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Aug 7, 2006

Mutiny at the Bridge?

It is not quite Mutiny on the Bounty, but a restlessness that borders on the rebellious is simmering amongst some of Chelsea's wealthy playing staff.

It was spearheaded by William Gallas, the refusenik who opted out of the pre-season tour of the USA, though there were conflicting reasons for his absence. But the mild-mannered, who have often acquiesced quietly, have also displayed their own brand of dissent against the regime at Stamford Bridge.

Jose Mourinho, the charismatic autocrat of SW6, had previously gone unchallenged. Since his arrival in England two years ago and his anointment, albeit by himself, as the Special One, Mourinho has made the rules. Those at the height of their powers, established internationals and millionaires many times over, have accepted his superiority. Players like Joe Cole who, even when basking in praise from others, has been demeaned by Mourinho, substituted humiliatingly early and criticised in public, have never questioned his decisions.

And, for the most part, Mourinho has been vindicated. Titles have been won; most critics have been won over. Chelsea, a club with one previous championship in its history, have become the dominant force in English football, and that cannot be attributed solely to Abramovich's limitless wealth.

Along the way, Mourinho set the template for success. The model of two players for every position negated the arguments over the ideal composition of any squad, made Mourinho the envy of all of his contemporaries and became shorthand for Chelsea's strength in depth.

Yet it was undermined by the excellence and personnel at Mourinho's disposal. Two left-backs, for example, were rendered redundant by Gallas, a supposed centre-back, but preferred to either. In Claude Makelele's few absences, Michael Essien covered for him; was a permanent deputy really required? And the adaptability of Cole and Arjen Robben restricted the opportunities for Shaun Wright-Phillips further.

So time for a change of plan. A streamlined squad, featuring a sprinkling of versatile players, appeared Mourinho's new recipe for happiness for the forthcoming season. With fewer players, those remaining would be granted more opportunities; such cover as was required could be provided by youngsters, a welcome acknowledgement of a future beyond Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko, the ageing galacticos who will be nudging 34 when their lucrative deals expire.

Except that, for the marginalised, the goalposts had still not been moved far enough. Five familiar faces will be missing from the substitutes' bench when the Portuguese turns around this season; three more could yet follow them. And so may Gallas, whose excellence is such that he must rank among the first names on the team sheet, even if his position is subject to debate.

Although he has left a trail of bruised egos, few quarrels seem to be with Mourinho personally. But, after reasserting the manager in his traditional role of the autocrat - in that respect, he is Sir Alex Ferguson's successor - he has been reminded of the realities of 21st century management; the superstar is not found in the dugout anymore.

But the other issue is as old as football itself; the simple wish to play.

There is a dilemma that confronts players at elite clubs; however well remunerated, sitting on the bench is a poor substitute for first-team football. Abramovich can fund the most extravagant of salaries, but not the intangibles; the memories, the sense of belonging and purpose, the thrill of making a decisive contribution. In short, the experience of being a footballer.

Almost to a man, the Chelsea reserves seemed to have taken the brave option. Jiri Jarosik, initially keen on a permanent move to Birmingham, joined Celtic after his short-term deal in the West Midlands culminated in relegation. Carlton Cole, tiring of a different loan spell each season, made the switch to West Ham. Damien Duff will set up residence in the North East after heading for Newcastle. Glen Johnson is reunited with Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth for the next season. Hernan Crespo, who long hankered after a return to Italy, has been granted his wish with a move to Inter Milan.

Only Eidur Gudjohnsen, in one sense, has moved up in the footballing world, though that Barcelona were sufficiently impressed to add the Icelander to a squad that won both La Liga and the Champions League last season amounts to a Catalan challenge to Mourinho's judgment.

Then there are those eyeing the exit. Wayne Bridge objects to understudying Ashley Cole for club as well as country. Robert Huth, but for a failed medical, would have become a Middlesbrough player and could still. Gallas, despite being a first choice throughout Mourinho's reign, seeks pastures new. Only Carlo Cudicini and Geremi seem content with a career spent in the shadows.

Both the departed Crespo and the unsettled Bridge create a need for reinforcements; it is unlikely Mourinho would countenance a season with Shevchenko and Didier Drogba the only strikers or Ashley Cole, presuming he arrives, the sole left back. Especially if Gallas goes and, while the word is overused, he may be irreplaceable: is there another player on the planet as confident, quick and authoritative in each defensive position?

A symptom of the World Cup finalist's descent in Mourinho's esteem is the loss of his number 13 shirt to Ballack. In the Premiership, it is traditionally the lot of the reserve goalkeeper, and only Danny Murphy among English outfield players actually covets it, but Gallas, clearly, did not deem 13 unlucky.

As the first batch of lengthy and lucrative contracts funded by Abramovich start to expire, the Bosman ruling is beginning to impinge upon Mourinho. Even Chelsea cannot ignore the financial realities of the situation where a valuable asset, like Duff, could potentially depart within a year without any economic benefit to themselves. The feeling is that Mourinho's preference would have been to keep the Irishman, knowing the impact his trickery could have had, even from the bench.

Unlike earlier departures, such as Mateja Kezman, Celestine Babayaro and Scott Parker, he was valued. So, too, is Bridge, though not highly enough to be the permanent first choice. Nonetheless, he is not being hounded out of Stamford Bridge. But having parted company with his agent for representing Cole in his illicit meetings with Chelsea, his mind appears made up. For Crespo, whose adopted home is Italy, the size of the pay cheque appears to have become irrelevant.

It could be regarded as a sign of the power footballers now wield. For others, it is refreshing that money cannot buy contentment, that ambition remains unsated on the fringes, that Chelsea, while capable of repelling everything the rest of the Premiership throws at them, do not have an answer to everything.

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