What is going on at Chelsea?
A mere 15 months ago, Chelsea finished third in the Premier League; were a hairs breadth away from winning both the League and FA Cup; lost to eventual winners Real Madrid in the Quarter Finals of the Champions’ league (in spite of beating them 3-2 in their own backyard); oh and won the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA World Club Cup to finally become bona fide World Champions allowing us all to chant ‘Champions of the World’ with impunity.
Chelsea’s fall from grace since then is unparalleled, startling and even more so if you view it, like many, as the greatest act of shooting oneself in the foot seen by a football club in history.
It is not coincidental that Chelsea’s demise coincides with a government orchestrated take over which at one stage threatened to consign the club to history. Chelsea were paraded in front of lascivious bidders like a cheap tart.
Clearlake Capital, the winning bidders talked a good game and promised much, especially to the Supporters’ Trust in terms of fan engagement. Sadly, the Trust and supporters’ groups in general, have little influence over footballing decisions and it would be easy to surmise that this is where most of the damage has been done, if results are anything to go by.
Replacing Champions League winning manager, Thomas Tuchel, considered to be one of the world’s best, with Graham Potter is up there with one of the most disastrous managerial appointments since Danny Blanchflower was hired.
In the space of a year, Chelsea has ripped the existing squad to pieces. In fairness, many supporters would agree with most of the departures, but to have replaced them with untried talent who might have potential, pay well over the odds and then hand them lengthy contracts seems like a massive gamble that in all likelihood won’t come off for several years. What happens in the two to three years while we wait for success? Surely any lack of success and a continuation of the mediocrity we saw last season will affect the bottom line.
And this is what I can’t fathom. Why would an ownership so clearly hell bent on extracting every ounce of profit from the club, top to bottom, take such a gamble when profit is directly linked to success on the football pitch.
Arguably we have never seen a football club ownership so ruthlessly focussed on turning their investment into a profit. This is exactly what capital investment companies do. They take a gamble, back their financial expertise, to make a killing in medium term profit and selling high.
They have spent £1bn on players but at the same time have brought in £288mn from player sales. While the expenditure on players greatly exceeds profit, we are led to believe that this is amortised over the length of long contracts, an accounting device which they hope will keep them on the right side of FFP. Another gamble considering the vagaries of FIFA, UEFA and Premier League regulation. My belief is that Clearlake will back their financial and legal expertise to get round this one way or another or simply take the hit.
Clearlake have torn up the rule book in terms of running a football club, the way they have torn up anything associated with the Abramovich era. Many staff with long standing association with the club have gone, replaced by corporate automatons with no understanding or love of the club. The medical department have largely been replaced. Home grown players, even those who had established themselves as regular first teamers have been sold, driven out or are being dangled in front of suitors, providing the price is right, and when the price means pure profit on the bottom line, it will always be right.
But over and above disrespecting what has gone before, failing to get a shirt sponsor which would get past the Premier League on competitive grounds or the supporters on ethical grounds and the many other PR ricks and corporate ineptitude, the most grievous is the removal of the subsidy for supporter’s coaches to away grounds.
For the price of Reece James’ salary for one week, the coaches which provide a service for some of Chelsea’s most disadvantaged supporters – low income, elderly, infirm, young and disabled – have been deemed financially non-viable.
The Supporters’ Trust have, to their credit, taken on the £10 per person subsidy for the Bournemouth away match, hoping to shame the club into a retraction. Don’t hold your breath on that one. In the mind of corporate greed and the need for profit, the balance of supporter sentiment is an irrelevance.
Frankly, many of us see this as the thin end of the wedge. Season ticket price increases will undoubtedly be next, more regular supporters driven out by an expansion of high paying corporate seats.
I fear that a war is being waged on the traditional Chelsea supporter, known as ‘Legacy Fans’ by the corporate mandarins of football clubs. Chelsea has many ‘Legacy Fans’ with the highest average age of season ticket holder in the Premier League (58). They were there “when we were xxxx”. They put their hands in their pocket to dig out fivers and loose change when the ‘Save The Bridge’ buckets went round. They bought Chelsea Pitch Owners shares when Ken Bates, in a moment of genius, set up a scheme whereby the ground and the name Chelsea FC would be protected from rapacious owners of the future. The kind who values profit over everything and would sell the family silver to boost it.
The worrying scenario is that this is calculated and all part of the plan. Legacy fans spend little in the ground, nothing in the Merch store and effectively ‘bed block’ by refusing to budge from their season ticket seat whilst they can still afford it and draw breath. In the not-too-distant future, they will grow old together and reach retirement age which could potentially reduce the club’s match day revenue by about a third or more in half price senior season tickets. I expect them to disappear too, probably about a year before I reach retirement age!
Perhaps we are no longer wanted in the money driven, marketing fuelled, profit oriented global game. A relic from a by gone age and an irritant to be pushed aside.
Clearlake Capital may be many things, but they are no mugs. They have literally bought in to the future of football where the potential for monetising Chelsea FC spreads far wider than the environs of the club on a match day. They see profit in the young global fanbase. The type who proliferates X (Twitter) with their inanities. Who have allegiance to players they’ve discovered on FIFA over the club they purport to support and have no physical or emotional connection to it other than through a stream on a mobile phone and a diatribe on social media.
These are the ‘supporters’ who the Club will seek to monetise, selling a consumer driven package that has little or nothing to do with sitting in a seat at Stamford Bridge. After all you can’t fit 90 million fans in to a 42,000-seater stadium so you have to sell them something different, right?
But will these supporters still show loyalty to the club when their performances on the pitch are mediocre, and success is a distant memory? Will they add value to the local community by eating in the restaurants and drinking in the pubs on a match day? Will they perpetuate the identity of the club when travelling to support the team in great numbers away? Will they stand up for and protect the culture, history and legacy of the club? I think we all know the answer to that.
To paraphrase Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on the outbreak of World War Two, a state of war exists between the legacy fans and the club. But I fear that we have lost the war long before we knew we were in one, given the pernicious money driven direction the game has taken since 1992. Clearlake Capital’s ownership of Chelsea FC is perhaps just the last act and the biggest existential threat to the way we support the club that we have ever seen. This is a war for the soul of the club, which has always been supporters travelling to watch their football club, home and away, week in, week out.
Arguably Clearlake pose a bigger threat to our support of Chelsea than Marler Estates did back in the 1990’s simply because they assumed power at a time when we were powerless to resist it.
But as Mr Bates did back then with the creation of the Chelsea Pitch Owners, it might just be the only way to preserve what we have left of the Chelsea we know and love, so go out and buy a share today, next week and the week after. You can find them at www.chelseafc.com/chelsea-pitch-owners or @pitchowners on X (Twitter).
Up The Chels & Fight The Power!
First published in cfcuk fanzine September 2023