It is 10 years this week since Roman Abramovich completed his purchase of Chelsea Football Club.
To celebrate the milestone, we spoke with Chairman Bruce Buck, who worked as a lawyer on the 2003 takeover, to discuss what has been a hugely successful decade for the club, which has seen us become three-time Premier League champions as well as enjoying unprecedented success in Europe with both the Champions League and the Europa League, and six domestic cups.
‘I remember sitting in the East Upper near the end of the season wondering if we could get to 12th or 13th place,’ recalls Buck, a Chelsea fan since arriving in England in 1983, and a season ticket holder at Stamford Bridge since 1991.
‘Now of course we’re disappointed when we don’t win the Premier League title. That’s good, but we also have to remember how difficult it is to win trophies and to have got ourselves to the place where we are now. If it wasn’t for all the help Mr Abramovich has given us then surely we wouldn’t be here now celebrating a wonderful 10 years.’
Money was of course spent on talent to meet our targets on the pitch, but in the longer term, great strides have also been made off it.
‘Almost immediately after Mr Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge and saw the training ground out near Heathrow he realised he couldn’t build a world-class institution without a world-class training ground,’ reports Buck. ‘We started almost immediately looking for the right property. It took some time, and then he and others travelled around looking at some of the top training grounds in the UK, in Europe and in the US, really trying to figure out what was the best and how we could achieve it. Everyone that comes to Cobham recognises that we do have a world-class training ground there.’
We moved into the completed first team building in Surrey in 2007, with the Academy building opening a year later.
‘Although that building didn’t come for another year it was clearly part of the thinking from the start that we would build a top-class Academy there also, and importantly, facilities for the community,’ he added. ‘Our relationship with the community and our ability to share some of the facilities at Cobham with the community has made the project even more rewarding.’
Life at Cobham is one of the things Mr Abramovich has always been keen to experience.
‘In 2003 he was a football fan that had seen some football and got enamoured with the game,’ Buck says. ‘Since then and very quickly he became an honest to goodness football expert. He has spent a lot of time watching players, watching games, talking to experts and he really does know a lot.
‘He is certainly very interested in the young players. Almost every time he is at Cobham he watches and speaks to young players, and is really trying to build an institution here for the long term.’
Academy manager Neil Bath will tell later this week of a passionate owner taking in Under-13 Academy games in addition to FA Youth Cup and Under-21 fixtures, yet when Mr Abramovich arrived, he was concerned not only with the club’s future, but also a lack of acknowledgement of its past.
‘Mr Abramovich was very surprised to hear on day one that a number of our former players were not as welcome back to Stamford Bridge as they might be,’ Buck explains. ‘He said to us, the board, very early on in the summer of 2003 that we have to cherish our heritage and respect our former players so let’s do that, and we’ve tried to do that.’
That has seen the setup of the Past Players’ Trust, which helps ex-Chelsea players in times of financial or medical need, as well as a return to Stamford Bridge in hospitality roles for key figures from our history such as Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti.
Such goodwill now falls under the Chelsea Foundation, of which Buck is a trustee.
‘Mr Abramovich is very much interested in charitable activities,’ he says. ‘He is very much interested in the club doing what’s right for the community and helping others, helping the disadvantaged. The Chelsea Foundation is a natural progression, moving all our charitable institutions under one umbrella and pushing them forward.
‘And from a personal perspective, since I am not the football expert, just a fan, the charitable things are something I understand and have an ability to contribute to, and I am proud to have done that.’
Since its birth in 2010, the Foundation has overseen one of the most comprehensive community and charity programmes in sport, with its work reaching thousands of underprivileged children and adults every week, both at home in the UK and around the world.
Another positive development has been the club’s badge, adapted in 2005 to take us closer to our original motif dating back to our formation in 1905. Buck explains it was down to extended dialogue with supporters that the alteration occurred.
‘At the time, there was a feeling among a lot of fans who talked to us that once again we ought to go back to our roots and respect those roots, and we didn’t see any good reason not to. It was a very easy decision to revise the badge, giving it a little modernity but respecting the past.’
That last phrase seems a fitting description of Mr Abramovich’s time at the club. Yet of course there remains plenty of ambition for the years ahead.
‘As far as I am concerned, Mr Abramovich is concerned, the whole board and Jose Mourinho are concerned, it’s onwards and upwards, continuing to move the club forward,’ Buck says.
‘That means more trophies, many more of our younger players coming through from the Academy to the first team, doing more and better things for the community, and making our fans happy.’
Is the owner aware of just how much happiness has already been bestowed to the supporters in the last 10 years?
‘I am sure he is but he doesn’t talk about it, we don’t talk about it,’ Buck says. ‘He does it for the good of Chelsea Football Club and everybody associated with it, not so that the fans applaud him when he appears in his box on a matchday. It’s not a vanity project.’
And what would be Buck’s personal highlight of the past decade?
‘I would have two. One would be the first time we won the Premier League and the second would be Munich in the Champions League,’ he smiles. ‘It’s been a fun-filled but stressful, wonderful journey. Time flies when you’re having fun.’