‘You’re f***ed if Roman Abramovich leaves’ is a retort to Chelsea success that’s no longer valid; they would now be fine with or without him.
“It is a satisfaction for a club to live within its natural resources,” Arsene Wenger said, expounding on his theory of “financial doping” after Abramovich bought the Premier League title for Chelsea in 2005. The transfer losses were extraordinary and the debt vast, but by the time the sour grape juice dripping from Wenger’s High-vory tower had reached the Blues dancing in the streets, it had turned to wine. When you’ve just won the top-flight title for the first time in 50 years, it’s hard to care how you did it.
People should care. The owners of the Premier League clubs are, in general, a reprehensible bunch, with the Saudi-backed purchase of Newcastle this year bringing the issue of the fit-and-proper-person test into sharper (yet not sharp enough) focus. Abramovich was the OG wealthy benefactor – plying overpaid managers with fortunes to buy overpaid players for inflated prices. It was uncomfortable then, and with the money of a misogynistic, homophobic, murderous regime about to line the pockets of agents and players descending on Tyneside in January, it definitely is now.
Ask fans of rival clubs how they felt about that defining time in English football history 16 or so years ago and they will trot out similar, less diplomatic, lines to Wenger. “It ruined football,” one of my particularly gloom-ridden Arsenal-supporting pals said last week. “It ruined football for Arsenal fans,” replied the gloating Chelsea fan sitting opposite.
Despite the success in that first spell under Jose Mourinho, and later under Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea joy could always be tempered by a feeling – magnified, accelerated and used by rival fans – that the prosperity was finite. Chelsea were a ticking time bomb of a football club. Eventually the money tap would run dry, Abramovich would sail away, and with him the place at the top table of European football. It doesn’t feel like that anymore.
Between 2004 and 2013 Chelsea recorded losses of over £670m and a profit in just one year – £1million in 2011/12. From 2014 to 2020 the club essentially broke even with four profitable years and three loss-producing years. Wenger can sleep easy – Chelsea are living on their “natural resources”. In fact, they’ve become so good at farming their own land that much of the Premier League is living on Chelsea’s natural resources.
As Mason Mount, Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Trevoh Chalobah and Andreas Christensen thrive under Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge, it’s now rare to watch a Premier League game that does not feature a Chelsea academy alumnus: Tino Livramento and Armando Broja at Southampton, Billy Gilmour at Norwich, Conor Gallagher and Marc Guehi at Crystal Palace, Tariq Lamptey at Brighton, Declan Rice at West Ham, Nathan Ake at Man City, Bertrand Traore at Aston Villa, Ryan Bertrand at Leicester, Jack Cork at Burnley, Lewis Bate at Leeds, Eddie Nketiah at Arsenal.
In the past Chelsea’s system was one of baking and selling cake; now they’ve found a better recipe, so they can sell it for more and eat it too. Mount and James were a key part of Champions League success last term and from a position in which the path to the first team was entirely blocked, that door is now wide open. The quality emerging from the academy is remarkable – perhaps the best crop of any Premier League club this century – and that tap is one that will now run and run.
That success is in no small part down to money, of course. But faced with the desire of one manager, according to former technical director Michael Emanalo, to shut down the academy as it was “a waste of time”, Abramovich refused and pumped money into a cause that is now reaping the rewards of both quality and self-sustaining longevity.
The club has long made money through the sale of academy products, but the £90m made this year on Tammy Abraham, Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori is on a different scale, and surely a harbinger of things to come, given the players in the current Chelsea squad and out on loan. Gallagher, for example, will either prove himself good enough to play in Chelsea’s midfield, or be sold for £40m-plus. Some will stay and win trophies; some will be loaned out, return and win trophies; some will be sold. But the kids will keep coming to Cobham – it’s clearly the place to be.
In building the academy up to where it now sits – among the very best in world football – Abramovich has fail-safed Chelsea’s future. A club that for a long time looked as though it would only ever prosper sat on the shoulders of its wealthy owner, was instead being given a leg-up – admittedly a very significant one – to a foundation from which they can thrive without him.