Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea chapter nears its end but next owner faces stern test
Roman Abramovich signalled his intention to sell Chelsea last week and is looking for a new owner
The last couple of weeks have been conflicting if you are a Chelsea supporter.
In reality our woes pale into insignificance compared to the death and destruction being inflicted upon the people and nation of Ukraine by Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
At times like these it’s worth recalling the wonderful quote from Carlo Ancelotti that “football is the least important of the most important things”. A sense of perspective would be welcome, but unfortunately when innocent people are being exterminated at the whim of a brutal dictator, emotions will inevitably run high.
Chelsea supporters have found themselves at the centre of this frenzied, febrile atmosphere largely due to the alleged connection between Roman Abramovich and Putin. Whatever the veracity of the allegations, Abramovich has been tried and been found guilty by association in the court of public opinion. Abramovich has always denied links to Putin and the Kremlin.
As a consequence, Chelsea supporters are accused of the same guilt by association. If we support Roman Abramovich and everything he has done for Chelsea, then we are de facto supporting Putin and his illegal war against Ukraine.
Of course, this is errant nonsense and evidence of the black and white, paranoid-schizoid thinking when the temperature is high, and critical and nuanced thinking disappears.
That it has been stoked up by politicians and the media should be no surprise, but even I have been staggered at the sanctimonious virtue signalling and grandstanding seen over the last week. It has seemed like a witch hunt at times, although understandable in some respects given that as the most well known of the Russian Oligarch’s, Abramovich was the easiest and most obvious target.
How ironic that the high profile and accompanying security that would ordinarily come from being the owner of a well known club like Chelsea FC, it is his ownership of Chelsea that has put him in the crosshairs. And those crosshairs are very real. I have no doubt that had Abramovich come out publicly and condemned Putin as the hysterical shrieks from Parliament to Fleet Street to social media have demanded, then he and his family would be assassinated. Not an unusual outcome for some of those who defy Putin, it’s been claimed.
Abramovich has taken the decision to sell the club he bought for £140m in 2003. As his statement says, he has done so in the “best interest of the Club, the fans, the employees, as well as the Club’s sponsors and partners”.
For Chelsea supporters it should not be difficult to condemn the actions of Putin and his abhorrent war, but it is hard to be objective and critical about a man who has, through his largesse while owning Chelsea, provided them with so much joy.
Without Abramovich’s ownership, I would never have experienced Bolton away in 2005; the Double in 2010; Munich in 2012; Baku in 2019; Porto in 2021 and Abu Dhabi only a few weeks ago, as well as the delight in watching players like Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, Arjen Robben, Joe Cole, Michael Ballack, Eden Hazard and Thiago Silva. And we should not forget the number of players who are breaking through from the Academy that Abramovich was entirely responsible for by investing in Cobham.
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One of the accusations levelled at Chelsea supporters is that we sold our soul for trophies when Abramovich bought the club, and now we are morally bankrupt as we refuse to condemn him for the 21 trophies in 19 years that he delivered for us; that they are tainted, dirty and are unworthy.
Of course, it is just not that simple. It really isn’t about the trophies in and of themselves. It is much more about the pure joy that experiencing winning them means. If you supported Chelsea through the fallow period of the late 1970’s and 1980’s then you simply could not imagine that Chelsea would win the Premier League five times, the Champions’ League twice and now with the Club World Cup winning the whole damn lot.
I never thought I’d see Chelsea win the league, let alone the Champions’ League. Roman Abramovich made that possible, whatever his motivation and the way it may have been financed, and in the process has given me some of the greatest times of my life connected with football and following Chelsea. Perhaps, on reflection, I could have checked my moral compass, but the truth is I didn’t.
Quite simply, Roman Abramovich has been the best owner of a football club we could ever have hoped for. He clearly got the culture of the club and of the supporters and behind the scenes was often very supportive of them. He clearly loved following Chelsea in much the same way as we all do.
Beyond that he spent much time and a huge amount of money in building the Club’s legacy; from the Academy, to the work of the Chelsea Foundation which gives more money to charitable causes than any other football foundation. His work in fighting antisemitism, supporting the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust exhibition, supporting the NHS and nursing staff during the Covid pandemic and investing in the local community has been outstanding.
But perhaps his greatest legacy at Chelsea has been the fact that he did it because he loved doing it. He has never been a faceless leveraged consortium, looking to make Chelsea a franchise club and extracting as much profit from it as possible. No, he wanted to win trophies and see great players, so he pumped £1.5bn into the club to do so.
In addition, Abramovich did so much to shake up the establishment of English football by breaking the hegemony of Manchester United and Arsenal who dominated prior to his arrival and leapfrogging the likes of Liverpool, Everton and Spurs, long viewed as England’s biggest and most successful clubs. Being England, this has not gone down too well, threatening the establishment just will not do.
Given the way modern football has evolved since Abramovich, with his decision to sell, we are unlikely to see an owner quite like him at the club again and indeed things at Chelsea will possibly never be the same.
We don’t know who is likely to buy the club or even who is likely to be able to afford the rumoured £3bn it is going for. But whoever the new owner is, they are unlikely to want to bankroll it in quite the same way as Abramovich has.
The worry for supporters is that an American consortium buys the club with a view to a franchise model where profits from Chelsea may be used to cross-subsidise a baseball or American Football team.
It may be that a sovereign state will have their eye on a purchase but given the dubious human rights records of many of them, that should also be avoided.
The alternative might leave us in the hands of an owner who won’t have the money or the desire to continue investing in the playing staff, the stadium and keeping Chelsea at the level we have grown accustomed to over the last 19 years. Fourth place to generate revenue rather than trophies to generate glory if you like.
Thankfully the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust have been quick to assert themselves in the minds of any potential new owners with a statement released on Friday demanding that the all-important Chelsea Pitch Owners freehold is secured for the long term; that the ‘Fan-Led Review of Football Governance’ recommendations are implemented; the Chelsea Foundation legacy is protected; joining a European Super League remains off the table and that supporters are engaged with and included in the dialogue about the future of the club.
I would add that perhaps now is the time for the Premier League to thoroughly review and toughen up the ‘Owners and Directors Test’ so that no club falls victim to dubious ownership or circumstances with an owner that leaves it vulnerable to any existential threat.