The season of goodwill has not been a good one for football.
The season of goodwill has not been a good one for football. At a time when the game has already been discredited by the trial of Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, and some shameful responses, a series of players have behaved loutishly and worse at Christmas parties. Even the pitch has failed to provide a refuge for the game's battered reputation with Thierry Henry, one of its brightest lights, publicly haranguing a leading referee.
As a consequence football's enemies have seized their chance. The Government's backtracking on Wembley shows how far New Labour wants to distance itself from the "People's Game". And, from a more predictable source, came a vituperative denunciation of the national sport. Simon Heffer, one of the Daily Mail's more reactionary columnists, claimed on Thursday that "professional football is a catalyst for almost everything offensive and destructive about our society today". Football, added Heffer, who is as much an athlete as Bowyer is an intellectual, had a "poisonous cultural influence" and was a "deprave cocktail of greed and violence".
Though this critique ignores the influence exerted by MP's attempting to emasculate their watchdog and the fact that criminality, drunkenness and avarice pre-date professional football by at least two millennia, it does reflect an increasingly prevalent view.
Yet it is also a false one. Professional football gives pleasure to millions be they passionate partisans or neutral spectators of a dramatic art form. With a view to focusing on that positive aspect I went to Chelsea's training ground. Having recently beaten Leeds, Manchester United and Liverpool, Chelsea would surely be in the mood to talk about the beautiful game. To create some "good news" headlines.
Never overestimate football's capacity for scoring own goals. Chelsea were in no mood to talk. Claudio Ranieri, having objected last week to a line of questioning centring on the fans singing Gianluca Vialli's name rather than his, will now only talk after matches, and not always then.
The players followed his example. A few, contractually obliged, spoke to Chelsea's in-house TV station and Sky TV. Of the entire first team squad only Sam Dalla Bona would talk to the written press. It is thought others are still upset by criticism of the "Heathrow Four", who drunkenly mis-behaved the day after 11 September at an airport hotel, and the "Tel Aviv Six", who refused to travel to Israel for a Uefa Cup game.
The media, it is true, do not always help themselves, particularly where Chelsea are concerned. Relations with the club have been tense for many years. Back in the mid-Eighties I worked for an agency which produced Chelsea's in-house newspaper. Much of the time was taken up with writing stories with headlines such as 'Crisis – What Crisis?'. The rest was spent overcoming the refusal of players even to talk to us.
Then, as now, Ken Bates was chairman. It is hard not to conclude his often fractious personality is a factor in the club's poor public relations. Bates has several friends in the press, but more enemies and the failure to create a specialist press office, or a modern press box, does little to sway the uncommitted his way.
All this is a pity for Bates and Chelsea have much to be proud of. The stadium re-construction has been to the highest of standards and once an eyesore, it is a suitably stylish adjunct to the Fulham Road. An acquaintance who ate in one of the restaurants recently said the food was excellent, though he added: "It should have been, we saw six kitchen staff and we were the only two diners."
The apparent failure of the Chelsea Village complex to pay its way as debts approach £100m adds to the seige mentality. It also increases pressure on Ranieri. Having spent £30m in the summer, Chelsea's seventh manager in 10 years knows a Champions' League place is the minimum requirement. His predecessor was fired after winning four trophies in two seasons; the manager before that was sacked when second in the Premiership. The Italian's position may also be undermined by the impending surprise departure of Colin Hutchinson, the chief executive who, rather than Bates, was behind his appointment.
No wonder Ranieri, with his limited English, does not like being interrogated. Yet he, too, has much to be positive about. The home defeat to Charlton may have seemed typical, but it is the only loss in 11 games with one goal conceded in the last eight. The midfield looks well-organised, and plays with width, while in attack Eidur Gudjohnsen looks to be the partner Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has spent his career searching for.
"Last season we had big changes with a new manager coming in," Dalla Bona said. "We needed time to understand him to do what he wants. Now we know what he wants we play more as a unit and play more good football. We beat Manchester United and Liverpool, but we need to improve when we play teams like Charlton. We did not deserve to lose that game but it happened."
The result underlined Hasselbaink's assertion, on the eve of the season that "we have to improve against the smaller teams". Failure to do so last year, he said, was "stupid".
Tomorrow brings just such a match, against Bolton at Stamford Bridge. Dalla Bona said: "We go on the pitch with the same mentality every game. Maybe it is more difficult with a little team because they sit back and don't play a lot so it is more difficult to score. It is a not case of people being less motivated."
Nearby a group of teenagers gathered around Gianfranco Zola and other players. Pupils from a school which dealt with "delinquent" children they were wide-eyed and well-behaved as they rubbed shoulders with heroes. The previous evening the players had visited the childrens' wards of Hammersmith and Chelsea hospital distributing gifts and bonhomie. Football as a force for good. If only they sold it better.