Some 15 years have passed since Roman Abramovich reconfigured the European football landscape with a spending splurge that turned Chelsea into champions, yet he shut off the cash tap as quickly as he opened it.
Abramovich was the first multi-billionaire to reverse his lorry load of spare change into a Premier League club, with his huge investment blowing the opposition away when he arrived in English football in the summer of 2003.
Who can forget the game changing transfer market assault that saw Chelsea spend a little over £213m signing the likes of Damien Duff, Claude Makélélé, Hernan Crespo, Didier Drogba and Arjen Robben in Abramovich’s first two years at the club, with the impact his cash injection had on the game inevitable.
At a time when Rio Ferdinand’s £30m move from Leeds to Manchester United was the record transfer fee in British football, such vast level of spending quickly transformed Chelsea into the dominant force in English football.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who had overseen an unbeaten title winning season just as Abramovich bought Chelsea, was among those suggesting his spending was akin to ‘financial doping’ of the game, with the rest of the Premier League powerless to halt the balance of power tumbling towards Stamford Bridge.
As the reclusive Abramovich has never given a media interview and published his first set of programme notes earlier this month, we have never had a chance to fully appreciate why he ploughed so much money into a football club he knew little about until he flew over the ground, liked the view and decided to buy it.
Conspiracy theories have often been floated as to why this intensely private individual made a purchase that put him in the spotlight of the world’s media, but his reasons will remain a mystery.
Some believe the Serbian steel magnate was keen to dilute his assets into a variety of channels as he bought huge yachts, invested in expensive art and bought up some of London’s most valuable property, just in case the authorities ever investigated how he accrued his vast wealth. Of course, this could just have been a football fanatic playing a fantasy game with real money, but we will probably never get a straight answer to the question.
Now Abramovich is throwing up a whole set of new questions as quite clinically, he has ended Chelsea’s days as one of football’s big spenders.
While their wage bill remains the third highest in the Premier League behind the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea’s net spend in the transfer market over the past THREE seasons is a mere £96.25m.
Over the same period, Manchester United have a net spend of around £350m and their neighbours Manchester City will took their transfer spending for the last two years well past the £400m by signing Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao last month and with those figures in mind, the persistent grumblings of Chelsea manager Antonio Conte in recent months over his club’s lack of transfer investment appear to be justified.
The Italian tactician’s uneasy relationship with the Chelsea hierarchy was not helped by his claim that the club are in in the midst of an ‘austerity programme’, with his future at the club in serious doubt beyond the end of this season.
Abramovich would have been at the front of the queue if a player of Alexis Sanchez’s calibre was up for grabs a decade ago, yet Conte conceded his club could not match United’s offer to sign the Chilean on a free transfer from Arsenal last month as Chelsea’s cost-cutting plans were laid bare.
“About the transfer market, the club decides every single player that comes here,” states Conte, whose future at the club is precarious after defeats against Bournemouth and Watford in his last two Premier League games.
“My first task is to do my job, to be a coach and to try to improve my players. For sure, I don’t have a big impact on the transfer market, but this is nothing new. I do not aim high with my requests, especially as in my history I’ve rarely been given the players I asked for.
“I just try to do my work. If someone arrives, good, If they don’t, then that’s fine too. I have to continue my work either way. When the club ask me some names I try to do this, but then it’s the club that decides the name, the investment, which is the best player for the team.”
Conte has not tried to disguise his frustrations over Chelsea’s transfer policy and it appears that the departure of long-time recruitment chief Michael Emenalo last November has not given the Italian enhanced influence over new arrivals.
Abramovich and his close aide Marina Granovskaia continue to have the final say on transfer targets and budgets, with Conte experiencing the brand of distant management those who have gone before him in this job will identify with.
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Five Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, a Europa League win and their Champions League triumph in 2012 suggests Abramovich’s ruthless approach of hiring and firing a succession of manager been successful, but can he now make this fresh approach work?
It’s hard to see Chelsea keeping up with their Premier League rivals unless Abramovich bankrolls a new era of big spending, yet it may be that he has already got everything he wanted from his investment in the club.
A lavishly expensive new stadium is in the planning phase and will be bankrolled by loans from banks and now from extra funds coming from the Abrmaovich warchest, yet it is remarkable to note that a majority of the money he has ploughed into Chelsea is still listed on the clubs books as a debt owed to their mysterious benefactors.
Annual accounts filed by Chelsea’s parent company Fordstam reportedly confirm that Abramovich has provided an interest-free loan to the club that has now reached a total in excess of £1 billion, meaning his ‘generosity’ may need to be repaid if he decides to off-load the club to a new investor.
A sparkling training ground in leafy Cobham and a new Stamford Bridge may be Abramovich’s long-term legacies at Chelsea, yet his mission in a business that is now estimated to be worth in excess of £1billion has already been accomplished.
When Abramovich makes his exit from Chelsea, he will leave behind a football club unrecognisable from the modest sporting franchise he purchased for just £59.3m from Ken Bates on July 2nd 2003. Since that day, this club has looked to Abramovich to call all their shots, but you wonder whether that unshakable control is now a barrier to the club’s future progress.