Chelsea in America welcome a semi-regular contributor to our site... the one and only Neil 'Spy' Barnett.
Neil spent 32 years as the Chelsea pitch side announcer and Chelsea TV presenter through 2017. A life long Chelsea supporter, Neil can be heard most weekday mornings on the Sirius XMFC radio 'The Football Show' from 7 to 9am ET.
'Spy' is a 'honorary' Chelsea in America member and has presented at virtually every CIA summer tour stop to our members since 2004. And, many members on the summer tours have most likely had the opportunity to share a pint and story with him, too!
We've asked 'Spy' to offer his thoughts on Chelsea EXCLUSIVELY to Chelsea in America members on a periodic basis for our members. This is edition # 1.
Feb 21, 2023
Who I am
I’ve hosted The Football Show on SiriusXM FC (Channel 157) since it started in 2010.
My first game, with my Dad, was in 1959. Chelsea 1 Everton 0. Jimmy Greaves scored.
My first game working with the club was 1986. Chelsea 2 Nottingham Forest 6. (Good start!!!!)
I never worked for Chelsea. I was a freelance journalist who formed my own company which they hired. I worked with them.
It started with Clubcall, presenting this premium phone line which was the club’s first daily communication to supporters, incorporating interviews with players, manager, directors, and giving useful information.
In 1991 I became editor of the monthly club newspaper, Onside, and remained so until 2004 when it was replaced by a magazine. In 1992 I was the first matchday pitch host, and continued doing that until 2018. In 1994 I became editor of the matchday programme and did that until 2004.
For a while I was news editor of the Chelsea website and a presenter on the old Channel Chelsea, and then when Chelsea TV started I was a presenter on that with live phone-in shows three times a week which on a Friday incorporated a big pre-match show for the weekend. I covered all the games too and the tours. There were many feature programmes including the Legends series with ex-players, many of which are available on the internet. I stayed on Chelsea TV until 2017.
I toured USA with the club in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. In the latter two I did a gig for supporters with an ex-player, in 2006 Charlie Cooke in Chicago, in 2007 Frank Leboeuf in LA.
When I stopped doing the tours, and CIA became more organised, I was asked if I’d tour with them with some ex-player guests. This I did in 2009, 2012, 2015 (which included the New York ‘Legends’ event with Frank Lampard) and 2016. So popular did they become that separate Las Vegas long weekends were organised with old boys which we did in 2013, 2014, 2015, and then a spin-off of that in 2018.
Times change, and the more recent ex-players are extremely wealthy and not at a time of life where they’d be into coming over for 10 days to two weeks and hanging out with a (dis)reputable bunch of crazy supporters. The club organises 15 minute Q&A sessions and a number of ‘appearances’ (and pays huge money).
So in 2022 I toured with the fans alone and did my much longer gigs with inside stories for ‘your ears only’, that is the ears of the CIA members present. And, of course, hung out for the whole trip.
Other America me
I’ve done radio tours and appearances, (2013, 2014) and International Champions Cup tours (2018, 2019). I’ve suffered one baseball game. I’ve never been to an MLS match.
Thoughts / hopes on Chelsea
Chelsea won the League under José Mourinho, a team he put together by buying Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas the summer before, bringing back Didier Drogba, introducing after three years on loan Thibaut Courtois, and let’s not forget his purchase of Löic Rémy who scored some crucial goals. But it wasn’t a great Chelsea side. John Terry was still the best defender in the Premier League and best captain in the world, and Eden Hazard was the best player in the Premier League. That was enough.
So Mourinho wanted to make changes in summer, but no new players were bought. He came up with an idea of a shorter pre-season to help players stay fresh in the long-term, but that was a disaster, it included the 4-2 defeat to New York Red Bulls, and although Pedro was signed near transfer deadline the team didn’t recover, and in November Mourinho was gone.
Chelsea won the League under Antonio Conte, a team he put together playing three at the back, and two No 10s behind Costa. He’d bought N’Golo Kanté on arrival, then bought back David Luiz and brought from loan Victor Moses, and signed Marcos Alonso. When Conte came up with his 3-4-2-1 formation with Pedro and Hazard behind the striker, it took three months for opposition to work out, and after 13 consecutive wins Chelsea were five points clear at the top and the title was all but won.
But opposition did work out how to face the system. And in summer 2017 the first big fall-out was Conte and Costa, and then Conte and the club. This time there were new signings, but they were disastrous. Danny Drinkwater and Tiémoué Bakayoko were $85m down the drain. Álvaro Morata to replace Costa was not what Conte wanted, he wanted a bludgeoner like Costa, he wanted Romelu Lukaku. People said he bought Morata at Juventus, but that was the summer he walked out of Juventus. He’d never managed him. David Zappacosta was added too, and Antonio Rüdiger who wasn’t really top drawer before Thomas Tuchel came.
So in 2018, the second year of Conte, although Chelsea won the FA Cup, it was just the second time in the Roman Abramovich era that the club failed to qualify for the Champions League. Conte was sacked.
Maurizio Sarri came and wanted Jorginho to dictate play from in front of a back four – yes, it was time to go back to a four-man defence. Because no-one but the manager is put up for media interviews, the question was never asked to Marina Granovskaia, who by now was technical director, Jorginho plays where Kanté plays, what is going to be done with Kanté? I believe the hierarchy never asked Sarri that question. By this stage, it was a data game, a game with agents, football eyes were no longer valued. It couldn’t work.
Jorginho pushed Kanté into a more advanced role. It never worked. Now you had two midfielders not scoring or making goals. Actually, you had three because Mateo Kovačić had also been signed. Strange! Data must have told them that.
Chelsea had signed Olivier Giroud in January, but Sarri didn’t fancy him or Morata, and increasingly Hazard was used as a centre-forward, where he was as bad as anyone. In January 2019 Gonzalo Higuain was signed on loan, and was worse than anyone.
If the football had become boring and repetitive in Conte’s second year, it was even more so now. Yes, Chelsea finished third, thanks to extraordinary collapses by Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United when qualification for the Champions League looked unlikely, but the Europa League was won (Giroud was excellent in that), and had Juventus not come calling Sarri might have lasted into a second season.
Instead, now the club was saddled with a transfer ban, so finally it seemed time to promote some Academy youngsters who had been winning the FA Youth Cup for so long. Frank Lampard was brought in to manage.
Engagement between supporters, Lampard and the team was huge as Reece James, Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tammy Abraham all played major roles.
But the squad was so unbalanced now, you could field three midfielders together who rarely had an assist and never, penalties aside for Jorgi, a goal scored between them. By the end of January the following season Lampard was gone.
Enter Thomas Tuchel. He put together a new shape to get the best out of the players he had, and in particular Kanté. He went three at the back, which suited better all of Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Rüdiger, and gave more group cover to Jorginho who couldn’t run. He played what he named a ‘double 6’ in front of the three, so only two of Jorginho, Kanté and Kovačić would start, and he pushed Mount forward to be a No 10 with one other.
Chelsea stopped conceding. And stopped scoring almost altogether. And won the Champions League. But in the 30 games which Tuchel managed that season only 38 goals were scored. It was successful… Chelsea finished fourth, thanks to a Leicester collapse, and reached the FA Cup Final too… because only 16 goals were conceded. And that was enough.
And that was the story of the next season. Chelsea didn’t lose. Won the Uefa Super Cup and Club World Cup, glorified play-offs, reached the Carabao Cup and FA Cup Finals and only lost on penalties, but didn’t win anything substantial, and were for the most part relentlessly boring.
What had happened was Lukaku was finally re-signed, to provide the goals that were needed, but that was just papering over the cracks which had become crevices since 2017. And Lukaku turned into Higuain. A disaster.
In the meantime, Russia invaded Ukraine, Abramovich got sanctioned, the club had to survive through a form of hibernation, and the new American ownership arrived.
Massive purchases were made last summer, partly enforced by the end of contract losses of Rüdiger and Christensen, and some frighteningly over paid investments were agreed. So far, it’s hard to say that any of Wes Fofana, Kalidou Koulibaly, Marc Cucurella, Raheem Sterling, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Denis Zakaria or Carney Chukwuemeka have been a success. The football was so boring at the beginning of the season. Tuchel was sacked.
Enter Graham Potter.
The football has been relentlessly boring since.
But… mad as the January purchases seemed, especially as there is still no-one to replace Costa at centre-forward, the club has bought potential entertainers: Mykhailo Mudryk, Noni Madueke, Enzo Fernández, João Felix. I like what I’ve seen of Benoît Badiashile.
It’s a crazy experiment. Everyone, including the manager, is for the future, not for the now. But everyone is on such long-term contracts that, unless there’s a secret get-out clause for the club, it’s a mortgaging of the future not dissimilar to Barcelona’s where they’ve borrowed against future income.
It looks awful now, and it may turn out to be so. But supporters, and I know this having been on the inside for so long, don’t see inside.
The Manchester United directors waited four years for Alex Ferguson to win his first trophy there. The Arsenal directors have waited three-and-a-half years for Mikel Arteta to finally (presumably) qualify for the Champions League. They saw something they liked. They had a vision.
We don’t know if Behdad Eghbali and Todd Boehly – and I put them in that order because that is the order in which the power lies – have that vision or even have the first understanding of the global game. If they have, Potter can yet be the right manager. Because it’s a right mess he’s inherited.
Of course, he’s not managed a big club, and neither have any of his staff. And Eghbali/Boehly have never worked in global sport. I carry major doubts. But it’s too early and too lacking in knowledge to rule anything out.
In fact, it’s already what makes the next pre-season so incredibly exciting. That will be when we see if this first year of weird decision making has been inspired or dim. And it’s pretty certainly going to be in America. I can’t wait!