Chelsea have withdrawn their request for the English FA to move their cup quarter final against Middlesbrough behind closed doors less than five hours after initially making it.
After receiving universal condemnation for the request, made after it became apparent they would not be able to sell away tickets for the game, Chelsea bowed to pressure. Their match will now go ahead in front of a sold out home crowd at the Riverside Stadium with only a handful of visiting supporters expected to be in the ground.
“After constructive talks between the FA and Chelsea, the club has agreed to remove their request for the Emirates FA Cup quarter-final tie against Middlesbrough to be played behind closed doors,” an FA spokesperson said. “The FA remains in ongoing discussions with Chelsea, the Premier League and the Government to find a solution that would enable both Chelsea fans to attend games and away fans to attend Stamford Bridge, whilst ensuring sanctions are respected.”
Earlier today Chelsea, who now say they are “grateful for the FA’s continuing efforts to help us find a solution,” had been warning of the impact on the “sporting integrity” of the FA Cup if a match was to take place with one set of supporters and without the other. Now they have been forced into a humiliating climbdown that may yet damage their standing in the government’s eyes at a time when they need political support to ease the pressure and eventually facilitate the sale of the club.
Government sources were furious at Chelsea’s attempts to apply pressure to get their will on ticket sales just days into the arrangement that was put in place to allow them to operate while owner Roman Abramovich is under sanction. Downing Street was among those to question the club’s approach, saying it could see “no reason” why the request had been made. In private political figures were altogether more critical.
The terms of the special licence under which the Blues have been operating since Thursday, when Abramovich was sanctioned due to his links with Vladimir Putin, did not allow them to sell any additional tickets for home and away matches but dialogue has been ongoing with the British government to amend that.
Chelsea’s request had been given short shrift from across the footballing landscape and beyond with Steven Brine, Conservative MP for Winchester, telling the FA’s chief executive Mark Bullingham that he should “tell Chelsea to get their shin pads and their boots on and play the damn game.”
Middlesbrough had been no less scathing, describing Chelsea’s suggestion as “bizarre and without any merit whatsoever”. Chris Wilder’s side have beaten Manchester United and Tottenham on their road to the last eight and will be playing in front of a full house. The number of visiting fans in the ground is expected to number a few hundred.
In perhaps the most terse section of a statement that bristled with anger, the Championship club said: “Given the reasons for these sanctions, for Chelsea to seek to invoke sporting ‘integrity’ as reason for the game being played behind closed doors is ironic in the extreme.”
The 530 mile round trip to Middlesbrough will be all the more complicated for Chelsea with their travel costs limited to $26,300 (£20,000) by the terms of the license. That will not be a problem for their visit to Lille in the Champions League on Wednesday but eventually, manager Thomas Tuchel acknowledged, changes would have to be made.
“There are restrictions and we have to deal with them,” he said. “There are adjustments in the amount of staff, who is travelling, how many rooms we have in hotels and how we arrive at matches. There will come some, to my understanding, that we can arrive at on a professional level.
“It isn’t about luxury and bling-bling. This is just a professional level of sports, where we play with two days between matches with our opponent having four days between matches and we arrive with the possibilities of injuries. For that, it is better to arrive with a plane rather than a bus.
“We try to do it. From my understanding, we have a framework to go and play in Lille with absolutely no excuses. Regarding these organizations, it is already more difficult to arrange things on a professional level, in the best way possible, for the FA Cup. But we will deal with it.
“As long as we have shirts and are alive as a team, we will be competitive and fight hard for our success. We owe it to the people who support us in a very invisible way. Of course, we are in the spotlight and it is our responsibility to do so. We will do it.”
Speaking after his manager, Chelsea playmaker Kai Havertz said he would be willing to cover his own travel costs if needed. “There are harder things in the world right now than if we have to take the bus or plane to an away game,” he added.
Such turbulence off the pitch has yet to impact on Chelsea’s on field results so far with Havertz netting a late winner to carry the Blues to a 1-0 win over Newcastle on Sunday. The German acknowledged, however, that he and his team mates were not finding it straightforward to maintain their focus.
“Everyone knows it’s not easy,” he told CBS Sports. “You always try to focus on the games. Such a situation has never happened at Chelsea before, it’s a little bit strange of course. We are professionals and sometimes situations like this can happen.
“It’s not easy for us all, especially the whole club, the fans. The best we can do in the moment is play good football, try to give the fans a smile in these kind of situations. Everything is tough for us in the moment but as we saw on the weekend we can handle these situations and hopefully tomorrow as well.”