have the best fans as well.