So what if Roman Abramovich sells? It doesn’t matter who owns Chelsea. Not any more. Not these days. Abramovich’s work is pretty much done. He has elevated his football club until it stands among the biggest in the world.
Chelsea’s market worth is over £2billion, even without a new stadium.
Meaning, from here, the club will always be owned by an extraordinarily wealthy individual or group, one that measures its fortune in more than mere millions.
So Chelsea are made. Chelsea are golden, and that’s down to him. Whether Abramovich is present to witness it, when the redeveloped Stamford Bridge goes up – as one day it will – it should be named in his honour. The Roman Colosseum. He will have built it, even if his money no longer pays the bills.
That is not to say Chelsea will ever find an owner like Abramovich; one willing to regularly sign off eight figures for compensated managers and world record goalkeepers, to hire and fire and deal and deal again in the restless pursuit of glory.
Whatever his flaws as the most impatient employer, Abramovich is a football fan’s dream.
At the first perceived lowering of standards, he writes a cheque, makes a change. They would love him at Newcastle, at Manchester United, at Arsenal. He thinks like them, closer in spirit to a supporter than to Stan Kroenke. And when he makes a hasty decision – turning against Carlo Ancelotti, buying Andriy Shevchenko – he shrugs and goes again. He’s a brilliant owner but replaceable, now.
The club that Abramovich bought in 2003 wasn’t quite stable. It had enormous potential, the foundations to build were in place and between 1996-97 and 1999-2000 Chelsea won five trophies – two FA Cups, the League Cup, the European Cup-Winners Cup and the UEFA Super Cup – but resources were stretched and darker days were not such a distant memory.
From 1975-76 to 1988-89, Chelsea spent eight of 14 seasons in the second tier of English football. Abramovich did not rescue them, but there was no certainty they would become a permanent fixture among the elite. Chelsea’s first four Premier League finishes had been 11th, 14th, 11th and 11th.
Chelsea, it was felt, could go either way, as some of their contemporaries did. When Abramovich bought Chelsea, Newcastle had finished higher the previous season. So nothing could be presumed. The last suitor before Abramovich had been Matthew Harding, a very rich man but not in the same financial league. It did not necessarily follow that a Russian billionaire many times over was Chelsea’s match.
Now, it is illogical anyone lacking Abramovich’s financial profile could own his club. If he sells one day he will be replaced by a mini-me, except perhaps a different nationality. Chelsea’s new owner will be Russian, or American, or Chinese or from the Middle East and if it is an Englishman he will not be in the hundred wealthiest, as Harding was, but the top five.
That is why identity is no longer relevant. Those who think Russia’s deteriorating relationship with the West – in which Abramovich’s visa is the collateral damage – means Chelsea will soon be on the skids haven’t been paying attention.
They are no more at risk than Manchester United or Liverpool. Abramovich has built Chelsea into a commodity that will only attract the most serious financial players. If Qatar wanted to break into the Premier League market, they would buy Chelsea.
For a start, it’s a branding dream. It’s called Chelsea. ‘Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning,’ sings Joni Mitchell. She means Chelsea, Manhattan, of course, but that doesn’t matter. Chelsea, New York; Chelsea, London; it says cool, it says luxury, it says high-end.
Manchester United is an iconic name, too, but the club has made it so. The style conjured by the mention of Chelsea is innate, and comes from being the club nearest the heart of the capital, the true London club. They’re not in some suburb or gentrified urban outpost, they’re in the King’s Road.
And Chelsea’s potential is still not fully realised. Yes, they are the most successful club of the Abramovich era, the first from London to claim the Champions League, among a select band to win every domestic and European trophy. But when the new White Hart Lane opens they will be playing at the fourth biggest club stadium in London and are currently only the seventh biggest in the Premier League.
There are bigger grounds in the Championship (Aston Villa) and even League One (Sunderland). So there is room to grow. As television revenue increases so the footfall at games is perceived to be of less importance, but there is a reason, despite this, that every elite club looks to expand.
This is not just about season tickets, but match-day revenue. Merchandise, the spend once inside or in the vicinity. In the 10 years after leaving Highbury, Arsenal’s earnings at home games rose from £43.84million to £100m each season, according to Forbes.
One of the factors that counted against Arsene Wenger in his final days is that attendances were dropping off, including those tickets not sold as part of a season package. These are hugely valuable to clubs.
A fan with a season ticket is unlikely to drop money in the club shop each time he visits. But a fan making a one-off pilgrimage, maybe from abroad? That customer will consume. Shirts, souvenirs, expensive items to take home.
And the larger your ground the more space to accommodate these big spenders. Remember, too, that Chelsea own a lot of hotels in the area, a significant property portfolio. The club haven’t even begun to efficiently exploit that market yet, the value a 60,000 capacity can bring, and will not until they increase Stamford Bridge by a further 50 per cent.
So while the new build is expensive, any buyer will be eyeing it as a way of extracting more value from the Chelsea brand.
The official line from the club is that Abramovich isn’t selling. He recently turned down a £2bn offer from James Ratcliffe, named Britain’s wealthiest man in the 2018 Sunday Times Rich List, and Chelsea claim the £500m redevelopment has been placed in abeyance, not abandoned.
Abramovich, like many owners, is looking for investment, not a sale. Even Sheik Mansour at Manchester City felt the need to sell a 13 per cent stake to a Chinese consortium, CMC. Abramovich is merely exploring possibilities.
And perhaps that is true. However angry Chelsea’s owner may be at being dragged into a proxy war between East and West, it would be foolish to surrender Chelsea for anything less than the best price. The figure he has in mind is 20 per cent more than Ratcliffe was prepared to pay: around £2.5bn.
And what do Chelsea get for that money? More of the same. Another billionaire. Most likely another foreign owner. Another Abramovich? Not exactly, because he has been a unique steward, but the business he bought has now changed beyond recognition.
Whether buy, buy, buy or sell, sell, sell, in some way, Chelsea is forever Roman’s club now.