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Abramovich and the aftershocks that altered football forever

https://theathletic.com/2208296/

It began in Zilina, a sleepy university town nestled in the foothills of the western Carpathians. A crowd of around 6,000 had crammed into the Pod Dubnom stadium a little over 17 years ago, the vast majority hollering support for the Slovakian title holders, MSK, as they set about a daunting two-leg Champions League qualifier against Chelsea. Claudio Ranieri’s visitors had departed the UEFA Cup to the lesser lights of St Gallen, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Viking Stavanger over the previous three seasons, so this might normally have represented an opportunity for the locals. Except this time it was different.

That unlikely setting provided a first glimpse in competitive action of a Chelsea team reinvented by Roman Abramovich’s lavish investment. The oligarch’s £140 million takeover had been completed six weeks previously. While plenty gawped at the unfathomable numbers involved and questioned his real motives in purchasing the club, the team selected against MSK for the inaugural fixture of his ownership reflected the first wave of costly additions.

There was Damien Duff, the most expensive of the new faces at £17 million, scuttling up the wing with Wayne Bridge adventurous at his back. Glen Johnson was just as spritely on the opposite flank, while Geremi and Juan Sebastian Veron patrolled central midfield, oozing authority. The presence of Joe Cole, flung on for the last 20 minutes, would panic Michal Drahno into putting through his own net to add to Eidur Gudjohnsen’s opener just before half-time. Over £50 million of new talent was paraded that night against opponents whose record signing had cost £350,000 and whose average annual wage was around £12,000. Veron made that much in a day.

Abramovich himself had watched the 2-0 win from afar — on one of his luxury yachts anchored off the coast of Alaska.

English football had seen owners pour personal wealth into clubs before. Jack Walker had transformed Blackburn Rovers from second division also-rans into Premier League title winners in the mid-1990s. But those benefactors had largely been local lads made good returning to their roots.

Here was a Russian with no previous ties to Chelsea, an opportunist who had made his fortune in the privatisation deals struck following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, sanctioning a mind-boggling outlay on a new plaything.

His absence that day in Slovakia had plenty querying quite how long his interest would remain piqued. Such scepticism seems distinctly misplaced now.

When Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur contest top spot in the fledgling Premier League table on Sunday afternoon, Abramovich’s tenure will have stretched to 1,000 games across eight competitions. He has bankrolled the west London club to the tune of more than £1.7 billion, establishing them at the pinnacle of the English game. There have been five league titles — they had waited half a century for such silverware — as many FA Cups, two Europa League wins and the capital’s only European Cup.

He has hired and fired managers, making some and breaking others, and twice established new British transfer records. He has poured funds into vibrant academy and women’s team set-ups, backed community projects and, even in absentia, sanctioned the use of the hotel that is part of their Stamford Bridge stadium by NHS workers during the pandemic. The club’s training ground at Cobham in Surrey, constructed on his watch, is recognised as one of the best in world football.

Moreover, the money he has ploughed into Chelsea has altered the landscape of the game in this country.

The shockwaves provoked by his investment shifted the balance of power and disrupted the natural order across boardrooms up and down the top flight. He has panicked governing bodies, as well as the established elite, into devising safeguards to preserve the status quo, whether they were targeting excessive spending or the stockpiling of talent. No one properly foresaw the impact his roubles would have. No one really appreciated the plan he had hatched to establish his team in the elite.

This is a piece about the Abramovich effect and how his arrival on the scene in that summer of 2003, and continued investment over the 999 games since, changed English football forever.

Warping the market

Abramovich began by making a splash. His £120 million spending spree in that first summer was unprecedented with the six new faces in Zilina followed by the signings of Claude Makelele, Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu. Rivals had no choice but to react, particularly when the staggering outlay was maintained in subsequent years.

This was no flash in the pan. Those wanting to challenge for silverware had to find resources to acquire top internationals themselves. Lower down the pecking order, all had to invest to stay vaguely competitive.

“In the year he bought Chelsea, the amount of money being spent on wages in the Premier League was £747 million,” says the football finance expert, Kieran Maguire. “In the 17 years since, that figure has gone up 400 per cent. Transfer spend has gone up significantly too. The year before he joined, clubs had spent £187 million on signings between them. By 2018, it was up to £2.35 billion. He effectively started an arms race.

“Suddenly, you had three clubs chasing the best players instead of two, Manchester United and Arsenal. Manchester City and Liverpool have joined them in more recent times. There has been a gradual increase in spending across the board, but it was Abramovich who was the first to upset the cosy duopoly.

“From a financial perspective, Chelsea and Spurs were broadly on the same level in 2003. His arrival gave Chelsea the ability to go into the market and sign players who were far beyond Spurs’ reach. A gap was established. Arsenal, (who would emerge as) league champions in that first season Abramovich was at Chelsea, had probably imagined they would remain top dog in London for the foreseeable. They probably would have without him. But suddenly, they had a competitor right on their doorstep.”

Chelsea boasted the highest wage bill in English football for the first eight years of Abramovich’s tenure, before being overtaken by Manchester City in 2012. In the first four seasons of the Russian’s ownership, their outlay on players stretched to more than £500 million. “Every club put a nought on the end of the valuation of their player whenever Chelsea came knocking,” says Paul Duffen, the former chairman of Hull City who now helps prospective owners and consortia broker deals to buy into English football. “So his arrival was directly responsible for transfer fee and player wage inflation.

“Agents started putting offers on villas in Spain because of the fees involved. The ripple went all the way down the pyramid. When the average wage of a player in the Premier League goes up, it inevitably drags up the equivalent for players in the Championship. It hoists everything up.”

Manchester City have actually forked out more on transfers than Chelsea in eight of the last 11 years, the level of competition in the elite having risen over Abramovich’s stint at Stamford Bridge. “It wasn’t his intention, but he has been responsible for a lot of the growth of the Premier League,” says Maguire. “His involvement gave it a mystique that it hadn’t had before, making it more competitive. The number of big matches have increased. He has helped increase the globalisation of the Premier League.

“His arrival changed the mentality of the division and has certainly been a contributory factor in making the Premier League the biggest league in the world.”

Similarly, his outlay was a major motivation behind UEFA’s implementation of Financial Fair Play rules — regulations introduced in 2009, by which time Chelsea had established themselves as regulars in the latter stages of the Champions League.

Those inside the club believe the concept had originally been proposed as a means of restricting such disruptors, thereby preserving the natural order. Yet by the time FFP had been implemented, Chelsea were ensconced in the elite and, in truth, it suited them to fall in line as they sought to become more self-sufficient and less reliant upon their oligarch’s benevolence. Preventing “another Abramovich” was to their benefit.

“FFP had nothing to do with fairness,” adds Maguire. “It was to stop another Chelsea, another Manchester City. There were enough clubs at the top table. If Abramovich hadn’t arrived, we probably wouldn’t have had a Paris Saint-Germain or City and, as a result, no FFP. Certainly not in its current form, anyway.”

The death knell for traditional ownership

Sir John Hall knew his time was up from the moment Abramovich was confirmed as Chelsea’s owner, wiping £80 million of debt away in the blink of an eye before setting about plucking talent from rivals up and down the division regardless of the costs involved. “We all knew,” recalls the former chairman of Newcastle United. “Doug Ellis at Aston Villa, Bill Kenwright at Everton, even the owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal… we’d all put our money in, but the oligarch took everything to a new level.

“His money changed the game. It changed the way football was being run. He could do anything.”

Abramovich’s willingness to lavish huge transfer fees on multiple targets, with a commensurate hike in salaries, effectively blew traditional ownership models out of the water at the top of the game. Newcastle had finished third in 2002-03, qualifying for the Champions League. They appeared to be re-establishing themselves on the fringes of the title race.

“But a billionaire came in at Chelsea and, overnight, there was no way we could compete financially,” says Hall, who had bought the St James’ Park club in 1992. “Yes, I’m wealthy, but not at his level. He could trump everything we’d been doing for years, the way we all ran football.

“When we took over Newcastle, it had a turnover of £3.2 million. Yes, it had a tremendous following, but it had belonged to the old families in the region who had made their wealth out of coal and steel. That wealth had been disappearing over the years. The club wasn’t making any money, and they didn’t have the cash to keep things going, so we came in.

“There were a number of us around then, people like Jack Walker at Blackburn (who passed away three years before Abramovich’s arrival); local lads made good who had supported their teams from the terraces and had the cash to take the clubs to the next level. We didn’t have bottomless pockets, but we had enough to hold our own. We made a success of them.

“But Abramovich turned it all into the ‘business of soccer’. I was not prepared to throw unlimited money at it to compete with him, because I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t. My family weren’t very happy with me, but I was adamant I wanted out. It wasn’t for us any more. The level of investment needed to hold your own at the very top suddenly went through the roof.”

Some of Hall’s contemporaries may have feared the worst at the sight of Leeds United over-stretching themselves chasing the dream, but the sense of shock at this new kind of investment was profound. “Those last local industrial barons had been dealing with finite budgets and spending at their max, so they had to make sure there was real value coming out of every pound of expense,” says Duffen. “Maybe some assumed Abramovich was going to use the same rules of engagement.

“So the real surprise was the new money that came in, initially at Chelsea, was so wasteful. They were almost exotically wasteful in their approach, overpaying for players and on salaries, being inefficient with squad management and paying huge agents’ fees. The sheer expense of it all… the more traditional owners would all have been choking on their glasses of sherry back in 2003. It was almost unfair competition.”

“Now you see nation states following Abramovich’s lead, along with American hedge funds, private wealth funds… there’s no way we could compete with them,” adds Hall. “These guys are not coming in for the love of the game. They’re coming in for the money that’s in the game. How can local businessmen compete with these multi-nationals? We were the last generation of locals who could really own their club and compete for honours. It all changed with Abramovich.”

A ‘lightning rod’ for overseas investors

When Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge, only their neighbours Fulham and newly-promoted Portsmouth — under Mohamed Al-Fayed and Milan Mandaric respectively — were in foreign hands among Premier League clubs. Yet as traditional owners recognised the need for new investment if they were to thrive in a world warped by the Russian’s roubles, the search for suitors inevitably led abroad.

The oligarch’s involvement had piqued interest around the globe.

“Circumstances had dictated Abramovich’s desire to complete investment, but he and his advisers had clearly spotted an opportunity,” says Trevor Watkins, a former Bournemouth chairman and current global head of sport at law firm Pinsent Masons, where he has smoothed out deals for investors across all levels of the English game. “Chelsea was high-profile and had value — ingredients which make up a successful club. It met his investment and personal objectives, and he made a wise, strategic choice. He rode in on the back of the evolving success of a competition on a global stage.

“But Mr Abramovich was also a lightning rod for others to follow.

“The Abramovich effect partly explains why we see a host of overseas investors targeting clubs in the higher echelons, but also the likes of Wycombe, Wrexham and Dagenham. Investors cut their cloth accordingly and buy clubs to fit their budget, but Abramovich’s was a high-profile early transaction that demonstrated English football was a global sport. That the English game was open for business, ‘so come and be a part of it’. He may have come for his own specific reasons, but he drew others with different motivations.”

With the Premier League brand suddenly in huge demand and broadcasting rights deals escalating to mouth-watering levels, a quirk rapidly became a trend.

The Glazer family from the US bought Manchester United in 2005. Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications tycoon turned prime minister of Thailand, purchased Manchester City two years later, shortly after the Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks secured Liverpool for £450 million. Doug Ellis sold Aston Villa to Randy Lerner, another American, for £62 million in 2006. Alexandre Gaydamak (Russia) and Ellis Short (USA) settled in at Portsmouth and Sunderland respectively. There was Hong Kong’s Carson Yeung at Birmingham City and an Icelandic consortium, funded by Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, at West Ham United.

Each group or individual had their own motivation behind a particular purchase. Plenty of them were spectacularly unsuccessful.

“But Abramovich had almost made owning a top-flight English football club a wealth accessory,” says Duffen. “Some do it for bragging rights, some do it as a kind of idle hobby, and others do it because they actually believe they can make money out of it. None are doing it for local philanthropy, clearly. But it all ends up with a nation state buying Manchester City entirely for branding reasons.”

It is probably legitimate to wonder whether the Abu Dhabi United Group would ever have contemplated moving in on Manchester had Abramovich not enjoyed such glittering success in west London. “Sheikh Mansour saw how a person can transform a club to make it competitive and also increase their own profile,” says Maguire. “Abramovich is arguably the most famous Russian ‘in’ England. He gave the likes of the Abu Dhabi United Group the awareness that they could increase their profile by buying a team. He made it sexy for the Americans and Chinese to do the same. He was a pioneer.”

“Not all have done it as well as Abramovich, and his longevity in such a transient sport is impressive,” adds Watkins. “He came with his own objectives and has ridden a number of waves, with other owners coming and going, but I’d imagine he has achieved a number of those original objectives and continues to do so. Equally, it has complemented the development of the Premier League.

“Just this week, I’ve spoken to half a dozen different funds looking at how they can develop their business within football, or media-rights companies who want a piece of the action. In one way or another, that is all a consequence of Mr Abramovich’s involvement at Chelsea, and the fact it has been very successful for him.”

Overcoming the Invincibles

Manchester United had dominated English football for a decade, but it was actually Arsenal who swept all before them in that first year of Abramovich’s ownership. Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles ended unbeaten in the Premier League to claim the title, 11 points clear of the nouveaux riches lot from across the capital. Chelsea clung to their triumph in a Champions League quarter-final between the clubs (winning the second leg 2-1 away after a 1-1 home draw) as evidence the gap was not unbridgeable.

Yet, in truth, those at Highbury already sensed the longer-term threat posed by the oligarch.

The Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein had expressed his concern at the draw for the season’s European competitions in Monaco a little over a month after the Russian’s takeover. “Roman Abramovich has parked his tank in our front garden and it’s firing £50 notes,” he told reporters that day.

“I think David was wrong,” says Dick Law, who would spend 12 years within the set-up at Arsenal, including eight as sporting director, competing directly with Chelsea’s financial might in the transfer market. “They were more like £1,000 notes.”

Chelsea’s emergence as contenders backed by apparently unlimited funds cut Arsenal off at the knees. In 2002 the latter’s annual wage bill, at £59 million, had been considerably higher than Chelsea’s at £45 million. “A year later, Chelsea’s was £116 million — £48 million higher than their rivals’,” says Maguire. “There had been a £62 million swing in 12 months. They were spending almost twice as much as Arsenal and, for that matter, three times as much as Spurs. It completely changed the dynamic.”

Wenger called it “financial doping” and, in truth, never really came close to winning another league title. The concern prompted Dein to introduce American businessman Stan Kroenke to the board and, in 2007, to sell his 14.58 per cent stake in the club to the specially created investment company Red & White, jointly owned by the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov and the London-based Iranian investor Farhad Moshiri. “Football is changing dramatically,” Dein said at the time. “Without new investors, very soon Arsenal might not be able to compete successfully at the very top level.”

Chelsea had sparked that shift at Arsenal and, with a new £390 million stadium to pay for, whoever was in charge faced an uphill task.

“Maybe Arsenal could have decided against building the Emirates Stadium and, instead, gone into debt to the tune of £400 million — roughly the cost of the ground — whether sourced from banks or elsewhere, and spent that money on players to compete directly,” says Law. “Would that have been the right choice? Probably not. For the long-term health of the club, the stadium was the better investment.

“But did a failure to do that make Arsenal less competitive in the player market? Yes, of course.”

Instead, the north London club stuck to what they knew. They had never really sought to challenge Manchester United in the market. Wenger’s best team had largely been developed in-house. “The strategy was all about finding talents whom Arsene could grow into world-class players,” Law tells The Athletic. “The problem was that, after that initial wave of signings which had so directly challenged United, Chelsea appeared to adopt a new strategy, focusing on player trading almost as a separate business unit.

“They went around Europe buying the youngest and most promising players, at whatever price. Does that effectively mean you are stockpiling players? Well, of course. That’s the net effect of it. But there was a strategy, and that directly affected us.

“We were very interested in Thibaut Courtois at (Belgium’s) Genk but, when we got to the table, Chelsea were already there. They spent millions to sign him and, obviously, that came good for them. I remember flying out to Prague to sit down with a teenage Tomas Kalas, his father and agents at their offices. The agents were playing a double game and, once they’d seen our offer, called Chelsea and said, ‘Listen, Arsenal are here right now. This is their deal…’

“Chelsea just proposed 60 per cent more than we did. I picked up the phone and called Arsene and explained if we wanted the player, it would now cost this much. He said, for a 17-year-old centre-back, we’ll pass.

“So they were encroaching directly upon what Arsenal had done so well for years and ensured we had to pursue it on a much more selective basis. Kalas (now at Bristol City of the Championship after nine years at Chelsea in which he played twice for them in the Premier League) may not have worked out but analyse their trading say, from 2013-19, and they probably generated up to £60 million in profits, and that money comes back into your player trading budget.

“They certainly pushed the limits, and were punished for it (when FIFA imposed a transfer embargo in 2019 for breaches of rules concerning the signing of players under the age of 18 from abroad). But, interestingly enough, it didn’t slow them down.

“The net effect of it all is Chelsea have been in the Champions League for all but two years of Abramovich’s ownership. If that is the first metric of success, then they’ve been successful for the last 17 years. And their trophy haul isn’t bad, either.”

Unsettling and revitalising Manchester United

It was edging towards 2008 and the setting was one of Vienna’s more exclusive restaurants. Real Madrid’s then-president Ramon Calderon looked up from his table to see Abramovich sitting across the room. The Spaniard made his move, inviting the Russian over for a coffee.

The media speculation at the time was fixated upon Cristiano Ronaldo’s long-held desire to join Madrid and Calderon worked over-time over several years to charm the player’s agent, Jorge Mendes, and strike an eventual €94 million deal to take Ronaldo away from the clutches of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Indeed, during those negotiations, Calderon recalls Mendes turning to him, raising the prospect of Jose Mourinho and saying: “Now, Mr President, you have the best player in the world, so now you need the best coach in the world.”

A Mendes’ client, Mourinho was, at the time, out of work, having been sacked by Chelsea early in the 2007-08 season. Mendes would eventually get his wish, albeit under Calderon’s successor Florentino Perez.

Back in Vienna, as Calderon and Abramovich got acquainted, the Chelsea owner had a question. “Roman said, ‘Are you going to sign the Portuguese (Ronaldo)?’” Calderon tells The Athletic. “I said, ‘If we can, of course’. We were talking about football and I realised he knew much more about football than many people think. He is not a whimsical guy just trying to have notoriety. He knew quite well what he was doing in football and what he wanted to do with Chelsea. After he brought up Ronaldo, I joked, ‘Well, if you help me, I will take him from your rival United — so maybe help me with some money!’ He was laughing about it.”

Abramovich did not aid Madrid’s attempts to sign Ronaldo, but it is an interesting insight into a man who unnerved United repeatedly during his first years in England.

United did not win the Premier League title between 2003 and 2007, first dislodged by Wenger’s Invincibles and then Mourinho’s first Chelsea side. Abramovich’s investment could not explain it all. United’s problems were self-inflicted, too, undermined by the Glazers’ takeover, Ferguson’s row over the Rock Of Gibraltar racehorse, and his extraordinary splits with David Beckham, captain Roy Keane and prolific striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, plus the most precarious post-Treble moment of the Scot’s managerial career when United failed to get out of their Champions League group stage in the winter of 2005, winning only one of their six games.

Several prominent sportswriters called for the manager to go and after three years without a title for the first time since the inception of the Premier League, there were genuine questions about Ferguson’s future, further underpinned by some poor recruitment — players such as Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion.

But Chelsea did provoke some of the angst. In September 2003, on the back of the summer spending spree in Abramovich’s first window, they disrupted United at the highest level by poaching chief executive Peter Kenyon, who had been credited with securing sponsorship deals with Nike and Vodafone and a ground-breaking agreement with baseball counterparts the New York Yankees. He had also brokered United’s transfers for Rio Ferdinand and Juan Sebastian Veron, although many felt he paid excessively for the pair at the time. Yet within the corridors of power at Old Trafford, people were stunned.

One former board member, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told The Athletic: “There was the fundamental desire to keep Chelsea out of ‘the club’, but the politics associated with Peter Kenyon were remarkable. There was a huge shock when Peter walked out for Chelsea. It was this recognition that somebody could prise away United’s chief executive. In every endeavour, United were top of the tree. They had come off the Treble, they signed the biggest and best players and by some distance secured the biggest and best commercial deals and revenue.

“It was the single biggest statement Chelsea could make at the time, in terms of ambition and intent. There was no player they could have signed that made the statement that it was to lure Peter away.”

It was a sliding doors moment, too, for David Gill, who was promoted from United managing director to chief executive and developed an enduring bond with Ferguson. The boardroom source continued: “There is not a chance — not a chance — that David Gill would have been CEO if this did not happen. David was super-smart and a fantastic politician and he saw an opportunity.”

The brains behind the Kenyon swoop had been the superagent Pini Zahavi, who worked closely with Abramovich at the time, and brokered the deal. The headline in the London Evening Standard said it all. “Red Ken becomes Blue Peter.”

Kenyon’s move presented new tensions.

United had tracked Dutch winger Arjen Robben since Kenyon’s time at the club and Ferguson was left infuriated when Chelsea, then run by his former colleague, pinched the player from under his nose in July 2004. There was a further disagreement and a tribunal over Mikel John Obi, while Chelsea also beat United to the signing of another midfielder, Lyon’s Michael Essien. Chelsea may have failed in a move for Rio Ferdinand, but the challenge was brazen.

Kenyon commanded respect at home and abroad. He had particularly strong relationships at Atletico Madrid, Galatasaray and Barcelona, while he also permeated UEFA committees and gave Chelsea a voice at the table. Calderon recalls the negotiating stance of Abramovich and Kenyon when it came to Robben’s sale to Real Madrid in 2007.

“Roman was very tough in that. He didn’t reduce a single euro in that. He asked for €35 million and I remember offering around €30 million and the message was very much, ‘No, no, Ramon, we want €35 million’. We did it for that amount. I spoke with Roman once about Robben but he told me Kenyon would be the person to deal with this. Peter is very good at that. They knew we wanted him and when someone knows the coach has said ‘I need that player’, then you are not going to reduce €5 million. Peter’s arrival shows how wise and talented Roman was to try and be surrounded by the best people.”

At the same time, Chelsea were actually attempting to curry favour with United. Their chairman Bruce Buck made an early visit in the United States to see the Glazer family, where they spoke about the future of television deals. A United boardroom source recalls: “The conversations were to ensure no material change in relativity between Chelsea and United. That was the most important thing to Chelsea. We were talking about redistribution of broadcast international revenues from an equal one-20th for each (Premier League) team to something more biased towards those who think they create revenue streams.

“There were super-interesting conversations. Chelsea were very worried about this at the time. They knew their income would rise but they knew United’s would rise even more if United secured a greater proportion of television rights. Whereas now, of course, Chelsea are in the club and want to redistribute broadcast revenues more in their favour! United were thinking about this even before the Glazers’ arrival, to be fair.”

Back on the field, a club who initially did so much to unsettle United had inadvertently inspired Ferguson’s side to greater heights. He added Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra to the emerging Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo. Despite Chelsea’s continued spending, United roared back, lifting three straight domestic titles and beating Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow. Ferguson and Gill developed a relationship closer than the Scot had ever maintained with Kenyon.

Ferguson saw the Chelsea challenge — and raised it. He even altered the way he looked at seasons. United traditionally came on strong late on in a campaign to overhaul their rivals, but Mourinho’s Chelsea started his first two seasons at the club with such authority that United now needed to be faster out of the blocks. In 2006-07, United took 44 points (out of a possible 51) from their first 17 league games. Points totals for champions would need to be higher.

“Chelsea’s threat came from their depth,” says Eric Steele, Ferguson’s former goalkeeping coach. “Soon they had their own winning formula, where they would maintain levels and then bolster. That’s what United did. That’s why Man United signed players like Dimitar Berbatov when they already had Rooney, Ronaldo, (Carlos) Tevez and Nani up front. Chelsea and United became the best teams in the world — but they needed to keep pushing each other and United remained the team to beat, the team Chelsea couldn’t beat in Moscow.”

Bailing out other rivals

If Abramovich had moved to challenge United and directly sought to undermine Arsenal, then his chequebook actually served to keep other clubs afloat.

Two of his first buys in that summer of 2003 were Glen Johnson and Joe Cole for a combined £12.6 million from West Ham. The club, who had just been relegated to the Championship, still languished £44.1 million in debt despite those two sales but, as their former director of youth development Tony Carr admits, that injection of funds was timely.

“The club was in desperate need of money,” says Carr. “Relegation from the Premier League is armageddon for any club, a financial disaster. I remember a board meeting with all the department managers where it was spelt out that if we didn’t go up, the club were in big trouble. There were going to be cuts left, right and centre. It was frightening. Fortunately, we got up in the second season (in 2005), otherwise there would have been all sorts of issues. But the fees Chelsea paid were an absolute life-saver.”

Cole, already an England international, would most likely have been sold that summer regardless. the 18-year-old Johnson’s potential could have attracted suitors. “But Chelsea paid the fees up front,” adds Carr. “Most transfers are an initial sum with the rest paid in instalments over a period of time. Chelsea were buying the best players around and Abramovich didn’t bat an eyelid. He just wrote the cheques.

“While it felt like they squeezed the pips over buying Joe — £6.6 million was cheap — they paid £6 million for Glen, who had made only 16 appearances for the first team. It was a financial no-brainer for the club, they could not turn it down. Glen really didn’t want to leave. I told him, ‘Needs must, Glen. The club need the money and it is a fantastic opportunity for you’. It kept us going and stabilised things.”

It was a similar story two years later at Manchester City, when Chelsea offered £21 million for Shaun Wright-Phillips. City’s books were in dire straits, even with a place in the Premier League for the following season secure. The financial accounts for the year ending May 31, 2004, showed the club’s debt had risen to £62.2 million. In an interview with The Athletic earlier this week Wright-Phillips claimed that without his sale City faced “financial ruin”.

Dennis Tueart, a City director at the time, stresses the unexpected windfall of Abramovich’s funds was not the only factor in keeping the club afloat, but it was hugely significant nevertheless. “We were desperate at the time,” he says. “We were chasing our tail from previous regimes to get back to the Premier League.

“We went down to the third tier (in 1998), the place was a shambles. We had to restructure the operational side, but were paying players far too much for the level we were in. Then, when we got back to the Premier League, the same thing happened again. We would have been in financial difficulty if Shaun’s move hadn’t happened.”

Significantly, as with West Ham, Chelsea paid the full sum quickly. “It was in our accounts within seven days,” adds Tueart. “Chelsea’s money gave us breathing space. It was a big hit to get the books under some kind of control and certainly plugged one of the holes in the dyke.”

The youth revolution

It dawned upon Carr early on that his role within the youth set-up at West Ham had been made considerably harder following Abramovich’s arrival. Chelsea had not merely set their ambitions on becoming the dominant force at senior level, they were just as intent on usurping all-comers when it came to junior football.

Thanks considerably to Carr’s influence, West Ham had cultivated a reputation over the years for developing youngsters into elite level professionals. Their youth set-up had thrived, operating within strict rules which determined that clubs could not recruit academy players from outside their catchment area. Under the guidelines at the time, under-12s had to live within an hour’s travel of the club’s home stadium. For those aged between 13-16, that was extended to 90 minutes.

That ensured Chelsea and West Ham were competing for London-area talent on a regular basis and, until 2003, it had been a fairly even fight. Overnight, that all changed.

“All of a sudden, Chelsea were in a position where money was no object,” Carr tells The Athletic. “I remember a member of Chelsea’s academy staff telling me about one of the first meetings Peter Kenyon had with the youth department. He said to them, ‘We have to go into east London and Essex and paint it blue’. In other words, encroach on our domain.

“They employed scouts from all over the area and were paying them good money, good bonuses, and we couldn’t compete. It became a dogfight to get anybody. We had to court the players and their parents, but Chelsea were successful at the top of the league and in the Champions League. Parents want to go to work on a Monday morning saying their boy is at a club like that. West Ham, in contrast, were up and down the divisions, in and out of relegation.”

Neil Bath, named Chelsea’s academy manager in 2004 having previously been employed by the club in various youth roles for over a decade, was quick to put plans in place. “When we restructured the whole academy, our vision was to have the best academy in the world,” he said recently. “We were miles off but set ourselves targets: ‘How do we get the best seven, eight, nine and 10-year-olds in London and the south-east? How do we get the best coaches?’ Because if we’ve got the best talent, and we’ve got the best coaches, we’re going to make up ground.”

One of the priorities to help achieve that was building a new training ground.

The club had been housed at Harlington, west London, at a site owned by Imperial College and used by its students, since the late 1970s. Abramovich spent £20 million to build a new complex south of the capital in Cobham, Surrey. The academy and community pavilion were the last part of the project to be completed in 2008. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that they have won seven FA Youth Cups, two UEFA Youth Leagues and 11 other titles over the past decade, or that the women’s team, in situ at Cobham and backed by similarly impressive investment, have also thrived.

“That (facility) was something we could only dream of,” adds Carr. “We lost out on a lot of young players to them. It was difficult for a young player to turn them down unless they were West Ham through and through. It still is. They have top chefs, psychologists, physiologists, coaches that are second to none. They have 30 pitches, all of a great standard. I’d go to the board and ask for £2 million to improve our training ground only to be told that would mean the (first-team) manager wouldn’t get that money to spend on a player he wanted.

“We made the best of things, but it was tough. But one of the factors that Chelsea have used the system for is sweeping up the best young players and selling them on for profit. They have done that very well.”

Their stockpiling of talented young players, both local and from abroad, has also seen Chelsea exploit the loan market to offer young talent a route to first-team game time. They struck up an unlikely alliance with the Dutch top-flight club Vitesse Arnhem. In August, striker Armando Broja became the 29th Chelsea player to move to Vitesse on loan in recent years. Chelsea’s current under-23s coach Andy Myers also spent a season there in 2016-17 as assistant first-team coach.

During the course of the 2018-19 season more than 40 players, whether from the fringes of the first-team or youngsters seeking experience, were loaned out to clubs at home and abroad, invariably generating Chelsea income through loan fees.

Indeed, their use of the loan system was a significant factor in FIFA introducing new guidelines earlier this year on how many players a club can now send out on such temporary arrangements.

Offering Mourinho his platform

Plenty of individuals have seized the opportunity granted them by Abramovich.

Marina Granovskaia has established herself as arguably the most influential woman in the men’s game, pretty much running the club for the absent owner in recent years.

Players from John Terry to Frank Lampard, who might otherwise have moved on had the oligarch turned his attentions elsewhere, flourished at Stamford Bridge in the trophy-laden years that followed. Both might have excelled at other clubs, such was their talent, but at Chelsea they became icons.

Others turned down the chance to be involved. Steven Gerrard recounts in his autobiography the moment he heard a billionaire had bought the London club, thereby pushing his Liverpool side even further out of the title reckoning. “The memory of Abramovich arriving at Chelsea is still raw,” he said. “I had just turned 23 and I knew enough about football and money to just swear out loud when the news filtered through.

“At first you think, ‘How long will this last? Will he get bored or is it real?’ But the second season starts. Abramovich is still here. In May 2004 he appoints one of the best young managers in the world, Jose Mourinho. Jose swans into London, calling himself ‘The Special One’. My heart drops a little more. You could tell Mourinho had the aura of a winner and he was backed by an owner with the deepest pockets in world football. It was hard not to be deflated. If you’re me, you’re fucked as far as winning the league is concerned.”

That much was true, though the 2005 Champions League triumph, after beating Chelsea in the semi-finals, presumably served as a considerable consolation.

And so to the Portuguese.

Mourinho’s coaching reputation had been forged over two-and-a-half glittering seasons at Porto that had yielded domestic honours and, more significantly, victory in both the UEFA Cup and Champions League finals. He boasted English suitors well before his team dismantled Monaco to claim that European Cup in May 2004 but, when interviewed earlier that year about his next move in management, the coach had expressed some doubt over the longevity of Abramovich’s project. His favoured move was apparently elsewhere.

“Liverpool are a team that interests everyone and Chelsea does not interest me so much, because it is a new project with lots of money invested in it,” said Mourinho. “If the club fail to win everything, then Abramovich could retire and take the money out of the club. So it is an uncertain project. It is interesting for a coach to have the money to hire quality players, but you never know if a project like this will bring success.”

As it was, Kenyon proved more persuasive, Mourinho was won over and he arrived in London on a lucrative deal worth considerably more than anyone else had been offering. Liverpool, having dismissed Gerard Houllier, secured Rafael Benitez instead.

It is hard to judge how Mourinho would have fared at Anfield. He ended up at a club who immediately spent more than £90 million on new players, many of whom he had recommended, and almost as much on Didier Drogba (£24 million) alone as Benitez got to revitalise his squad that first summer. Liverpool had finished 30 points behind champions Arsenal in 2004 so would it have been feasible, with that level of investment, for Mourinho to transform them into contenders overnight? It seems more plausible that, even with his trademark tactical nous and self-confidence, his career might have taken a rather different course.

Instead, everything he did at Stamford Bridge – even his political grumbling behind the scenes – cemented his status as one of the world’s elite coaches. Abramovich’s financial backing provided him with a platform to conquer English football. Yes, it ended amid acrimony, but he still departed in 2007 with his reputation enhanced. Inter Milan came calling. Real Madrid watched him claim another Champions League with the Italians, but were similarly minded of his success at Chelsea when securing him at the Bernabeu in 2010. His agent, Jorge Mendes, had never been shy of reminding them of the coach’s capabilities.

When Mourinho’s reputation might have felt tarnished by further political fall-out in Spain, there was Abramovich to bring him home in 2013, splashing more cash on the likes of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas a year later to help deliver a third title under the coach’s stewardship.

The fit had always been right: a cocksure manager never afraid to ruffle feathers at a club seeking to disrupt the established order. Mourinho and Abramovich may have had their moments, but they were good for each other. The Portuguese owes much to the oligarch who first brought him to England.

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  • 2 months later...

They say player power doesn't exist. 

Been saying we have one of the most toxic dressing rooms in English football for a long time. It needs to stop... but I can only see it changing when Roman leaves. 

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Chelsea Owner And Billionaire Roman Abramovich On The Past, Present And Future Of The Club

 
Roman Abramovich, the Russian-Israeli businessman and owner of Chelsea Football Club.
 

In early 2002, Roman Abramovich noticed that his new interest kept leading to the same thought.

Whenever work meetings took him to cities across Europe, the Russian-Israeli businessman found himself attending football matches. It didn't take more than a few games to realize what was running through his mind. “There was so much emotion, so much excitement. I remember thinking, 'I want to be a part of this,'” Abramovich says.

Something else about the sport was also grabbing the billionaire entrepreneur's attention. “The fact that there is no set formula for winning football matches. A coach and his or her squad have to consider many factors when approaching each match. It’s like every few days is a new exam and the work you have put in gets evaluated. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the unpredictability and seeing how each game plays out.”

Abramovich was soon sharing his excitement during conversations with business associates. That quickly grew into the idea of owning a football club.

On the first day of July 2003, news out of London reported Abramovich as the new owner of Chelsea Football Club. It was a surprising development for three reasons. First, Chelsea was a historic English club that didn't change ownership hands often. Second, the purchase price of £140-million, including £75-million of debt, was more than anyone had ever paid for a club in the English Premier League. And, third, the buyer was bringing major foreign investment to the British game.

“In hindsight, especially with the public profile it would bring me, maybe I would have thought differently about owning a club,” Abramovich says with a gentle smile and chuckle. “But, at the time, I just saw this incredible game and that I wanted to be a part of that in one way or another.”

The road leading Abramovich to become owner of Chelsea was the starting point for this conversation, which took place via Zoom. Examples and concepts of the work being done by the club have appeared in my teaching and writing about decision-making in sports business. An interest in gaining further insights led to the opportunity to talk with Abramovich about his involvement with the club.

The substantial sum of money invested in growing the club since the beginning of his ownership has followed two ambitions: “to create world-class teams on the pitch; and to ensure the club plays a positive role in all of its communities.”

Abramovich says those were not just polished words then and aren't now. The reason why “first of all, is when you say something, you have to always follow through. And, I guess, that is especially if you're a person who doesn't say much. So, what you do say is very important,” he says. “Second, football is society. Football is part of society and society is part of football. So, it's the natural state of things for football to be in be involved, to support the community, and to be present in the community.”

“The ambitions,” he continues, “are as true now as they were when I first became owner and I hope that can be seen through the work we have been doing on and off the pitch over the last 17 years.”

Those ambitions are ingrained in a strategy that has enabled Chelsea to recruit some of the world's top talent on, around, and off the pitch. It men's, women's, and academy teams have collected to a total of 36 major trophies from competitions in England and around the world. “I think the trophies speak for themselves and show what we as a club have been able to achieve over these years,” Abramovich says, “and it’s my goal for us to keep winning trophies going forward and build for the future.”

“Chelsea has a very rich history, and I feel extremely fortunate to a play a part in that,” he adds. “The club was here before me, and will be here after me, but my job is to ensure we are as successful as we can be today, as well as build for the future. That’s why the success of our academy at Cobham [the club's 140-acre training facility] is so important to me.”

Today, hundreds of millions of fans, more than 500 official supporters clubs, and more than 100-million followers across major social media platforms cheer on Chelsea from locations around the globe. The club is presently valued at more than £2-billion. But, to Abramovich, “football is not just a business opportunity. Football is a community sport. Chelsea is a community. We need to embrace all of that community in the work that we do, the investments that we do, and the work that we focus on.”

It is here that the full effect of why Abramovich bought Chelsea comes into sharper view.

“Chelsea is not just the men's first team. Chelsea is a community. It's the women's team, it's the youth teams, it's the academy, it's support to former players of the club. It's something that we started to do since day one. The reason is that we approached Chelsea as a community. And people within the community—there are children, there are women, there are men, there are former players, there are current players, there are future players—all of them need to be welcomed and part of how we conduct the business.”

For example, Abramovich recalls,“when we bought the club, it was clear that former players were not really involved. They were not even invited to see games. So, that was something else—support for former players, people who had helped the club along the way, and to give them an opportunity to continue being a part of the club and the story going forward.”

Another example is the women's team, which has been a part of the club since the second year of Abramovich's ownership. Leadership's support for the squad—a base at Cobham, a dedicated stadium, and travel to international friendlies—has been ahead of the curve of most clubs. But Abramovich isn't much interested in such a competitive comparison, mostly because it misses the larger point.

The women’s team, Abramovich says, is “a critical part of Chelsea and shapes who we are as a club. I see no reason why clubs wouldn’t want to support women’s football and provide the best possible opportunity for them to succeed. For me, this is both about the principle, but, also, women’s football has huge potential. If women’s football received the same level as support as men’s football, the sport would obviously be equally successful on the business side.”

“And I think investment pays off,” he adds. “I think their success demonstrates what can be achieved when you dedicate resources and the right leadership. [Manager] Emma Hayes has been remarkable in her work with the team.” In the past year alone, the team was crowned champion of the Women's Super League, broke the longest unbeaten streak in WSL history (32 games), and won a Continental Cup for the second consecutive season.

Doing things off the pitch is an important part of teamwork at Chelsea, particularly in community activities that flow through the Chelsea Foundation. Each year, more than 1-million participants in 20 countries are engaged through 500 programs that use football and sport to improve a range of social, humanitarian, educational, and professional issues. “With sport at this level also comes opportunity and we are proud that the club’s foundation is the largest in UK football,” Abramovich says. “I hope that our fans and the wider community can see the same level of commitment in our support for them as we have for the team.”

That commitment was sustained when outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic sent London into lockdown and English football to shutdown. Chelsea responded by continuing to pay all employees as if matches were being played, offering hotel accommodations and meals to National Health Service staff, and running a campaign to raise awareness and funds for the domestic violence charity Refuge. The Chelsea Foundation provided online sport, education, and social programs for youth to the elderly.

At such a turbulent and uncertain time, Abramovich says, “it was quite clear from the start that we wanted to help. … Chelsea is a part of the community and should of course play a role in contributing and helping, in the ways we can. I hope the projects we supported as a club played a role in helping and I am grateful to all the fans who also lent their support to the various club-led initiatives during the pandemic.”

At the same time resources were being directed to pandemic response, Chelsea was also maintaining its social responsibility programs. High up on that list are initiatives aimed at combatting antisemitism, racism, and other forms of hatred cropping up in society, including on and around football pitches.

“Racism, antisemitism, this is all the same type of evil and should have no place on our world at this day and age,” Abramovich says. “Every time I get sent examples of racist abuse that our players face, I am shocked. It’s disgraceful that this is the reality for not just our players, but for anyone targeted by this sort of abuse. If we as a club can make a difference in this area, in fighting antisemitism, racism and promoting tolerance, I am determined to stand behind it and contribute in whatever way I can.”

Tackling intolerance is an issue that Abramovich also feels personally responsible to do something about. Although some 15 years have passed since he has given a media interview or press conference, his own words have not been entirely absent from the public sphere. On a handful of occasions, he has communicated his thoughts through personally-written messages—each time about something having to do with social responsibility.

Abramovich has penned letters for matchday programs around Chelsea's Say No To Antisemitism campaign. His words appeared in a club press release about making a change to the men's first team manager position this season. And a personal letter that he had delivered to each player after men's first team member Reece James was racially abused online earlier this year showed up in media reports.

“Statements with regard to the Say No To Antisemitism campaign or Frank Lampard or Reece James,” Abramovich says, “these are very, very big themes and they are very, very important. Things at that level require me to personally show that I am behind it and that I am accountable.” Even then, he channels the attention to work being done by the club, its people, and its community.

Abramovich's comfort zone is in infusing values and inspiring standards throughout Chelsea, rather than generating personal celebrity. “It has never been my ambition to have a public profile,” he says. His instinct is that the performance of the team, manger, board, and club “should speak for itself. It is not helpful to provide additional running commentary.”

One area of performance that many fans and media might want more commentary about settles on the turnover rate of men's first team managers—15 managers in less than 18 years. On the surface, the numbers suggest short-term thinking and impulsive decision-making about strategy. Yet, as Abramovich describes, it has to do with culture feeding strategy more than strategy as a standalone. He says that while Chelsea's culture is “definitely focused on performance, it is at the same time supportive, inclusive and diverse. Both elements are critical to our success and one does not work without the other.”

“I think we are pragmatic in our choices,” he continues. “And we are comfortable making the right changes at the right time to ensure we can achieve our long-term ambitions. I hope it also says something about the clarity of the long-term ambition of the club. Those who join understand the objectives both on the pitch, as well as the wider positive role the club plays in the community.”

Twenty years ago, Abramovich was one of tens-of-thousands of fans sitting in a stadium somewhere in Europe, realizing how great it felt to simply be watching a football match. Two years later, in London, he was becoming owner of Chelsea because of the opportunity it provided for fusing that “love” of “following the successes and the ups and downs” of football with his guideposts of innovation and investment. That contribution had an immediate impact on the club, its sport, its business, and its communities. Abramovich has kept it up—and is committed to keep it going.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Despite all the shenanigans he is still a good owner. 

I'm amazed how he let himself get into this, but despite that he did good in realizing his mistake. 

Now I don't know how things will change because it seems the government will do some reviews and all that good stuff. How that affects ownership, we shall see. 

But Roman is still a good owner and I want him to continue. 

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I would like Roman or Bruce to issue a John Henry style mia culpa but, other than that, Roman is so far in credit with fans of this club that I can't believe he will suffer any permanent damage from this. He certainly won't with me.

Edited by OhForAGreavsie
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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

@Vesper

You know what did not happen? We have made sure that we have never gone two consecutive seasons trophyless under Roman! This was tight but still managed to win a trophy. And on top of that, the most important of them all.

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8 minutes ago, Milan said:

@Vesper

You know what did not happen? We have made sure that we have never gone two consecutive seasons trophyless under Roman! This was tight but still managed to win a trophy. And on top of that, the most important of them all.

lol, ask all the other EPL teams if they wished they could say that (other than Citeh, and their streak is far newer)

we have the most trophies of any English club since 2003 as well

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3 minutes ago, Vesper said:

lol, ask all the other EPL teams if they wished they could say that (other than Citeh, and their streak is far newer)

we have the most trophies of any English club since 2003 as well

The others, notably Arsenal, United and Spurs fans, would wish they have an owner like Roman. 

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