NOTHING lasts for ever, no matter how secure and embedded something might appear to be. Roman Abramovich, who was relatively unknown in 2003, gave Chelsea 19 years, hardly a fly-by-night experience, but it is unlikely the club will find another owner quite so generous.
As far as Chelsea and their fans are concerned, he was a good owner, a benefactor who funded the most glorious period in the club’s history. Yet there was an air of mystery about him, a silent, rarely seen figure who funded countless successful campaigns and seemingly asked for little in return, apart from trophies. Hence, if things didn’t work out, there was no scope for error as countless managers will testify if they hadn’t signed non-disclosure agreements.
Britain has always been suspicious of Russia and Russians, going back beyond the second world war. While the UK continues to adapt its attitude towards gender, sexuality and colour, if there is one nationality yet to be warmly embraced, it is Russia. And rich Russians are viewed with even more mistrust. No matter how benevolent Abramovich seemed, he was still Russian, seemingly an acolyte of Vladimir Putin and an oligarch. Some felt he would be here today and gone tomorrow, but he made Chelsea into an elite club and one that will now appeal to potential investors. In 2002-03, the last year under Ken Bates, their revenues were £ 75 million, by 2020-21, total income had risen to £ 436 million.
Furthermore, they became very aggressive in the transfer market, bulk-buying in the early years to accelerate their transformation. Abramovich, if he had a liking for a player, such as in the cases of Andrei Shevchenko or Fernando Torres, would make sure he was signed by the club. Since 2003-04, Chelsea have spent £ 2.1 billion in player acquisitions, the highest of any club worldwide, and a fraction more than Manchester City’s gross outlay.
There was always feeling it would take something drastic to remove Abramovich from Stamford Bridge but that time has clearly come. Those fans of opposing clubs who claimed “you haven’t got any history” were wrong; Chelsea had a history, but it was largely unsuccessful, four trophies between 1905 and 1997 and another four before he bought the club for around £ 140 million. They created history in his time and kick-started the modern game.
The age of the uber-club is not to everyone’s taste and its sustainability is questionable, but it was the arrival of the quiet Russian that delivered inflated investment, overspending and obscene wages. Chelsea exploited first-mover advantage, and pushed Arsenal and, ultimately, Manchester United, into the shadows, but they have since been overtaken by Manchester City and Newcastle United are now in the queue to join the elite. Even oligarchs are not richer than middle-eastern oil states.
Although it has been said the sale will not be fast-tracked, a quick disposal is probably preferable, not just for the owner, but also for the club. If Chelsea were to be impacted by UK government sanctions, what would it mean? A frozen asset, unable to operate? A zombie club with no cash flow? Nobody really knows. And with Roman gone, where will that leave them in terms of liquidity? He doesn’t want his loan back, and that underlines his affection for the club, but presumably, they will need ongoing cash?
A new owner will be found and it will not be long before everyone realises Abramovich was something of a one-off. If, for example, Chelsea becomes a US investment, the approach will be very different. They will be less of a Manchester City and more of an Arsenal or Manchester United. They will still be successful, but on a different scale. The sceptics who have taunted the club by predicting a non-league future are exercising wishful thinking – they are an attractive proposition.
Has he done the right thing? In the circumstances, there is no way he could continue, even if true official ownership has been clouded by the creation of a holding company. But Russia is at war with Ukraine and the world has condemned the action. In effect Russia has become a pariah. This is awkward for the club, the players and the fans, but as a beneficiary of a Russian regime that is making the whole world nervous, he has done the right thing.
Most Blues’ fans will mourn the passing of a trophy-laden period in the club’s history, so it is hard to agree with comments made by, among others, journalist Tony Evans, who wrote in the Independent, “There is a growing feeling that the club has been used. Many have felt that for a long time, but some are just admitting it now.”
Investors will undoubtedly try and take advantage of the situation. Abramovich wants US$ 3 billion according to media reports, but it is not out of the question that opportunists will offer far less than the “mammoth price” quoted. The net proceeds of the divestment have been promised to charities linked to the Ukrainian war, so this may stop prospective buyers from making derisory offers.
Abramovich has interested the UK government for some time, one of the reasons why he has been invisible to most Chelsea fans for some years. Although in the world of oligarchs, he is seated on the back benches and unlikely to have much influence with the likes of Putin, he was listed as a person of interest due to his links to the Russian state. In some ways, the writing has been on the wall since Abramovich abandoned the new stadium, a Herzog & De Meuron project that would have built a magnificent, statement home considerably bigger than the 40,000 of Stamford Bridge.
There is another speculative and slightly sinister side to this story. Abramovich was supposedly involved in peace talks and given he has earmarked money to victims of the terrible conflict unleashed by Russia, does that sound like someone who dances to Putin’s tune? If that is the case, has the Chelsea benefactor walked into very dangerous territory?