The Arsenal view on Chelsea: A hard truth we dare not speak

Arsenal and Chelsea have never particularly liked one another, but in the 1990s, a proper rivalry started to take root
The Arsenal view on Chelsea: A hard truth we dare not speak
Arsenal's Ray Parlour celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the The F.A Cup final against Chelsea at The Millenium Stadium in Cardiff

“I hate Tottenham because I am an Arsenal fan, I hate Chelsea because I am a human being.” 

Had meme culture existed in the late 90s that caption would have done numbers on social media. As it happens, it was a popular sentiment among Arsenal fans at the turn of the 21st century.

Arsenal and Chelsea have never particularly liked one another, but in the 1990s, a proper rivalry started to take root.

Many will pinpoint the arrival of Roman Abramovich as Chelsea’s chrysalis into a domestic superpower and that remains accurate.

However, the Blues underwent a facelift in the mid-90s as the club associated with electric fences, National Front leaflets and Ford Granadas parked incongruously behind the goal opted for a cosmopolitan makeover.

In came Gianluca Vialli, Ruud Gullit and then Gianfranco Zola. Gradually, their ramshackle Stamford Bridge ground was re-imagined as a modern football arena and they actually started to win silverware. A couple of FA Cups and League Cups and a Cup Winners Cup, however, still couldn’t compare with Arsenal’s own cultural revolution under Arsene Wenger.

We were winning league titles and undergoing a makeover of our own. Arsenal fans used to tease Chelsea about their perceptions of grandeur, adapting the lyrics to their ‘Carefree’ anthem. ‘Carefree wherever you may be; Chelsea only win the sh*t trophies.” 

Between 1995 and 2005 Chelsea didn’t beat Arsenal in the League. Each defeat was punctuated with the triumphant chant of, “There’s only one team in London!” from the Arsenal contingent. The status quo remained intact.

In October 1999, Chelsea were 2-0 up with 13 minutes remaining at a rain-sodden Stamford Bridge only to succumb to an extraordinary Kanu hat-trick. There was also a cup final victory in 2002, now made famous by celebrity Chelsea fan Tim Lovejoy’s commentary box faux pas. 

“It’s only Ray Parlour,” he snorted as the Romford Pele lined up a shot from range.

The shot flew into the top corner as Arsenal sealed another domestic double. Lovejoy’s hubris perfectly encapsulated how we Arsenal fans regarded Chelsea - unjustifiably smug [we were smug too, of course, but that was justified….] Of course, things changed in 2003 when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and it became apparent that the situation would soon shift.

In Abramovich’s inaugural summer, Chelsea placed bids for Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. They knew full well the bids would be rebuffed but they were making a statement of intent. Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein has a memorable phrase for it: “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us."

Such crass behaviour was of course dismissed out of hand by Arsenal fans and we greeted Chelsea’s emergence with phrases like “lotto chavs” and “Chelski.”

The teams met for the first time in the Abramovich era in October 2003 at Highbury, my season ticket seat was next to the away support, who gleefully sang, “we’re faaaaackin’ loaded” to the tune of Andy Williams’ ‘I love you baby.’ “When the Russian goes to prison, Russian goes to prison, Russian goes to prison you’ll be f*cked,” came the reply. 

Being the conscientious sorts, we focused on the source of Abramovich’s vast wealth in the playground of supporter one-upmanship.

Privately, we knew that new material was going to be required soon enough. Arsenal won on that October afternoon, as they did in the reverse fixture four months later on their way to an unbeaten league title victory.

However, Chelsea knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals at Highbury in April 2004 - on this occasion my season ticket seat was a source of enormous regret as I watched Wayne Bridge and co make a beeline for the away enclosure after his gutting late winner. The Gunners’ domestic dominance could not conceal what was lurking on the horizon.

With Jose Mourinho in charge, Chelsea sauntered to the league title in 2005 - even my parents were children the previous time that happened. It was difficult to know how to deal with their success really, I had been used to lording it over Blues fans that I knew.

Soon enough, games against Chelsea became a grinding chore as Arsenal swung fruitlessly at the much bigger fighter, barely landing a blow in anger.

We sneered at Chelsea’s lack of ‘class’ largely as a defence mechanism. However, nothing could quite prepare any of us for the day that they won the Champions League in 2012. Each time Chelsea added a league title to their honours board, Arsenal fans always had a tuneful response, “Thirteen league titles, you’ve only won two/three/four.” There was and still is no response to their Champions League bauble.

Now the relationship has altered. With behemoths like Wenger, Mourinho, Terry, Drogba and the like out of the picture, a little of the sting has been drawn from the rivalry. The truth Arsenal fans dare not speak is that we have become accustomed to losing to Chelsea - we expect it now.

I was utterly convinced, along with many Arsenal fans, that Arsenal would lose the 2017 FA Cup Final.

Ten years earlier, the thought of losing a final to Chelsea would have filled me with existential dread but it’s a wound I have minded too many times to regard with the same torpor nowadays. The victory in 2017 therefore felt like a genuine underdog triumph, the unforeseen nature of it sweetening the post-match champagne.

I was one of the few that travelled to Baku last year for the Europa League Final - Chelsea’s exalted status over the last 15 years emphasised by the fact that most of the locals were rooting for the Blue part of London. Prior to kick-off I even shared a couple of beers with some Chelsea fans.

The ordeal of getting to Baku diluted the rivalry, which gave way to a mutual respect. “Usually, I can’t stand Arsenal,” one Chelsea fan told me.

“But today, what’s the f*ckin’ point, eh?” he said, before clattering his glass against mine. 

Indeed.

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