It's difficult to remember a club given such a pummelling by media commentators. Some of the body blows justified, perhaps, in part; but much of it below the belt. "Blue is the colour, thuggery is the game," proclaimed a headline in the London Evening Standard this week, under which it detailed a litany of ills, some of them, like accusations of "skinhead racism" among supporters, going back to pre-Ken Bates years. That was one of the less censorious pieces from a writer who claimed affection for the club.
If they are bruised, the players have concealed it well. Their exhibition at a rampant Leeds last weekend was arguably their best of the season (notwithstanding Graeme Le Saux's ill-judged challenge on Danny Mills). Scarcely the bowed, broken and divided force that so many had predicted. Even the defeat – their first in the Premiership this season – by West Ham on Wednesday night was at Upton Park, where Glenn Roeder's men are undefeated and tend to play with considerably more conviction than on their travels. The irony is that this hostility has provoked the opposite reaction to what was anticipated, with the players adopting a policy of keeping their heads up on the pitch, but agreeing to keep them down off it.
Striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, a member of the Chelsea group involved in the hotel drinking incident on 12 September and one of the six labelled "cowards" by one commentator for deciding not to travel to Tel Aviv for the Uefa Cup tie first leg, has endured more than his share of condemnation.
The Icelander prefers not to discuss the detail of either matter but insists that such treatment from the critics has actually strengthened the squad's resolve. "You want to prove everyone wrong," he explained when we spoke at Chelsea's training ground near Heathrow on Friday, as he and his team-mates posed for photographs with members of the club's youth academy, who were spending the day with their seniors. "I think that counts for every player. There have been so many negative comments written about us in the papers. Over the last month, there's been reasons for everything, but we've kept them to ourselves. We have decided that we're not going to speak to anyone about them and instead do our talking on the pitch, and that's it."
He added: "Maybe it has brought us together and makes us more of a unit. We were happy with our performance at Leeds; the spirit was good, we really played like a team and that was one of our big games. It's just a pity we couldn't follow that on Wednesday. It was a big disappointment."
So, when people said Chelsea would fall apart, particularly in the wake of the decision by virtually half the team to pull out of the Tel Aviv trip, they had mis-read the mood in the camp? "I think it will take a lot more than that to break us apart," he maintained. "We're professionals. We've all got the same aim, that is to finish as high as possible in the League. To do that, we know we've all got to stick together."
Certainly, on last Sunday's evidence, there was no fraying of the invisible cord that has tied him so effectively to his fellow striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, one of the group who did travel to Israel. The pair were among Gianluca Vialli's final acquisitions before his dismissal, and their partnership has flourished this season when the Dutchman's goals have been one of the reasons why Chelsea, despite, a modest home record, lie poised just behind the Premiership leaders.
Yet there are suggestions that Hasselbaink is not the most agreeable character to play alongside. "That must have come from people who take him too seriously," says Gudjohnsen with a rueful smile. "I shout at Jimmy as much as he shouts at me on the pitch. He can really get frustrated with things that are going on around him. He's so focused on winning the game and scoring goals that his emotions just burst out. If you take it personally, it only works against yourself."
He adds: "It's just the way he is. You don't want to change him, do you? You have to give him his freedom to express himself. That's the way he'll always be. I can't remember getting into dressing-room and him saying that you should have done this or that. It's all forgotten quickly."
The answer to their affinity lies in the fact that they complement each other; Hasselbaink a real explosive, old-fashioned centre-forward, Gudjohnsen's game far more subtle and controlled, as he demonstrated when leaving the Leeds rearguard bemused with a scintillating dart into the area and shot which unfortunately for him ended in Nigel Martyn's midriff. "He's about pace and power. A real goalscorer," says the Icelander of his fellow striker. "He loves the ball into space. I like the ball into my feet. He makes the runs and I just have to put it in his path, really. I always seem to find him quite well. I seem to know where he is. I love to play alongside Jimmy. I think he makes me look a better player."
In a week that Hasselbaink, together with Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy have all been proposed by their managers as the best striker in Europe, following decisive finishes in the Champions' League from the Manchester United and Arsenal men, Gudjohnsen looks no further than his own partner. "I think when you look at his record it's hard to argue." he says. "He's got a fantastic goal-scoring record. What is it? Nine Premiership games, nine goals. What more can you ask of a striker. They're all different type of players, but Jimmy's the one who's got the killer instinct."
In contrast, Gudjohnsen has scored only one goal in the League "and that's not enough, but my form is good." If you suggest that his progress from bit-part player to first-choice starter since his £4 million purchase from Bolton is partly the result of his own determination and improvement, and partly that of circumstances (like Tore Andre Flo moving to Rangers) he feigns a hurt look. "I would like to give myself some credit," he says. Obviously, I had to work to show the manager that he had to play me every week. And I'm only 23. I think I've shown some bits and pieces that might have impressed those who did not think too much of me when I first arrived here because I came from Bolton. Jimmy was the big signing. I scored some goals and had some good games. Now I want to take it a step further and win things."
The striker undoubtedly gains extra impetus from past experiences, in particular being told at the age of 17, when with PSV Eindhoven – where team-mates included Ronaldo – that a serious ankle injury meant that he would never play again. He refused to accept the prognosis, and after returning to his family in Reykjavik, relaunched his career by joining Bolton. "It was a very hard time," he says of the two-year hiatus in his career. "But I was young, I was determined, and I was full of life. My body was full of energy that I couldn't use. Now, I just thank God every day for being able to train. I love training and I love football."
Yet, for all the talent such as Gudjohnsen's which is present at Stamford Bridge, Claudio Ranieri's team have retained the exasperating ability to yield vital points that afflicted Vialli's before him. Today's contest at Derby is such a case in point, the kind of location where the Blues habitually fail to achieve their optimum. "It's hard to point out what the problem is," Gudjohnsen says. "Maybe sometimes after a great performance one week, the expectation becomes too high and maybe you think it is going to be too easy in the next game. But if we believe in ourselves, and put on performances like against Leeds and against Leicester at home, we can beat any team." Despite any impressions to the contrary, Chelsea will lack nothing in spirit or unity.Reuse content