Ten Years of The Roman Empire
Tuesday 1st July 2003 was a day which changed football forever, not just at Chelsea FC, but globally. Only those taking a close interest in business affairs, especially those of post-Communist Russia, would have heard of the 36 year old billionaire Roman Abramovich, who had made his money from oil and aluminium, and had reputedly sold his stake in Russian state airline Aeroflot shortly before taking over at Stamford Bridge, a deal which the BBC reported may have helped fund the purchase.
The deal was negotiated in secrecy. Until the announcement of the takeover was announced late on the night of 1st July, very few amongst the Stamford Bridge faithful would have had any idea that Ken Bates was preparing to bow out of Chelsea. There had been rumours that the next payment of the Eurobond due in July would present a problem, but publicly, at any rate, the club insisted it was business as usual. The close season of 2002 had seen nothing in the way of big signings, with manager Claudio Ranieri finding himself having to rely on the youngster Carlton Cole via the youth system, and the unremarkable Enrique de Lucas from Real Valladolid, via a loan spell at PSG, to bolster talent purchased the previous year such as Eidur Gudjohnsen, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and the young Frank Lampard, whom many supporters felt had failed to justify his whopping £11 million price tag in his first season.
Overnight, all the uncertainty was blown away. In addition to purchasing 50% of Chelsea Village shares (meaning that an offer could be made to shareholders for the remaining 50%), Abramovich wiped out the club debt, allegedly at £80 million, and, in an interview with Jeff Randall, the then business editor of the BBC, Ken Bates confirmed that the Russian had ‘earmarked an additional £60 Million for the club’, not only in player investment, but also for a new training ground, promises that rapidly came to pass. Randall cynically wrote ‘If the cash materialises, it should just about buy the fans’ goodwill for a season’, a serious under-estimation of the impact that Abramovich would have at Chelsea.
A Brief History of Time
During the summer of 2003, big name player followed big name player into Stamford Bridge. From the Premier Leage came Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge and Juan Sebastian Veron. From further afield came Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu. However, the big names weren’t enough. Chelsea finished second to the so-called ‘Invincibles’ from Arsenal, and spectacularly failed in the Champions League when bizarre tactics and team selection by Ranieri resulted in a 3-1 away defeat in the first-leg semi final against Monaco, followed by a 2-2 draw at home in the second leg. Ranieri dubbed himself a ‘dead man walking’ and it came a surprise to no-one when he was dismissed on 31st May and replaced by the young, charismatic Portuguese manager, Jose Mourinho, whose Porto team had beaten Monaco in the Champions League final.
Another summer of investment yielded spectacular results, with a first trophy in February when Chelsea beat Liverpool in the League Cup final in Cardiff, followed by the longed-for Premier League title wrapped up by the end of April. Mourinho’s second season produced another league title, and in 2007, the club won their first FA Cup for 7 years, beating Manchester United 1-0 after extra time in the first cup final to be played at the new Wembley. Then the wheels came off. Mourinho left the club ‘by mutual consent’ just weeks into the 2007-2008 season, and was replaced by director of football, Avram Grant. Grant was never very close to the hearts of Chelsea fans, and although he took the club to a first Champions League final, resulting in a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out defeat in the Moscow rain to Manchester United, he was replaced at the end of the season by the Brazilian, ‘Big’ Phil Scolari. Scolari failed to fit in at Stamford Bridge, and in another short-term appointment, the great Dutch manager Guus Hiddinck ensured more silverware with another FA Cup win. Stability looked on the cards following the appointment of the popular Italian, Carlo Ancelotti, who delivered the Double in his first season. However, in one of the most spectacularly callous acts of the Abramovich era, he was sacked in a corridor at Goodison Park on the last day on the 2010-2011 season.
The appointment of Andre Villas Boas appeared to signal a fresh approach with a mandate to move on ageing senior players. However, he quickly lost the dressing room and was replaced mid-season by a true Stamford Bridge legend, Roberto di Matteo, who had been brought in as Villas Boas’ assistant. A fairy-tale end to the 2011-2012 season saw Chelsea win not only the FA Cup, but the Holy Grail of the Champions League. The popular Italian was awarded a two year contract, but this proved worthless in real terms as he became the victim of another heartless sacking. His replacement, Rafael Benitez, aka The Interim One, was one of the most unpopular appointments of the Abramovich years, resulting in supporter protests which came to a head after the 5th Round FA Cup tie at Middlesbrough on 27th February, when Benitez went into meltdown. In spite of Chelsea ending the season in 2nd place in the Premier League and as UEFA Cup winners, many fans were relieved to see the season end, and with it Benitez’s tenure.
You Got The Love
In spite of the intial sceptism of the press, the Abramovich era has yielded a generally warm relationship between the owner and the fans. Indeed, the early years saw uncritical adoration, with the Russian’s name sang at virtually every game, home and away. However, hairline fractures have developed in recent years. After the sacking of Jose Mourinho in 2007, a group of supporters wrote to Abramovich voicing their concerns. Days after, he went and sat in The Shed. The latter was received warmly, giving supporters the feeling that he was a man of his people
The next fissure was in 2011, with the ill-fated proposal of the club to purchase the lease of the Stamford Bridge pitch and turnstiles from Chelsea Pitch Owners. This was undoubtedly the biggest upheaval the club has faced in recent years. A small group of shareholders remain to be convinced that, in the absence of any viable plan to relocate the club and a repeated failure to exhaust all possibilities to expand Stamford Bridge, the bid was anything other than a land grab. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Chelsea Pitch Owners issue set fan against fan (even among those who had supported the club for years, let alone those who have nailed their colours to the mast since 2003), and although the club have stated that they have no new proposal to make at this time, it is likely that CPO will continue to be a major talking point at the club for the foreseeable future.
What has been interesting is the eagerness of many supporters not to openly blame Roman Abramovich when things do go wrong. The appointment of Benitez, and the CPO debacle have largely been laid at the door of the lieutenants, rather than the general. However, the re-appointment of Jose Mourinho seems to have been hailed as a great decision by Abramovich. The recent appointment to the club’s executive board of his personal assistant, Marina Granoskaia, may indicate that Abramovich wishes to keep a slightly tighter rein on day to day events at Stamford Bridge.
What Will You Do When Roman Gets Bored?
In the long, long distant past, when Twitter hadn’t even been invented, one of the earliest ways in which football fans used to bicker with each other was through the BBC’s 606 forums. 606 was probably at its zenith around 2003/2004, and the Abramovich takeover was endlessly discussed not only by Chelsea fans, but by other supporters. Such debates would generally include the helpful suggestion ‘What will you do when Roman gets bored?’ – a kind of footballing Godwin’s Law. The good news is he hasn’t. Yet. However, there is no doubt that he isn’t seen at the Bridge as often as he was in the early days. He’s on to his second family now. Christmas and New Year are usually spent in St Barts, with his New Year Party at the latter occasioning much attention from downmarket newspapers due to its opulence and his habit of inviting musical megastars to be the house band. He is spending as much on art as he is transfers (let’s face it, a Lucian Freud or a French Impressionist is never going to lose its value). If Roman Abramovich did ever decide to sell Chelsea, there isn’t much chance that there will be a repeat of the club falling into the hands of property developers. A potential next owner will probably emanate from the Middle East. And there’s something else that ownership of Chelsea has done for Roman Abramovich. It’s given him a kudos that he wouldn’t have got from other deals. It’s given him an international patina of respectability (much as the ownership of Birmingham City did for David Sullivan and the Gold Brothers, albeit on a much smaller scale). On the other hand, the Abramovich billions have moved the perception of Chelsea, outside the UK at any rate, from being a minor European player to superclub. Ten successive years of Champions League qualifications, serial late stage participants, Champions League winners and one of only a handful of clubs to have won all three European trophies has seen to that.
When he took over the club, Roman Abramovich said “I’m realising my dream of owning a top football club. Some will doubt my motives, others will think I’m crazy.” Hopefully he’ll stay crazy for a while longer.