United and Chelsea Show That English Soccer is a Game for Old Men

Over the past week, both Manchester United and Chelsea, in their improbable 4-1 Champion's League win over Napoli, have served up reminders of the importance of history, and institutional memory, in the English game.

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Rebecca Naden/PA Wire / AP

Chelsea's Didier Drogba, left, and Napoli's Hugo Campagnaro battle for the ball during the UEFA Champions League match at Stamford Bridge, London on March 14, 2012.

Among the most derisive chants that the fans of an English football club can hurl at the players and fans of a rival team is this: “You ain’t got no history! And over the past week, both Manchester United — by gliding past their derby rivals Manchester City to the top of the table — and Chelsea, in their improbable 4-1 Champion’s League win over Napoli, have served up reminders of the importance of history, and institutional memory, in the English game. 

History is everything in the culture of English football, a game whose passion is grounded in the powerful chemistry of local affinities where the club — and its folklore — symbolize bonds of neighborhood, tribe, sect and class that have since morphed into its own imagined community of shared suffering and occasional salvation. No lifelong Liverpool fan (which I became in 1974) can fail to break out in misty-eyed gooseflesh when the club’s anthem, the Gerry and the Pacemakers’ cover of the Rogers and Hammerstein  show-tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone“, is played over the tannoy and lustily joined by a mass choir of 60,000. The song enshrines our history, evoking its triumphs and its tragedies and decades of football folklore that unite us in secular communion with the spirit of Bill Shankly, the curmudgeonly Scottish socialist who understood the club as a symbol of working class pride and left a legacy of unparalleled success and a mythology of solidarity as the key to the identity of Liverpool FC. Don’t just take it from me; take it from Elvis Costello.

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We’re not title contenders, right now, and haven’t been for some years. But we have history, and history is priceless because it gives the club its authenticity. We still believe, regardless of where we stand on the league table (seventh, currently), that we can beat anyone on the day. And the results prove that we can. We may begrudge Manchester United their dominance in the Premier League over the past two decades, but there’s no denying their history of triumphs, and of tragedies. Respect is due. Arsenal have a history. So do Spurs.

“You ain’t got no history” is really reserved for clubs suddenly flush with the cash of some oligarch, oil sheikh or other member of the global 1% who’ve used it to assemble an enviable stable of thoroughbreds to make themselves Johnny-come-lately title contenders. Yes, we’re resentful of those clubs who’ve tried to buy success — irrational as that may seem in a market where even the clubs with “history” depend on hundreds of millions in investment in order to remain competitive. (Thank you, Fenway Sports Group, the Boston Red Sox owners who’ve done exactly that for Liverpool…)

Chelsea became the consummate “no history” team when they were acquired in 2003 by the Russian oligarch and Putin-pal Roman Abramovich, who over the ensuing nine years has spent close to $1.5 billion in buying some of the world’s finest players. Sure, they gave us our moments of schadenfreude when some of those players — $50 million Andriy Schevchenko,  or former Liverpool striker Fernando Torres who cost Abramovich close to $80 million — failed spectacularly to deliver for Chelsea the goals they had regularly produced for other clubs. But more galling was the fact that buying success actually worked for Abramovich. Portuguese coach Jose Mourinho — whose man-management ability is unrivaled when it comes to convincing his players they are invincible, and that belief becomes vital to their success — took Chelsea to back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006. And they did it again in 2010 under Carlo Ancelotti.

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Resentment at their buying the title may be why so many of us have enjoyed their implosion this season. Having hired the new Portuguese whizz-kid Andre Vilas-Boas as his coach, Abramovich was looking to rebuild a team that had won him everything except his most coveted prize, the European Champion’s League trophy. Vilas-Boas’ methods, and his disregard for reputation, particularly when it came to dropping players Mourinho had deemed “untouchable” — like midfielder Frank Lampard, defender Ashley Cole and occasionally even Ivoirian striker Didier Drogba — eventually ignited a player revolt. Or, at least a split dressing room, with the old guard led by the captain, John Terry, making obvious their disdain for the new man, who failed to deliver the results expected by the oligarch. With Chelsea out of the top four position in the English Premiership that provide access to the Champion’s League, Abramovich swung the axe. (And oh how we cackled! He’d spent close to $20 million simply to persuade Vilas-Boas’ previous employer, Portuguese club Porto, to release him from his contract; having paid the hapless fellow $4 million in wages for the 40 games he was in charge, Abramovich will now have to pay Vilas-Boas a further $15 million for the remainder of his contract.)

But watching Chelsea’s heroic comeback on Wednesday to knock Napoli out of the Champion’s League, Abramovich would have felt vindicated. Here were the players Vilas-Boas was ready to discard — Mourinho men — pulling off an epic turnaround from a 3-1 deficit on the first leg: Didier Drogba majestically throwing himself across his marker, striking like a cobra to head home Ramires’ near-post cross; Terry glancing his header inside the near post for his umpteenth decisive goal from a Lampard set piece; Lampard cool as ice blasting home from the penalty spot and then Drogba, after terrifying the Napoli defense all night, producing a magic turn in the area to lose his marker and tee up Ivanovic for the winner.

Vintage stuff. Like it or not, the men Mourinho bought with Abramovich’s millions have created a mini-history of their own at Chelsea.

They are old, of course, for footballers: Drogba is 34, and is expected to seek a final payday in China at the end of this season; Lampard is 32 and may also move on; Terry turns 32 in December as does Ashley Cole — another of the Mourinho men who made a decisive contribution against Napoli. Michael Essien, the Mourinho man who anchored the midfield against Napoli is 30, but his knees have started to go. Still, Wednesdays heroics were a moment when Chelsea claimed its own history, not necessarily as a club and symbol as much as a team — a group of players with a shared history and ethos, who understand one another and how to turn a game around, and whose commitment, nous and leadership steady the younger players around them.

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History has been decisive at the top of the table, too, where last weekend Manchester United recaptured the lead from their city rivals, Manchester City — another team with “no history” (or rather, a history of being elegant also-rans until Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the royal family of the oil emirate of Abu Dhabi, bought the club three years ago and has poured more than $1 billion into assembling a team that could emulate or surpass what Chelsea did for the oligarch Abramovich.) The Mansour millions have put some of the most talented players in game in the sky-blue shirt — Spain’s David Silva, Argentina’s Sergio Aguero, France’s Samir Nasri and the mercurial Italian Mario Balotelli to name but four in what would be deemed an “embarrassment of riches” if people rich and vain enough to buy football clubs were actually embarrassed by that sort of thing.

The problem? They have no history as a team. Every player in Manchester City’s typical starting lineup bar goalkeeper Joe Hart and midfielder Gareth Barry is in either his first or his second season at the club; all (including Barry, now in his third season) had been established stars on other teams when the lure of the City’s lucre proved irresistible. And some of the antics this season — Balotelli’s spectacular indiscipline, Carlos Tevez refusing to go on as a substitute against Bayern Munich, or periodic tales of dressing room rebellions against coach Roberto Mancini — remind us that they’re a collection of exorbitantly paid individuals rather than a team. And football is a team sport — a proposition tested when things are going badly.

Having coasted into what appeared to be an unassailable lead earlier in the season, City have suddenly begun to wobble, losing three of their last six premiership games (after being knocked out of the Champion’s League). United, legend has it, only goes into top gear after Christmas, and over the same period, the men in red have won five and drawn one. United have a history, of course, not just as a club, but as a team — Sir Alex Ferguson has been their coach for two decades, and he has molded a culture of high-tempo attacking football and a never-say-die mentality that allows them to grind out victories even when they’re playing badly, never allowing their heads to drop when the tide of a game is against them. And he has been remarkably served, this season, by two old men. Ryan Giggs, the 38-year-old Welsh attacking midfielder whose ability to keep on running after 21 years in the first team has roast beef-and-two-veg English commentators waxing lyrical about the virtues of yoga — Giggs’ fitness secret — remains a key player. Even more astonishing has been Paul Scholes, the 37-year-old midfield general who actually came out of retirement in January to rejoin the squad and has since proven to be a vital asset.

Scholes and Giggs both spent their entire premiership careers at United, and have this season provided that vital leadership and continuity that has integrated younger stars into a winning system in which egos are left in the locker — or at least, in the glove compartment of the Ferrari out in the players’ parking lot. Right now, two points ahead of City at the top of the table, you’d bet on them winning their 20th title this spring. That’s hard to swallow for a Liverpool fan, of course, because until a couple of seasons ago, our 18 league titles had been a record.

Still, there’s a reassuring lesson in there: History still counts.

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