Continuing the official Chelsea website’s week of celebration for the 10th anniversary of Roman Abramovich becoming owner, Pat Nevin writes a special, midsummer column on an incomparable decade for his former club…
Sometimes specific dates can become lost in the mists of time, but surely 1 July 2003 will be etched in the history of Chelsea FC, as well as the memories of those who followed the club before and after that momentous day.
Before Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea from Ken Bates it is worth remembering this was not a club floundering in the game’s backwaters. The fourth-place finish in the Premier League was historically impressive for Chelsea, but also a quick look at the playing staff around underlined this wasn’t a bunch of overachieving toilers. Franco Zola and Marcel Desailly were among those who were gracing the pitch, as of course had Gianluca Vialli and Ruud Gullit previously. There had been impressive cup successes but the Premier League and Champions League trophies still seemed a long way away.
The problem seemed to be that even though the club was edging forward in success, quality and fame worldwide, there was a definite concern that it was growing out of its means financially. Ken had taken a risk with the debt, but in hindsight he would say it was a calculated risk that paid off by the tanker load when Roman Abramovich decided on west London for his next venture.
The rest you could almost say is history as Chelsea spent a decade under Mr Abramovich embarking upon the road to becoming one of the world’s top clubs, as well as one of the most stylish. It has certainly been an exciting journey en route, and that road has rarely been travelled smoothly or in a straight line. Managers have come and gone, and recently one has come back again to everyone’s approval.
Many more world-class players have pulled on a blue shirt with varying levels of success and a huge amount of money has been spent getting them here. For all the millions of pounds invested, millions of words written and countless comments made over the decade, a real overview can only be truly considered after a period of time, let’s say on this occasion 10 years.
I argued with fans of other clubs and a few pundits, who clearly weren’t enjoying Chelsea’s success, as they looked for failings such as overspending, lack of continuity and a variety of other complaints.
Slowly but surely it dawned on them that in the end it was not the point really. The point was that as a fan you want to be entertained, to have memorable moments and to be successful – and that all happened. Importantly for the club we were quickly building up the profile worldwide to play on the same level as the Real Madrid, Bayern, Barça and Manchester United.
I don’t just mean the same level on the pitch, though that has been demonstrably the case when you look at the Champions League record. I also mean in terms of ability to get top sponsorship money and advertising, a factor that will be ever-more important as Financial Fair Play rules become ever-more pertinent.
With 10 years’ worth of hindsight it is hard to argue that it has been anything other than a huge success. Admittedly we have all had a little moan and groan now and again along the way, but then as football fans that is our right. In the end Chelsea supporters know deep down what has been given to them by the owner and they absolutely appreciate it. Of course the trophies stand out, from our domination of the FA Cup (four out of 10 is bordering on greedy considering no one else has won it more than once in that time!) to the final crowning glory of winning the Champions League just over a year ago in Munich.
Winning the Premier League three times, and finishing second four times don’t forget, simply underlined that Chelsea were continuously right up there with the best teams in what was often considered the best domestic league in world football.
There have been so many particular moments within all this – some hugely painful, others of life-affirming positivity. Even just the ties against Barcelona over the years have provided enough talking points and extraordinary memories to make the last decade’s effort worthwhile. More specifically, Iniesta’s last-minute equaliser at the Bridge in 2009 that denied us the chance of Champions League final glory was one of the most painful times, but has since been superseded (for me anyway) by Fernando Torres bursting away in the last minute at the Nou Camp to secure our place in the final in 2012.
We could go on. The Liverpool rivalry over the years has been hugely entertaining, and watching Arsenal and Spurs disappearing into the distance in our rear-view mirrors as we have accelerated into the future has given a fair amount of pleasure to Chelsea fans. So many Blues supporters had to suffer years of being dismissed as nothing more than London’s third team by those from north of the city, I doubt if they would try arguing that now.
The list of positives is very long indeed but the one niggling negative that prays somewhere secretly in the back of all our minds is this, ‘How long can it last?’
If you have been poor and become rich, no matter what you say it is always there in the back of your mind that poverty can return, and more often than not this is actually a good thing. It can keep you grounded and reminds you of other people’s plights. Success is the same. If you can remember the days before the glittering era then some of those dark times (and trust me there were a few) are always stored in the memory banks to stop you gloating too much, because there is always the fear they might return.
But why the gloomy paragraph in the middle of a celebration of 10 great years? Well it is because the club seems to me to be attempting to build a secure future on as strong foundations as football can possibly provide.
First of all look at the team on the pitch right now. Two years ago apparently it was ageing, it was at the end of an era and a huge rebuilding job would be needed as our particular golden generation grew nearer retirement. Well as many focused on other aspects of last season, Chelsea suddenly had a midfield with Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar delighting everyone who loves entertaining, attacking football. David Luiz and Gary Cahill are now just entering the prime of their careers and the back-up being blooded elsewhere is phenomenal.
Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world (I would say top five conservatively), yet we haven’t even called him back from Atletico Madrid yet. Romelu Lukaku is clearly going to be one of the most renowned players in world football in the coming years, I shudder to think just how good he can become if he improves at the rate he has so far, and has the good sense to listen to Jose on the way.
There are many others waiting in the wings from Nathan Ake breaking into the team at the end of the season to Nathaniel Chalobah starring with Zola’s Watford. In short the future on the field looks to be at the very least as well-organised now as it has been at any time in the Abramovich era or before.
If you want success in the new football future when free spending may not be allowed, you need to get value in three areas. First is coaching, well we have that one sorted in that arguably the best coach currently working in world football, Jose Mourinho, has been tempted back to Stamford Bridge. Second you have to ensure your scouting is up to scratch so you can get youngsters on board earlier and a bit cheaper. That is certainly happening with the names already mentioned above and a whole host of others. Some of them might have been expensive but most are already worth more than Chelsea paid for them. Then of course the hardest part – you have to grow some of your own and certainly the Cobham training facility is doing its best to provide in that area.
Add on top of this the huge and successful efforts to grow commercially, specifically with some massive promotional agreements with the likes of Samsung and adidas, and the fear inbred in some of us (including me) that it could all end any minute is beginning to fade even further into the background.
That fear may always be there somewhere which as I say isn’t always a bad thing, but for me that’s a very distant concern with Roman Abramovich at the helm. After 10 years the vitals are looking solid, the club is in a good place and in the simplest terms I just hope the next decade can provide as much fun and as much emotion as the last one. With Roman Abramovich it might just happen and I suspect we would all like to thank him for that.