There is a revolving door at the bottom of the now slightly out of touch ‘Chelsea Hotel’ which serves as a lazy metaphor for the number of managers that have come and gone since Roman Abramovich decided (from great heights) that he fancied one of the royal boroughs over the sharper surroundings of North London back in 2003. Since then, Chelsea Football Club, which since the 1980s had been on the brink of extinction on more than one occasion, was handed the opportunity of a lifetime (how long that lifetime will last remains to be seen).
Back then the club was already undergoing its own micro sized revolution, kick started by Glenn Hoddle’s vision for a club that had traditionally been cursed with a prolonged sense of mediocrity. A melee of shrewd and eye-opening signings however propelled the club to new heights in the mid to late 90s, with the likes of Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola cementing their places as club legends, both providing moments of magic that would hand Chelsea fans their first taste of silverware in over twenty-five years.
This success continued as the second millennium approached, Dennis Wise’s goal in the San Siro marked a coming together of the club’s older guard and the possibility of a bright and prolonged future. Then, after establishing themselves as a top six club that could readily compete at the higher levels of European football, rumours of yet more financial trouble emerged. Ever loyal owner Ken Bates wrestled with mounting debts that once again threatened to drag the club under. It was even speculated that Chelsea’s final day ‘£20m’ match with Liverpool for Champions League qualification was make or break for the club’s existence. Jesper Gronkjaer’s curled winner that day provided the club a life raft, little did they know that that summer a luxury cruise liner about to come and rescue them from the imminent threat of extinction.
The financial juggernaut that steamed in and changed football forever was Roman Abramovich. Buying the club essentially outright in June 2003, soon Chelsea starting bidding for the kind of names that their fans had only discussed as transfer options in football manager PC games. While many football fans were on holiday, outrageous sums of money started to be thrown about for players like Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo and future club favourite Claude Makelele.
Then manager, one Claudio Ranieri, still hampered by his ‘nearly man’ reputation now had the kind of squad that would have been completely unfathomable a couple of months earlier. This host of new signings combined with established players like Terry, Lampard, Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen meant that there was a new force in British football that had catalysed from the unlikeliest of places.
Pre-2003, Chelsea was a club that despite having fierce London rivalries from the ‘casuals’ 1970s era and before, was one that wasn’t generally feared nor hated around the land. The West London side were seen as a decent team that had won a few things in the early seventies, who had then improved in recent times after capitalising on the influx of foreign players into the premiership. Now though, heads from North London, Manchester and Merseyside quickly turned to the club from the King’s Road, who now had an unexpected king’s ransom to throw around with reckless abandon.
The takeover culminated in established names like Zenden, Ed De Goey and club legend (and current Sarri number two) Gianfranco Zola leaving the club that summer, brushing shoulders with a barrage of world class talent heading in the opposite direction. One wonders what odds a punter in local bookies would have got on Joe Cole, Adrian Mutu and Damien Duff sharing the same shirt a couple of weeks before Abramovich arrived. This ridiculous influx of players, many of whom were no doubt bedazzled by the speed and efficiency that they had been acquired were now immediately expected to join forces with the best of the current squad and do special things. Meanwhile, the tabloids were having a field day with this summer buying frenzy, rebranding Chelsea with the now infamous and still commonly used nickname of ‘Chelski’.
That season Claudio Ranieri once again came close to both silverware and giving himself a chance of keeping the job long term by finishing second in the league to a dominant Arsenal side and succumbing to Monaco in the Champions league semi-final. Though it seemed that the likeable and popular Italian coach was on borrowed time whatever he managed to achieve in that first season, and it so proved.
Soon a youthful and headstrong manager fresh from Champion’s League success with his native Porto arrived in West London, describing himself as pretty damn good at his job if he didn’t say so himself. This is when the ‘New Chelsea’ was truly born. Jose Mourinho’s arrival coupled with the pivotal signings of Arjen Robben alongside eventual club legends Petr Cech and Didier Drogba meant that the mould was beginning to set on the new era at the club.
Fast forward to late April of the next year and Chelsea had won the league for the first time in 50 years and for only the second time in their history. Not only that, they had done it at a canter with three games to spare. In the space of just under two years, the goalposts of top flight British football had completely shifted. The rest as they say is history.
Since then Chelsea have been making up for lost time by packing in a typical history long honours list into the space of fifteen years. The dramatic penalty shootout win of the Champions League in 2012 win so far has served as the cherry on top to five league titles, five FA cups, three league cups and a Europa league triumph. The sort of eventuality Steven Spielberg would struggle encapsulate in five hours let alone two.
So, success tinged champagne all round then? Many fans, looking at the ridiculous success of the club in recent years will holler yes in response, however there has always been a feeling of uneasiness about the Chelsea revolution from both Chelsea fans and the football world alike. First off, the club essentially coined the now overused phrase amongst fans ‘well you brought the league, so…’. Back in 2004, this was a putdown that Chelsea fans (at least the established ones) found hard to take, mainly because it was evidently true. Even when taking into account the Leicester City fairy tale of more recent times, it would have been basically impossible for Chelsea to do what they did in 2004 (and ever since) without the heavy financial backing they have continuously received since Abramovich’s takeover.
For some fans this from time to time has left a slightly sour taste in the mouth as the celebrations of these successes peter out and a new summer approaches. Success has been no doubt been earned yet the opportunity to achieve this success has been a gift that many other clubs around the world can only dream of. This though is something that many Chelsea fans have learned to get used to and accept. The club clearly has a completely unique and bizarre history yet one that it is finally starting to become comfortable with.
Moreover, Abramovich may have been one of the first mega rich folk to buy majority shares of British football clubs yet he certainly hasn’t been the last. Indeed, in recent years Chelsea’s spending power has been surpassed by other clubs, notably Manchester City who are leading the way both on and off the pitch as this article is being written. A consequence of this has been Chelsea settling back into the pack of top four to six clubs in the premiership, no longer holding the liquid cash monopoly they once did.
After being Game of Thrones-esque cut throat with so many managers (Sarri will be the ninth manager under the Abramovich’s relatively short reign) some fans might start to wonder how long can this brutal short-term style of success can continue? This point was exemplified when Chelsea were recently linked with Carlo Ancelotti, a manager they had sacked just a year after he had won them the double in 2010. Unfortunately, there’s only so many world class managers in the world for the club to chew their way through. With every manager that heads through the now rusting and buckling revolving door, a need for a more stable, longer term approach at the club heightens.
One the best youth systems in world football could provide part of the solution for the club’s style of short termism. With players like Ruben Loftus Cheek and more recently Callum Hudson Odoi catching the eye. However, Chelsea’s notorious and often frowned upon mass loan strategy of their young talent means that radical change any time soon seems unlikely. Notably, recent victim of the Chelsea chopping block Antonio Conte indicated a few times that he wished he could blood some of these youth prospects in bigger games, but it was simply too risky when it came to his job security.
Since his replacement with the ‘fun’ Maurizio Sarri though, there have been some indications from the club that they, like many fans, are looking for somebody to stabilise things while also bringing a more attractive brand of football to the club. A valid question to ask though is: are the club, its owners and supporters willing to risk restocking an expectant trophy cabinet by embarking on this quest for stability and easy on the eye football? Chelsea’s blueprint for success has often been built on managers who are strictly business which for the most part has gone hand in hand with the ruthless streak that the club often displays.
Would coming fourth or worse in the league a few years in a row while emerging youngsters got their chance to shine be generally accepted by the main stakeholders at the club? And if so for how long? It’s a question that would probably produce a variety of responses, only adding to the uniquely awkward position the club has placed itself in.
Abramovich has succeeded. All has been won. So, the question may now be, is it time to win in a different way?