Chelsea a banter-free zone? Seriously, José, you're having a laugh

Jose Mourinho at a press conference. (Reuters)

Jose Mourinho at a press conference. (Reuters)

End of an era in the Premier League, as one of the great comedy venues goes dark. According to reports – and we’ll come to the way Her Majesty’s Press tells ‘em shortly – Chelsea football club have “banned banter” at their Cobham training ground. And not just banter; jokes too.
But perhaps you instinctively felt this great disturbance in the force, as if a million voices screamed with laughter at a harmless debagging – but were suddenly silenced.

If you’re asking: “How exactly does a banter ban work?”, you won’t be alone – though, agonisingly, your number does not include the journalists who broke what we must credulously refer to as the news. There has been an acutely disappointing failure to unearth an insider or club source to sketch out the enforcement strategy and disciplinary pathway for those Chelsea personnel found to be indulging in unauthorised banter – contrabanter, if you will.

Where are the boundaries in this brave new world? Does a sarcastic “well done, mate” unleashed after a bungled set piece in training count as banter? Could a timeworn reference to the simple act of union with another man’s Wag now see you relieved of a week’s wages? How does a masturbatory hand gesture behind the back of Diego Costa rank on the formal warning structure in relation to a Wildean quip about hanging out the back of someone or other?

Whatever the details of this landmark ruling for the rich footballing tradition of bantz, we are informed that Chelsea is now by managerial decree a banter-free zone, which cannot help but serve as a reminder of what we have lost. For Cobham is not merely the locus of arguably the definitive Premier League moment (the time when Ashley Cole shot a work experience student with an air rifle at close range). It has also led the way in the league for high-concept japery. 

Just last season, José Mourinho played a joke on his media officer, who arrived a few minutes late to a press conference, only for Mourinho to walk out of the room when he finally arrived, acting for all the world as if he had already spoken to journalists. I know! Bantzissimo. I assume Eva Carneiro was on hand in case anyone needed their sides stapled. According to the Daily Mirror’s rave review of the incident, “the 52-year-old’s prank was met with rapturous laughter”. Well, to adapt Bob Monkhouse, they’re not laughing now.

The concern, naturally, is that this technical advance will be rolled out nationwide. Chelsea have been at the forefront of advances in so-called sports science and there will be worries much further afield than Cobham that Mourinho’s technical team have arrived at a conclusion that will eventually become common practice at every top-flight club.

It is all about marginal gains these days, and we should be working on the probability that a Chelsea operative has analysed months of data from dressing-room microphones and the club’s retinue of training-ground stenographers, and concluded that a simple reference to someone’s wife’s generosity with the biscuits can be worth as much as a seventeenth of a point to one’s nearest title rivals.

An amusingly unwelcome surprise placed in the personalised Louis Vuitton washbag of a colleague can be a half pointer. With thinking in this matter becoming more scientific, banter will be eventually be viewed as the same sort of horrifyingly quaint period piece as footballers succumbing to the “dentist’s chair” mere hours before a match or having to wash their own cars.

The nightmare possibility for a manager newly apprised of the dangers of banter is whether it was Mourinho who effectively guaranteed this atrocious start. Do recall that during Chelsea’s pre-season tour in Canada, he staged a prank in full view of the media accompanying the side, which required some players and staff to sit on chairs and pretend they were on an aeroplane, only to be ambushed by other Chelsea operatives and drenched with icy buckets of water. That incident seemed merely slightly inscrutable at the time: has it now been identified as the kryptonite to their malfunctioning season?

Encouragingly, the Daily Mirror has produced an expert voice on such matters, one Professor Mark Griffiths of the University of No Media Quote Too Silly. Hang on – do forgive me. Upon closer inspection, I see he’s actually from the psychology department at Nottingham Trent. He delivers the professional – and professorial – opinion: “Chelsea have made a horrific start, but there’s no evidence to suggest that banter is to blame.” You think? “Mourinho is feeling the pressure and is clutching at straws. He’s deflecting from the key issues and looking for excuses … [Banter] creates a sense of belonging and gives groups an element of control in the workplace. Unless the person enforcing it is around 24/7, then it will go on anyway.” Thanking you, Mark.

Finally, it must be said that Mourinho would not be the first to ban banter – last year, there was a high-profile case of a Norfolk teacher who outlawed it in his classroom. It is unclear precisely what happened next, but he appears, fairly shortly thereafter, to have parted company with the school by mutual consent. We must trust that the Chelsea manager will not view this as any kind of precedent. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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