Disgruntled supporters venting their feelings against chairmen and owners of football clubs is nothing new, although less common than jeers directed at managers, teams and individual players. But an owner having a go back, as Chelsea’s Todd Boehly appeared to do after Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat by Brighton, marks something of a departure even in the chequered recent history of goings-on at Stamford Bridge. Even Ken Bates usually directed his ire via his programme notes.
The directors’ box at the Bridge was always a haven of calm under previous owner Roman Abramovich, an occasional flicker of emotion across the Russian’s usually impassive features during the early years of his ownership as exciting as it got. And with the sustained success his investment brought, complaints were few.
But fans above the owner’s box in the West Stand were pictured leaning over the parapet above Boehly’s seat to express their frustrations during and after Saturday’s game, and he is clearly remonstrating back with them.
In fairness, the American is probably just as frustrated with performances on the pitch as the supporters are, in view of his consortium’s investment of approaching £5 billion.
The long-term plan he imagined when paying £21 million to bring Graham Potter and his staff from Saturday’s victors last autumn is in ruins, which must have stung even more as Brighton outplayed his expensively assembled squad with a team built on a relatively small budget and with the second-lowest wage bill in the Premier League.
When interim head coach Frank Lampard made a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful quadruple substitution in the second half, it must have set a record in the transfer values of the eight players involved: the four hauled off – Raheem Sterling, Enzo Fernández, Christian Pulisic and Wesley Fofana – alone cost £281.5 million.
Any suggestion that Boehly might already have tired of an investment that has turned very sour very quickly is surely well wide of the mark, however.
He overpaid to buy the club, but his view was surely on the returns from future television deals and the possible return of a European Super League in some form.
Assuming that Boehly is in it for the long haul, what now? A roof over the directors’ box? He could always sack Lampard, who, after all, has a 100 per cent losing record in his second reign, albeit after only three matches. But better surely to wait until Tuesday’s home second leg against Real Madrid in a tie Chelsea are losing 2-0 and hope for a miracle that the former club hero was surely rehired to deliver.
After that, Lampard’s job will be to begin a rescue mission. He denies his players lack hunger. Rather it is their shortage of confidence that must be addressed, and he plans to do so with one-to-one sessions, which, with a squad of Chelsea’s size, could take most of the rest of the campaign.
“It’s the work to build confidence because there is talent in the squad, some of it is young and there has been some change,” Lampard said.
“At the minute it has been more conversations and meetings than training on the pitch, talking individually to the players.
“At this level we have to be on the limit and I am not sure we are. It doesn’t matter how we got here, it has to be addressed now. Every conversation is different. Every player needs confidence but there are different ways to get there.
“Sometimes if you are a yard short or receiving the ball and not confident, you take your first touch backwards and these things can look like a hunger or passion thing. But I don’t sense that. I will back the players that are hungry to be successful as Chelsea players. With Brighton it’s a long process of work that has got them there. They are in a good place.”
In fact, Brighton are enjoying the best season in their history, but still want more. After watching substitute Julio Enciso, 19, win the game with the goal of his young life, head coach Roberto De Zerbi only wanted to talk of how he could improve the Paraguayan spark plug whose eyes are only ever on the whites of the posts.
“If he wants to become a great player, he has to improve in mentality,” the Italian said. “I’m speaking about him like this because I am one of our biggest fans and I want to help him, only this.”
Brighton captain Lewis Dunk said: “He [Enciso] has probably never experienced the level of work ethic and detail it takes to make it in the Premier League, especially under this manager.
“After dinner last night we had a meeting about how to improve; that’s how detailed and thorough he is.”
Boehly, of course, probably aspired to something similar when he tempted Potter from Brighton, paving the way for them to hire De Zerbi. It is that approach that Chelsea need now.