Chelsea fail to lure fickle fans

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The Independent Football

Shortly after the late Matthew Harding became a serious player in Chelsea's boardroom he told me of his aspirations for the club. He spoke not just of championships and European Cups, but of a desire that spectators would want to watch Chelsea regardless of the opposition. "Whenever I offer people a ticket they always ask: 'Who are you playing?' If it's Manchester United they'll come, if it's Coventry or Leicester they might not. I hate that. I go to watch Chelsea, not the opposition."

One would imagine, after the years of Hoddle and Gullit, Vialli and Zola, and now Veron and Crespo, that Chelsea would now be a big enough draw to fill Stamford Bridge in their own right. To judge from the attendance at Tuesday's Champions' League qualifier against MSK Zilina they are not. More than 19,000 empty seats, including the entire upper tier of the West Stand, bore mute testimony to the fickle nature of Chelsea's support.

Admittedly the tie was effectively over, Chelsea having won the first leg in Slovakia. In addition Adrian Mutu was ineligible, Hernan Crespo still to sign, and the resting of Juan Sebastian Veron and Damien Duff had been well-trailed. Yet so had the home debut of Joe Cole. Tuesday's 23,408 gate was not a one-off. Chelsea's crowds have consistently fluctuated more than their main rivals.

Take Arsenal. Highbury's capacity is 38,000, less for Champions' League games, but it is years since they last recorded a sub-30,000 gate outside of the disregarded League Cup. In the last six years FA Cup-ties against clubs such as Port Vale, Blackpool and Gillingham have drawn 34,000-plus. So have "dead" European ties.

Liverpool's gates are more variable but sub-30,000 attendances are very rare. When they had to pre-qualify for the Champions' League two seasons ago they drew 31,602 for the second leg against Finnish team FC Haka despite winning the first-leg 5-0.

Manchester United are almost a law unto themselves. Since Old Trafford's capacity was expanded beyond 67,000 more than three years ago the lowest gate they have recorded is 47,848 for a Worthington Cup tie with Leicester. For other competitions they have not dipped below 64,000.

Chelsea's ticket prices, which go up to £67, are obviously a factor but significantly cheaper prices applied on Tuesday. It would seem supporters still ask: "Who are we playing?"

Maybe the arrival of Crespo will change that. Until last season's injury-ridden campaign he averaged 16.8 goals per season in six years in Serie A. He won the Uefa Cup with Parma in 1999 alongside Veron, with whom he renews a partnership which began in the Argentinian Under-21 team eight years ago. "It will be good for him to have a friend at the club, someone who knows English football," said Claudio Ranieri.

Veron will doubtless have told Crespo one of the benefits of coming to England is playing to full houses every week. One wonders when exactly Chelsea will do so.