I couldn’t wait for last season to finish.
As always, the relentlessness of it all takes its toll. Too much money; too much travelling; too much beer; too many hangovers; too many podcasts recorded, edited and published.
For the last 20 years or so, all of this was usually assuaged by a trophy or two for Chelsea, the celebrations of which carry on over the summer and make you even more eager for the season ahead.
But not this summer. Something more than trophies was missing, and I’ve been in a subconscious funk about it since, feeling a real sense of loss.
Only two years prior, Chelsea landed their second European Cup (I refuse to call it Champions’ League). Nine months later, Chelsea won the FIFA Club World Cup. Champions of the World. We’d won it all and boy did it feel good.
A mere two weeks later, on February 26th and the night before Chelsea played Liverpool in the Carabao Cup Final, Roman Abramovich announced that he was stepping away from the club with a view to selling it. By March 10th we all knew why, as the Government sanctioned Abramovich and froze his assets including Chelsea FC.
For the next three months, Chelsea operated under a special licence from the Government, unable to earn revenue and as a consequence in very real danger that the club might go out of existence.
Throughout this existential crisis, Chelsea continued to compete on the pitch, under very trying circumstances and increasing anxiety about its future. We lost narrowly on penalties to Liverpool in the Carabao and FA Cup finals; beat Real Madrid in their own back yard before going out to them in the Champions League quarter-final and finished third in the Premier League. Much of this had to do with the resilience and leadership of Thomas Tuchel, who in the absence of leadership from anyone else in the club, kept the wagon rolling along, even offering to drive it himself if needs be.
In hindsight and given the wider circumstances, this should be seen as an incredible achievement and Thomas Tuchel should be applauded and fondly remembered for his leadership of the club during this time.
In spite of appalling Government management and interference during the process, they eventually agreed to sell the club to the Clearlake Capital Group, fronted by Todd Boehly, on May 31st.
Since then, Chelsea FC, on and off the pitch has been a complete and utter shambles.
An unruly, ill-conceived and unsuccessful pre-season in the USA, punctuated by impinging micro-management by the new owners led to Tuchel’s shock departure with the season only weeks old. By then Wesley Fofana, Raheem Sterling, Marc Cucurella, Kalidou Koulibaly, Carney Chukwuemeka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had been bought for £232 million.
Remarkably, Brighton manager Graham Potter, inexperienced at the elite level of management, was hired as Tuchel’s replacement. And it was all downhill from here really.
After a fairly decent start, the wheels came off when Chelsea were thumped 4-1 away to Potter’s previous employers. He looked out of his depth. He was out of his depth. Clearlake, having now handed the football operations to Christopher Vivell, Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart spent a further £291 million on players in the January transfer window, making it impossible for Potter to manage a squad of 35 players.
By April, with Potter now fired, the club seemed broken. Languishing in 11th, even Frank Lampard couldn’t turn things around. Chelsea delivered their worst season since the early 1990’s. The squad weren’t putting in a shift with many clearly wanting to leave the chaos and negativity surrounding them. If the season had gone on for another 5 games, Chelsea may well have been relegated rather than finishing in 12th.
So much for the promises made by the Clearlake Group during the bidding process of delivering an even better Chelsea than the one we had seen before. How do you build on the most successful club in England for the last 20 years? Certainly not by making them a laughingstock on and off the pitch, with pitiful performances to match. Newsflash: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And it wasn’t broke.
Things have not been too impressive off the pitch either. Many long-term staff have been replaced; very few of the stalwarts remain and with the desire to rip it up and start again, a cynic might think that there has been a distasteful eagerness to de-Romanise Chelsea. Tear up and discard anything associated with the previous owner such as staff; operations; infrastructure, players and dare I say it trophies.
Of the 2021 Champions’ League winning team only four remain: Silva, Chilwell, James and Kepa. Worse, it seems that many of the homegrown talent, finally blooded thanks to the transfer ban and beginning to find their feet at the club have either left or are on their way out. Could it be that the pure profit the selling of home-grown players represents will mitigate the poor decision making in the transfer market over the last year?
The most criminal departure was Mason Mount, who allegedly left due to the club reneging on agreed contract terms and poor handling of his injury. Yes, replacing Chelsea’s medical department with Dave Grohl’s celebrity physio was bound to be a smart move. Perhaps not a surprise then that Chelsea had the worst injury record in the Premier League last season?
And then there are the plethora of embarrassing or idiotic marketing ideas; often laced with a dose of Americana and at odds with the culture of an English club. Or the inevitable hikes in ticket prices, especially premium pricing; the latest example being the move toward a ‘Tunnel Club’ and excluding under-16’s unless accompanied by an adult. So much for kids being the future of the club and a continuation of its culture and protecting that legacy then.
It seems that everything the new ownership have done and are doing is to squeeze every last penny for profit. Not necessarily a problem if that profit is being used to continue on-pitch success and build for the future. But with an overtly and aggressively commercial organisation owning the club, I fear that everything will be dictated by a need for return on investment and short-term as a result. They could well be out in 10 years having made their profit, but what then? What will the legacy be?
And ultimately this is what set me off on the loss fuelled funk.
Having an owner like Roman Abramovich allowed me and many others to delude ourselves that somehow Chelsea was still OUR club. He didn’t care how much money he spent or made as long as Chelsea won trophies. He got a buzz from it, just as we did. It made him seem like he was a supporter like us, not a businessman in it for the money.
Of course, in reality, all the trophy largesse over the last 20 years was merely obscuring the obvious. Football clubs in the Premier League era ceased to belong to the supporters. They were hi-jacked by broadcasters paying billions for TV rights; media with their business model of click bait dividing supporters; billionaires on ego trips; capital investment companies with an eye on a quick buck and a bigger return and more insidiously, nation states engaged in sports washing.
But you know what?
I’m still looking forward to this season as much as I ever have. I’ll continue to focus on the one thing the money men can never buy or sell. The feeling you get when you meet up with the people you’ve got to know over the years at the cfcuk stall; in the pub before and after; the casual conversations on the concourse; on the trains going away; the visits from listeners to the podcast making their pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge.
If the football is great and we have unearthed a few world beaters, win a trophy or two then yes, even better, but it doesn’t and never has hung purely on this for me.
I’ll cling on to the thing that no owner can steal from me; that feeling of community and belonging you get from following your football club and communing with your fellow traveller’s week in week out.
Here’s to the new season.
Up the Chels!
First published in cfcuk fanzine August 2023