Midway through the pre-season preparations and with the squad switching continents, the official Chelsea website spoke to Chief Executive Ron Gourlay to look back on the fortnight spent in Asia, and at the visit to the United States now underway…
What would you assess as being the major successes of this summer’s Here to Play, Here to Stay Asia tour?
For me, we had a good balance where we were able to prepare the team with good facilities, and at the same time manage to do a lot of community work in each of the three countries we visited. The biggest satisfaction is getting that balance on and off the field right and getting everyone back on the plane fit and well two weeks later with everything accomplished.
With three matches played in Asia and three wins, was the feedback good from each country?
Very much so. It didn’t go without challenges. We always knew Bangkok was a good place to start for us with good facilities and a huge Chelsea fanbase. It was the first time we had ever done a training base in an Asian country but it worked out very well and we were well supported by local partners. It prepared us very well for the first game of the tour.
Malaysia was always going to be very challenging on the basis of playing in the middle of Ramadan, meaning the game had a very late kick-off on the Sunday evening. We still had a fantastic crowd but it was a little late for the younger element of our fanbase. When we moved south to Indonesia, we witnessed our biggest crowd with more than 80,000 Chelsea shirts inside the stadium and thousands outside all creating a fantastic atmosphere. The feedback has been very positive.
The way the young players were incorporated and performed must be a positive sign for the future?
It was great to see them all, and great to see the coach playing them. It was an eye-opener for them to see how big their club is and also a good opportunity for them to measure themselves against the top professionals in the club. They were well integrated into the squad and worked very hard.
How well did the club manage to engage with our fans?
We managed to engage very well. We are learning all the time. The challenge is always time – being able to fit things around double training sessions. But, there is a lot of positive input from the coach and Jose has been incredibly supportive of all the campaigns we had earmarked for this summer. The players were also fantastic.
You were probably the one member of the party who knew what to expect in Indonesia. Did the reception there surprise even you?
I was given the heads up by the supporters club that they would be waiting outside the airport. What I didn’t realise was it would be around 10,000 fans. They lined the road for a half-mile stretch from the runway to the main road of supporters. They promised that to me when I went there for a press conference in March, that they would give us the best support we’ve ever had in Asia and they didn’t disappoint.
And a crowd of 80,000 at the match is encouraging …
It’s fantastic. In Jakarta they support their international team but their club team is Chelsea and there were 80,000 Chelsea shirts. It was very nice to see.
How do Jose Mourinho and his staff feel about the two weeks from their point of view?
I think overall Jose was very happy with the planning and the operation itself. From the time we spent on tour, I think he can see it’s a much bigger club off the field than it was a few years ago. Many of the people who have been on these trips have seen it grow almost game by game, and it will be interesting to see how this is followed in America.
The reception and support in Indonesia was fantastic, but Thailand and Malaysia are special too…
We as a club have a huge fanbase across South-East Asia. It’s a very young fanbase and we’re seen as the community team thanks to our Here to Play, Here to Stay initiative. We always carry out grassroots work, and I think we’ll see other top clubs following our model. We were one of the first to open an office in Asia and all top six European clubs are following the trend.
Do you still feel we are doing well in terms of building and engaging with the support there?
We are certainly meeting our objectives, as far as numbers are concerned. It’s all about engagement and activation programmes.
Is the Blue Pitches programme delivering what we wish it to?
Yes, absolutely. The key in Asia is delivering what you promise. Four years ago we said it was a long-term programme over the next 10 years, we have nine countries now operating Blue Pitches and the target for the next three years is another six to get to our objective of 15. Indonesia is the next one, but there are 47 countries across the Asian confederation, so having 15 is only a third of the way there. We will keep building from there.
The fanzones at the stadiums were bigger than ever before. There is a lot of work going on away from the pitch…
A lot of work and a lot of investment. It’s a big difference from any other club. It’s part of our strategy in the community and gets bigger every time we do it. The feedback from the fans is phenomenal and it’s something we want to do because it’s all about fan engagement, everybody participates, and it brings us all together and works very well. It creates great interaction between our fans and the club.
How did your Q&A sessions with the fan clubs go?
Very well. They are better prepared now. We plan these months ahead so they have plenty of time to prepare their questions and there is no repetition. The interesting thing for me is there are a lot more questions around the business and in particular Financial Fair Play rules, balanced with football questions. Everybody knows our philosophy is built on success on the field.
Now we move on to America…
We were here in May, so it’s been an interesting summer doing three trips, two to America, and by the 11th August we’ll have played six games in America this summer. Training facilities and the infrastructure are great and we still have double training sessions. We make sure the travelling times between the training field, hotel and stadium are as short as possible. Everything has to flow and come together.
There are top European clubs in opposition, so that will be a harder challenge, with no disrespect to the Asian teams we played, but that’s what it’s about as we work our way towards the first game of the season against Hull. I expect us to progress game by game now and I’m sure Jose will have us firing on all cylinders by August 18.