Listen to this article
When Chelsea started a restaurant at their ground a few years ago, I went to the opening. We ate absurdly priced fish and chips while a fire alarm blared throughout the meal. It was typical of Chelsea. Even now that their wonderful new team is about to win the Premiership and perhaps the Champions League, I still think of them as the club I got to know over the years: a tinpot operation symbolising everything that was wrong with London.
As a journalist covering English football, you take incompetence for granted. When you phone a club with a request, it tells you to send a fax (why a fax?). You send the fax. The club can't find it. You send it several more times. You then phone the club for weeks. Finally it rejects your request.
Chelsea, though, was in a category of its own. Ten years ago, it appeared to have only one phone line. Whoever you were - a fan wanting to buy tickets, a Russian oligarch wanting to buy the club - you got the engaged signal. I once spent a week trying to reach the press officer, a woman who appeared to have been trained in North Korea.
It's unfair to condemn a club for its officials. However, the players were worse. My abiding memory of Chelsea's team of the mid-1990s is Paul Furlong, clunkiest of strikers who somehow sometimes scored. Once, for instance, when Real Zaragoza's goalkeeper blasted the ball into Furlong's face, it ballooned into the net.
Furlong and Chelsea represented the under- skilled, recession- damaged London of the time. Chelsea also stood for another then-English characteristic: living in the past. In the club's case, this meant the few days in the early 1970s when Chelsea had had decent players, and the club's hooligans were celebrities.
Considerable nostalgia survived for the "Chelsea Headhunter" hooligans. To this day you hear mutterings about their power. Yet, like the club, the gang turned into a degenerate parody of itself. Chris Broome, a senior Scotland Yard policeman, explains: "Most of the people known as 'Chelsea Headhunters' 10, 12 years ago have been banned. What we've been left with is that they will meet up in small groups, no more than 15 people, in the backstreets or at a train station, and will try to engage in violence with rival fans."
Chelsea had lost what glamour they had when in 1996 the glamorous Dutchman Ruud Gullit became their manager. At the club's then terrible training ground, I asked him why he had accepted the job. "What I like is making something out of nothing," explained Gullit.
He sold Furlong - an act of common sense, though selling him for £1.5m was an act of genius - and bought the Italian international Gianluca Vialli. Chelsea's fortunes rose. In the overheated capital markets of the late 1990s, even a football club could raise money. As a lowly companies reporter on this newspaper, I covered Chelsea's financial adventures. This was difficult, because the club wouldn't say who owned the largest stake in the company, nor much about anything else. In 1998 it suddenly revealed that its little travel operation, Elizabeth Duff Travel, had a bigger turnover than the football club itself.
By then Chelsea had become the first British club to enter the debt market, issuing a £75m eurobond. This seemed innovative then, and foolhardy in 2002 when the football market collapsed.
Meanwhile, though, they kept buying foreign stars. Jimmy Hasselbaink, their Dutch striker, grumbled to me in 2001: "Chelsea is a top club, but it's not a top, top, top, top club." One saw his point. Many of the foreign stars treated the club as a spa-cum-shopping centre where they could ease into retirement. "One is never 100 per cent motivated," Chelsea's defender Marcel Desailly lamented in Le Monde. "In winter, when it's raining and you have to go and play a small team in the north, I won't reveal what passes through your mind when you're getting out of the bus."
The heart breaks. Yet the foreign stars couldn't stay away. In 2001, hearing that Chelsea were signing Boudewijn Zenden, I phoned a club official. Amazingly, he called me back. Chelsea wouldn't sign Zenden, he said. "We have not been talking to him. There is nothing there progressing." Seventeen days later, Chelsea signed Zenden.
In 2003 Roman Abramovich bought and saved the club. Chelsea had risen with London: from neighbourhood outfit staffed by locals, to global company led by the city's new immigrant rich. Chelsea's players, coaches and agents are now football's wealthiest millionaires. Surely the billions taken from the Russian people by an oligarch in questionable privatisations couldn't be better spent.