Stamford Bridge has been something of a fortress in recent years. Jose Mourinho oversaw a run of 86 league games unbeaten at Chelsea’s home ground in his first spell in charge, and despite a recent dip it is still a difficult place to come and get a win.
However, the atmosphere on matchdays has been declining steadily since the mid-1990s. There are numerous reasons for this. Former owner Ken Bates alienated a vast swathe of the fanbase with his electric fence comment, and the increase in ticket prices has strangled the core working-class support.
For their part, the club appear to be addressing this issue. It froze season-ticket prices for five years before increasing them in 2011. They have been frozen for a second time, but the cheapest adult ticket is still £750. Factor in London rents, averaging £1,100 pcm for a one-bedroom flat, and the average wage of £26,500 a year and you can see how football is becoming unaffordable for the regular supporters.
Chelsea’s success in recent years has seen them become a global brand, attracting visitors from around the globe. These visitors have the cash to replace the regular match-going fans, but they lack the sense of community that comes from sitting with the same group of people every year.
They’re there for a one-off match and they want to make sure they remember it, so they take out their cameras and smartphones, sometimes even their tablets, and record the match for posterity’s sake. They can then relive that moment over and over again, without ever having truly experienced it. Life viewed through a screen can never be as visceral as the real thing.
At the Champions League group-stage match against FC Basel, I sat 10 seats down the row from my regular season-ticket seat to avoid the additional assistant blocking my view of the game as he had last year.
I successfully avoided staring at a man’s bottom for the whole match, but I was stunned by the attitude of some “supporters” around me. Situated in the front row of The Shed End, just a few seats away from the corner flag, a woman asked me to stop shouting in the dying minutes, when Chelsea were 2-1 down. I was just yelling helpful encouragement like “Move it! Quicker than that! You’re going the wrong way! Man on! SHOOOT!!”
I am not by any means suggesting that it is like that for every game. Champions League knockout matches at Stamford Bridge have provided some of the most electric atmospheres you could wish for at a football match. However, in the early stages of this competition especially, it is like watching the game in a really cold room with a lot of people having a chat about their boring day at work.
Stamford Bridge was expanded and modernised in stages, with the acoustics of the ground never really taken into consideration. Whilst there are no suggestions that they should go down the Manchester United route and hire an acoustics expert, there are other steps that could be taken.
One way to deal with the tourist issue would be to create a “neutral” area as neighbours Fulham do. They set aside a few thousand tickets for each game at Craven Cottage to allow people to enjoy the spectacle of watching Fulham without harming the atmosphere. As half of the East Stand is already taken up by the family section, it would make sense to put a neutral/tourist zone there.
Designated Safe Standing areas would also help but that is something that is not in the club’s control.
Then there is the issue of the away supporters.
When he took over in 2004, Mourinho asked for the family section to be moved from the Shed End so that the more vocal fans could sit behind the goal. This has improved things somewhat, but swapping them with the away fans seems to have backfired.
Chelsea should do what Barcelona and Manchester United do and put the away fans in the top corner of the East Stand to allow the Shed End to become as loud as the Matthew Harding Stand.
Chelsea is one of the most cosmopolitan, affluent areas of London, and the football club has always reflected that. However, if they fail to address the issues of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, they will have a crowd of spectators rather than supporters, and they will suffer for it.