Belfast Telegraph

In praise of Chelsea's Roman empire

By Sam Wallace

In Barcelona, they suspected that it was Roman Abramovich's yacht moored in the city's port from the time Chelsea got past Benfica and into the Champions League semi-finals.

Perhaps the locals were right, but when Roberto Di Matteo was asked on Tuesday night if the club's owner had attended the match at the Nou Camp he exchanged a glance with the club's press officer and replied that Abramovich had not.

In fact, on Tuesday, Abramovich was spotted on High Street Kensington, west London, just a few yards from the offices of The Independent, rather than in Barcelona to watch his besieged 10-man team survive the onslaught. If ever there is a reason to lavish some £1bn on a club then surely it is for nights like that, when 4,000 of your supporters hug each other in disbelief and thank their lucky stars they were there.

In nine years in English football, Abramovich has been anything but predictable. While his absence on Tuesday will inevitably raise eyebrows, it should be noted that he was at Stamford Bridge last Friday for the first leg of the club's Under-18 FA Youth Cup final against Blackburn Rovers.

The Russian has been a mystery ever since he bought the club from Ken Bates in 2003 and went about transforming Chelsea into one of the elite of English football. Even his whereabouts is a matter of top secrecy at the club, in fact especially his whereabouts and the likelihood or not of him being at any game. His evidence in the court case with Boris Berezovsky briefly shone a light on his life but it will be soon turned off.

Second-guessing the Chelsea owner is an inexact science. He may well already have a new manager secretly lined up for this summer, a trick he has pulled off a few times in the past with Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas's appointments. But what is up for assessment is his track record nine years in. For all the chaos, the sackings, and even the short-lived reign of Avram Grant, you have to say that it looks good.

So far the trophy count stands at: three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two Carling Cups as well as two Champions League finals, with the potential to win the club's first European Cup next month as well as another FA Cup final. When former chief executive Peter Kenyon said in 2004 that he expected the club to win two European Cups within a decade, the world chortled. That kind of target always carries an element of absurdity but eight years on, there are significant trophies at Stamford Bridge.

Pre-Abramovich, over their 98 years, Chelsea had one league championship to their name from 1955, three FA Cups, two League Cups and the two European Cup-Winners' Cup triumphs of 1971 and 1998. They have more than doubled the domestic haul in the last nine years. It is in Europe they have fallen short and given that they have competed in the Champions League since 2003, rather than the lesser European competitions, that could be understandable.

The great quality of Chelsea in the Abramovich years is that they have steadily accumulated trophies even in indifferent seasons, as with the FA Cup in 2009 or potentially in this campaign, which will be remembered as a good or bad season according to what happens up to and including 19 May.

As for Chelsea fans, they cannot deny it: the last nine years have been their golden age, whatever the attendant, and justified, complaints about ticket prices or the Pitch Owners vote.

Abramovich bought a club that had finished – going backwards from 2003 – 4th, 6th, 6th, 5th, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 11th, 11th, 14th and 11th. Bates had the team in the Champions League twice, in 1999 and 2003 – no mean feat. Just ask Randy Lerner and Aston Villa how hard it is to break through the glass ceiling.

Abramovich's money has meant that up until now Chelsea have not finished outside the top three. He helped them to make the next leap and stay in the top-four elite. Again, no mean feat. Just ask the likes of Newcastle, Tottenham and even Everton.

So the billionaire might be forgiven for asking those who have begged him to change his approach over the last few years, myself included, what the problem is. Yes, this season could end very badly, with no trophies and no Champions League place, but history shows Chelsea do often salvage something.

Unfortunately, for even the richest owners in football, it is always next season that counts. Who are we signing? Who is getting a new contract? Can we go one better? There is no doubt that this is a big four weeks for Chelsea which could change the mood at the club considerably. There is no doubt some things have to change. But a glance back over the last nine years will show that Chelsea have got their money's worth so far.

Belfast Telegraph


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