Chelsea make quick U-turn on ‘bizarre’ call for Middlesbrough FA Cup tie to take place behind closed doors
Chelsea have withdrawn their “bizarre” request to get Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Middlesbrough at the Riverside played behind closed doors.
A Football Association spokesperson confirmed the club have stepped back from the demand following “constructive talks”.
News of Chelsea’s initial request earlier on Tuesday had incensed the hosts, who labelled it “bizarre and without any merit whatsoever”.
An FA spokesperson said: “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.
“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.”
The Blues have lobbied the Government hard over relaxations to the operating licence put in place after owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by Downing Street.
Russian-Israeli billionaire Abramovich must not profit in the UK under the Government sanctions and Chelsea are blocked from selling any more tickets under the terms of their new licence.
And, after talks with the Government failed to yield a softening on that ticket stance, the Blues questioned the “sporting integrity” of the match should Chelsea fans be barred from attending.
Boro did not hold back in their response, claiming it was “ironic in the extreme” that the Blues were seeking to invoke sporting “integrity” as the reason to get the game played at an empty stadium.
The Teessiders said in a statement: “We are aware of Chelsea’s request to have Saturday’s Emirates FA Cup sixth-round tie played behind closed doors and find their suggestion both bizarre and without any merit whatsoever.
“All concerned are well aware of the reasons Chelsea have been sanctioned and that this has nothing to do with Middlesbrough Football Club.
Chelsea and sporting integrity do not belong in the same sentence
“To suggest as result that MFC and our fans should be penalised is not only grossly unfair but without any foundation.
“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.”
Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, citing the plethora of trophies won during Abramovich’s 19-year reign, told The Athletic: “Chelsea and sporting integrity do not belong in the same sentence.
“Where is the intellect of the chairman of Chelsea (Bruce Buck) when it comes to playing his games at home in front of his season ticket holders? Does he want to play all his away games at empty stadiums?”
Chelsea said in their statement that Boro had been “kind enough” to extend their deadline for ticket sales until Tuesday morning, but Gibson’s patience has now seemingly run out.
“We’re not going to try and help them any more,” he added.
Chelsea’s earlier statement said: “It is important for the competition that the match against Middlesbrough goes ahead, however it is with extreme reluctance that we are asking the FA board to direct that the game be played behind closed doors for matters of sporting integrity.
“Chelsea FC recognises that such an outcome would have a huge impact on Middlesbrough and its supporters, as well as our own fans who have already bought the limited number of tickets that were sold before the licence was imposed, but we believe this is the fairest way of proceeding in the current circumstances.”
Former Chelsea and England defender Graham Le Saux branded the statement “either ignorant or arrogant”.
He said on Twitter: “I can’t think of a more embarrassing statement to come out of the club that I played for for 12yrs. Either ignorant or arrogant. I am confident it doesn’t represent the feelings of the coaching and playing staff.”
Chelsea Supporters’ Trust revealed it had asked the club to withdraw the request for the game to be played behind closed doors, while the Government saw “no reason” why the match should be played without fans.
FA chief executive Mark Bullingham was being grilled by a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee at the time the news broke about Chelsea’s request.
When pushed for a response from the parliamentary panel, he said: “When we step back and look at what the Government is trying to achieve with the sanctions on Mr Abramovich, it’s clearly to put pressure on Mr Putin.
“I don’t believe the intention is to prevent Chelsea fans going to games or away fans to come to Stamford Bridge. It’s incredibly complicated to put a sanction in place at short notice and that will all need working through.
“I think the end-state will be something where the Government lends a licence to allow fans to go to games. I think that hasn’t been possible in time for this weekend.
“What Chelsea are going to do is appeal to the FA Cup committee and that will take a view on what should happen. My personal point of view would be: I would expect the game to go ahead, but I can’t say more than that.”
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