Tuesday, July 02, 2013

What has Roman ever done for us?

Apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, if you're a Chelsea fan, the Romans - well, one in particular - have actually done quite a lot.

On June 30, 2003, Chelsea was a struggling club with a somewhat great history but an uncertain future. 24 hours later, a newly-minted 36-year-old Russian billionaire by the name of Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich handed over £60 million for a 29.5% stake in the club, and at a stroke changed its direction and, arguably, English league football.

By the start of the 2003-2004 football season, Abramovich had successfully bought up the remaining stock and took the club into private hands. The Roman Revolution had begun. The Roman Empire had expanded. It didn't take long for such puns to appear on the back pages, along with the sneers. Chelski. Yes, that was a good one.

Ten years on, foreign ownership, in one way, shape or form, is no longer that new. Before Roman there was Mohamed Al-Fayed at Fulham and that was just about it. Football proprietors were still, largely local. Today it's almost uncool not to have a Russian, Qatari or American oil baron owning your club.

What, understandably, left people suspicious of Abramovich - and continues to do so - is his secrecy. In ten years he's given one interview that revealed nothing, instead relying on acolytes like club chairman Bruce Buck and chief executives Peter Kenyon and Ron Gourlay to speak for the club. This has notably had mixed results, especially as the club's managerial merry-go-round has frequently left fans struggling to understand the club's strategy, especially when it comes to firings (such as Ray Wilkins' departure for, allegedly, looking at Roman the wrong way) and hirings (Rafa Benitez...WWDBD? passim...). Amid all these situations, Abramovich maintained his silence, that slightly childlike half-smile on his face, while the buck was literally passed to Buck and others to burble about direction this and ambition that.

In the main, though, the Chelsea fan has stoically accepted that this is how it is. Would we accept yet another managerial firing if it meant finally winning the Champions League? You betcha! Would we be indifferent to the club wasting a shedload of cash for damaged goods like Schevchenko, Torres and Ballack when it meant having true gems like Cech, Drogba, Makele and, when not crocked, Robben? Obviously.

As confusing and regularly frustrating as the Rule of Roman has often been, the bigger picture takes precedent. In hiring José Mourinho to replace "dead man walking" Claudio Ranieri after Mourinho had just won the Champions League with Porto, he added one of the most exciting, controversial and, let's face it, entertaining managers since Brian Clough, who took the club to its first league title in 50 years, and repeated the same feat a season later.

After José's 2007 implosion, Avram Grant took the club to its first ever Champions League final. Meanwhile, the FA Cups kept coming. In Carlo Ancelotti - supposedly Roman's original target when he first took over the club - he had a manager who won the Premier League at the first time of asking. And then there was the Champions League itself, an accidental trophy perhaps, but still the European Cup secured under Roberto Di Matteo, before the hapless Benitez came along and somehow contrived the Europa League title.

Of course, on circumstantial argument, it looks like Abramovich's Chelsea  have bought titles, especially when the European wins give the impression they were more fluke than the result of tactical endeavour. But do we care? No!

Ask any football fan (apart from the odd pathetic fundamentalist) and they will take silverware over all else for their clubs. That's the success they crave, those are the events they desire, when the beer flows and grown men bear hug each in pubs where, on any other night of the week, such behaviour would be the launch pad for flying glassware.

These last 48 hours, with newspapers running the rule over Roman's rule, it's been fun to have seen the colossal, £683.75 million expense of the last ten years' player movements appraised. For every Drogba, Mata, Hazard, Makelele, Carvalho and Luiz there have been duds like Schevchenko, Torres (let's be honest), Veron, Kežman, Wright-Philips, Sturridge, and others who made even more fleeting appearances at the club.

The 'plan' since Day 1 has been to get the company financially self-sufficient. The UEFA Fair Play rules are making that even more imperative. The mega splurges of the early Abramovich years have been replaced by more prudent, self-financing acquisition programs. The club is, now, on the way to being somewhat financially sound, with the recent £300 million, 15-year adidas kit supply extension going a long way to help.

But there is - as it has been since the beginning - still a sense of unease: the constant shredding of managers has left every fan sceptical that anyone will last more than a season. Even Mourinho's return has rendered much of the Chelsea faithful of the opinion that they should enjoy it while it lasts, and it won't last long. We can't help looking enviously at the almost 27-year stability Manchester United enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson, during which they still managed to maintain an annual haul of silverware in some form..

And then there is the question of Chelsea's long-term legacy. English football had been irreparably changed forever long before Abramovich came along: Sky had seen to that with in revolutionising how the sport is televised and financed. Abramovich, however, bent English football's DNA further, like one of those plastics newspapers like to panic about getting into the food supply.

Italian and Spanish football may have been perfectly happy with money-no-object signings, but English football had been used to signing players at 14, nurturing them to adulthood and then blooding them into the first team. Chelsea's preference for buying fully-formed first-team players while picking up attractive baubles of youth potential that are immediately put out on loan has at times looked more like an investment strategy than a development approach.

There is also the somewhat ridiculous argument pushed yesterday by Ray Wilkins - a club hero whom I've always admired, but... - who informed the Daily Mail that he thought Abramovich's ten-year tenure was "for the worse". "Unfortunately the influx of foreign players...has been such that our young players are not getting an opportunity," Wilkins said. And it's true, but is that Abramovich's fault?

The hiring of foreign players wasn't an Abramovich invention - Erland Johnsson, Ruud Gullitt, Gianluca Viallia, Gianfranco Zola, Tore Andre Flo, Roberto Di Matteo...even Petar Borota in 1979 all pre-dated Abramovich's money. Foreign players have long been in the English leagues, going right back to the formation of association football itself.

But I don't disagree with the general notion that the widespread adoption of non-English players has had an adverse affect on the national team, and in particular, the Under-21s. It would be insane to blame England's recent abject failure at the UEFA Under 21s in Israel on Chelsea, but the sight of young English players whom you know will struggle to break into the first teams of the Premier League elite served a timely reminder that England's future should be in the hands of England's clubs. But isn't.

Is this the fault of foreign owners like Abramovich? Yes, probably. But here I come back to the fans' dilemma. We Chelsea fans have had a decade of unprecedented and, let's be honest, unaccustomed success under Abramovich. And we brazenly dodge the moral question - "At what cost?"

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