Chelsea fans should feel proud of Benitez’s hostile reception

Rafael Benitez may feel that three points against Fulham would help win Chelsea fans over.

But, as welcome as a victory in the derby would be, he’s wrong if he thinks the tide of opinion will turn in his favour any time soon.

At half-time against Manchester City, the usual announcement came that the highlights of the first half were about to be shown on the big screens.

Di Matteo did a fine job.

Three or four people around me said “that won’t take long” and they had a point – the clash between the champions of Europe and England was a tedious and sterile affair.

But for me all the highlights of the day had happened by then.

When Roberto Di Matteo was a player at Chelsea, a great midfielder who scored in three Wembley cup finals, he wore the number 16 shirt.

And after 16 minutes of Sunday’s game the fans chanted his name and applauded for 60 seconds, an act of recognition for all he did for us in his Chelsea playing and managerial careers, both of which were cut scandalously short.

About 20 minutes earlier there had been another rousing minute of much-deserved applause for a Chelsea manager who won a European trophy and an FA Cup – the much loved Dave Sexton.

The death of the man who managed the great team of the late 60s and early 70s, the likes of Osgood, Harris, Bonetti, Hollins and Cooke, was announced shortly before kick-off and fans of both clubs rose to pay their respects.

Another highlight for me involved Ashley Cole.

Cole has his much-publicised faults but he has been a fantastic footballer for more than a decade, with much of that brilliant football played at Stamford Bridge.

He is only 31, still fit and still playing excellently. Yet on Friday it was announced he will probably be leaving in the summer. Quite why, I don’t know.

And so, again during the first half, there were long and lengthy chants of Cole’s name and of “Ashley Cole, we want you to stay”.

He heard and acknowledged them, giving a thumbs up to the thousands of fans who were chanting his name.

And what of the man who cheerfully announced Cole’s impending departure? The man who replaced Di Matteo after his shameful sacking? The man who must attempt to emulate Sexton by bringing trophies to Stamford Bridge?

Benitez was also given an emphatic reception by the Chelsea fans – but a very different one.
He was greeted by deafening boos and jeers from close to 40,000 people.

It lasted until the moment came to honour Sexton and had it not been for that necessary interruption I wonder if the booing would still have been going on when the match started. It wouldn’t have surprised me.

Sexton was much loved.

As it happened, as the teams kicked off Di Matteo’s name was being sung. Another way of making the point.

And while some people will not like it, Benitez’s reception – the boos, the chants of “we want you to go” or “you’re not welcome here” during the game, the banners and signs reading ‘RAFA OUT’ seen around the stadium – were another highlight for me.

It was bad enough that Di Matteo, a Chelsea legend, a dignified man who understood the club and its fans and who had brought unprecedented glory just six months earlier, had been sacked. But for him to be replaced by Benitez, a man who has none of the traits which make Di Matteo so popular, was shameful.

As the boos, jeers and banners showed, Benitez is massively unpopular among Chelsea fans.

It’s not just that he managed Liverpool at a time when there was huge animosity between the clubs, nor that he has a reputation for playing negative football, nor his general pompous demeanour.

This is a man who five years ago said he could never bring himself to manage Chelsea and openly criticised the fans, questioning their passion. And the fans have not forgotten.

When you support a club which goes through managers as rapidly as Chelsea, you have to have a certain level of pragmatism about comings and goings.

We accepted, however reluctantly, the sackings of trophy winners Gullit, Vialli, Mourinho and Ancelotti, and gave their replacements a fair chance (even if the owners who brought them in ultimately didn’t).

But the arrival of Benitez is too much. And the fans, rather than shrug and move on as we’ve had to in the past, let it be known.

The arrival of Benitez is nothing, for example, like the appointment of Avram Grant to replace Jose Mourinho.

Grant was an odd choice and not a popular one but he was a completely new face to us – not a man who had openly slagged us off just a few years before.

Benitez says he thinks he can win the Chelsea fans over. If he does it will be quite an achievement.

We are more than happy to praise people to the hilt when they have earned it – as was shown with Cole, Di Matteo and Sexton. But Benitez is not in their league.

And the fact we let him know it, rather than just turn a blind eye, was a source of pride for me

Maybe Chelsea fans don’t lack passion after all, Rafa?

James Clarke is the author of Moody Blues: Following the second-best team in Europe

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