Today the official Chelsea website hears from players present and past as Frank Lampard and Graeme Le Saux tell the story of the weeks prior to Roman Abramovich buying the club, and pay tribute to the changes since….
It was the year when Chelsea went through a seismic shift – from a degree of instability that meant the result of a single match could have a big impact on the future of our players, whether they be international superstars or aspiring young talent, to a club so well-positioned it launched a burst of transfer activity unprecedented in the sport and began a two-year rise to be the best team in the land.
One of the players who was making a name for himself at the time was Frank Lampard. In the spring of 2003 he was coming to the end of his second season at Chelsea, his first having been a steady opening to his long career at Stamford Bridge. By his second campaign he was driving the team forward more from midfield, he was scoring some quality goals and he was the most used outfield player. He was also worth a healthy amount of money, a not insignificant fact as the 2002/03 season drew to a close.
Roman Abramovich was still a few months away from realising his ambition of owning a football club and the debt Chelsea had run up in developing the stadium, Chelsea Village around it and the team was causing concern behind the scenes.
‘During that season, I remember talk about how we had to make cut backs; in the canteen, by not staying in hotels the night before home games, things like that,’ Lampard tells the official Chelsea website, looking back a decade to the months before the takeover.
‘We were aware that there were a few troubles at the club. When I came here I also had the chance to go to Leeds and I obviously made a fantastic decision because Leeds went belly up a year or two later. At Chelsea we were still a big club and we were doing pretty well but things weren’t so good behind the scenes by the sounds of it. We were made aware of that as players.
‘We went through the previous summer only signing Quique De Lucas. As a player you don’t get involved too much in it but when it really hit home was a meeting before the final game of the season against Liverpool, because that was when it was all laid on the line. If we didn’t win then we had big problems.’
The Champions League was the key. Chelsea hadn’t played in the competition since our debut season in it in 1999/00 and the revenue that would be generated by a return would help keep the wolf from the door. Little did we know it at the time but a place in Europe’s top club competition would certainly not go unnoticed by Mr Abramovich either.
Trevor Birch, chief executive at the time, explained to the team that qualifying could be the difference between remaining at football’s top table or drifting into oblivion.
‘I was made aware afterwards that they might have wanted to let me go,’ Lampard reveals, ‘but luckily it didn’t get to that stage.
‘I remember that little period at the end of the season being quite a nervous one. We had done well to get into Champions League contention. Liverpool were up there with us and I remember the penultimate game at West Ham, getting beaten there when they were trying to stay up.
‘I had never played that level of cut-throat football and to keep the level of consistency up and keep winning to the end of the season wasn’t easy. But we got lucky that weekend because Liverpool lost at home.’
Both sides slipping up in their second-to-last matches meant we entered the final game – effectively a Champions League qualification play-off – on level points with Liverpool but with a better goal difference. A draw at Stamford Bridge would be enough to secure fourth spot.
‘It was massive, the biggest game I had played in up to that point because we were made so aware of the situation and because of the idea of Champions League football which was great for us all professionally.
‘It was very nerve racking beforehand but we performed well. I remember the crowd being right behind us and although we went behind we had people like Marcel Desailly who had played those kind of games before.’
Liverpool centre-back Sami Hyypia headed home a free-kick on 11 minutes, but captain Desailly quickly headed the Blues level from Jesper Gronkjaer’s cross.
Shortly afterwards the Dane cut inside and curled the ball into the far bottom corner to give Chelsea the lead.
‘At 2-1 we hung on a little bit,’ admits Graeme Le Saux who was playing his final game for Chelsea.
‘It was only after going ahead that we became a bit apprehensive and defended deeply, but we got through. Liverpool had good players but Steven Gerrard was eventually sent off for a tackle on me near the end of the game, and we had done it.’
The players went away to enjoy their summer break knowing they had delivered what was asked. Back at Stamford Bridge the destiny of the club was altering in a momentous way.
‘I was on holiday in America and I remember getting a phone call telling me Roman Abramovich had bought the club as I was shopping,’ remembers Lampard.
‘It was one of those things you don’t forget, a life-changing and club-changing moment. No one knew Roman Abramovich like they know him now but I was excited.
‘I didn’t want him to be that rich because I thought he would buy players and play them in front of me,’ he laughs, ‘which they tried to do!
‘The squad thickened out big time with quality and in midfield particularly, and I would be lying if I didn’t say there was a certain amount of nervousness about the future.’
Lampard need not have worried. His talent looked after him and in the season after the club changed hands he played 58 games, eight more than his nearest team-mate, and he more or less doubled his previous best goals tally to 15. He went on to play the most games and score the most goals of any Chelsea player over the decade.
‘I tried to react positively and I had a word with [then manager] Claudio Ranieri pre-season and he said to me that I wasn’t going to play as many games as I had the season before because of the squad, but I put my head down and worked hard. It was a pleasure to play in a team alongside Claude Makelele and players like that. I never had that level of quality around me before.’
New world-class team-mates, a new owner taking interest and a new training ground were the significant initial changes for the existing squad.
‘Roman Abramovich was in the dressing room, he was at the training ground, so straight away we could see that he had the desire to be part of it,’ Lampard told Chelsea TV in Roman Abramovich: A Decade of Success which is being shown on the channel throughout the week.
‘The dressing room reacts when an owner comes in, cheers with you when you win and is sad with you when you lose.’
Le Saux notes: ‘There has been investment in the team too, but long-term the building of the training ground at Cobham is huge.
‘We fought day in, day out to improve the facilities at Harlington in the time I was a player. We knew the significance of it from training every day and how difficult it was, when we were trying to challenge for the title and it was costing us. I think it was perceived then as us wanting to be spoilt, but we needed them.
‘It’s no coincidence the team pushed on as soon as they moved to Cobham. There is an atmosphere it creates and a level of professionalism it maintains that has sustained the club. It was a huge investment, and not one you get a financial return from, but it has probably been the most important thing.
Lampard adds: ‘Harlington wasn’t the best and I was aware of that straight away when I signed. It didn’t bother me so much because I was freshly signed for a massive club and it was a really exciting time for me, but we are very lucky now with Cobham, everyone knows that.
‘A decade on and look how many trophies we have won. It has been proven that the owner feels the club in his heart and there has been a great atmosphere. This club has come a million miles in terms of not just the money injected but in its mentality and we have to be very thankful for that.
‘When you invest so much in the Academy, in the coaching and the facilities, that shows it is not just a five-minute project to throw money at the first team and try to win something. There is going to be great stability at the club for a long time.’