Decline of the Roman Empire?

Since Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea FC in the summer of 2003, with reports claiming the club was just days away from bankruptcy, he has enjoyed the virtually uncritical adoration of the Stamford Bridge faithful. That’s not to say that there haven’t been periodic rumblings of discontent. Jose Mourinho’s departure in September 2007 was the subject of some, albeit muted, criticism. Before, during and since the infamous CPO EGM in October 2011, a number of voices have expressed concern about exactly what Roman Abramovich has in mind for the club in the years ahead.

However, he is now facing open rebellion in some quarters and accusations that the club is being badly run. That said, no-one seems very sure whether the decision to sack Roberto Di Matteo in November, which was not only unpopular, but has materially damaged Chelsea’s season, was solely made by Abramovich, or following consultation with the ‘football board’.

Ah yes. The football board. Chelsea’s ‘Technical Director’ is Michael Emenalo. A man with no playing career to speak of, and very little track record in management. Whilst lack of a stellar career in football isn’t everything (just look at Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho), it at least gives fans some ground on which to build a rapport. We know about as much about Emenalo as we did about former Aunt Sally figure, Henk Ten Cate, and have about as much affection for him.

Former Chelsea manager, Bobby Campbell, has wriggled his way back into the club, and gave a right-wing rag an ill-advised interview in December 2012 which carried the headline ‘If I told you any more, I would have to kill you…’. Despite leading Chelsea to the Second Division Championship in 1989, and a 5th place in the First Division a year later, Mr Campbell subsequently had an undistinguished tenure at Stamford Bridge, and was booted upstairs to become Ken Bates’ personal assistant following the arrival of Ian Porterfield. He met Roman Abramovich through Eugene Tenembaum, Abramovich’s shadowy right-hand man, with whom he became acquainted through his membership of the exclusive – and allegedly loss-making – Chelsea Club. Despite Mr Campbell having spent most of his life in football, it is very difficult to see how a man who has not managed in the English game for something like 20 years can offer any real assistance, given the changes that the game has undergone during that time.

And then there’s yesterday article in the same right-wing rag, carrying previously-embargoed comments from Rafael Benitez’s press conference on Friday. There’s a little paragraph in the middle which reads:-

“But Benitez believes his side are making progress and the key figures at the club – Abramovich, his assistant, Marina Granovskaia, and technical director Michael Emenalo – are said to be impressed with his approach to training and tactics.”

What do we know about Marina Granovskaia, other than the fact that she’s Mr Abramovich’s P.A.? And what experience and qualifications does she have for running one off the world’s biggest football clubs, that the manager seems to think she has any influence on events at Stamford Bridge?

That takes us on to those that we do know something about. Bruce Buck became Chairman of Chelsea in 2003, following the Abramovich takeover. He was seen as a reasonably safe pair of hands until the ill-fated CPO EGM in 2011, since which time his appearances in the public eye have become less frequent, the most recent being a joint interview with Ron Gourlay on TalkSport following conclusion of the FA’s investigation into the allegations of racism made against John Terry after the QPR game in October 2011. Which of course leads us to the man who is responsible for the day to day running of Chelsea.

Peter Kenyon was the Chief Executive at Chelsea from 2004 to 2009, and oversaw an unprecedented period of commercial growth. In spite of the fact that he was disliked by many of the supporters for his close links with Manchester United, he overhauled the ticket pricing structure, bringing in reduced-priced tickets for cup and Champions League group games, and instituted the Fans Forum, work for which Chelsea fans do in fact owe him a debt of gratitude. His replacement was of course Ron Gourlay, who had followed a similar career trajectory to Kenyon. It’s fair to say that Mr Gourlay isn’t exactly popular with the match-going, UK-based fanbase, due in large part to his chasing the global market. Last Summer’s club tour of the US saw the European Cup taken from city to city and local kids given coaching sessions with the players. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it was noted with some protests that no such perks seemed to be on offer to the indigenous fanbase, and this would seem to have been the catalyst for the offer of free pictures with the Cup for season-ticket holders and members.

Mr Gourlay’s determination to court the overseas fans is, of course, based purely on economics. Let’s meet Bob and Aguri, a couple of fictional Chelsea fans.

Bob lives in Battersea and is a season-ticket holder. He walks to games, stopping off at The Imperial on the King’s Road for a couple of drinks and leaves about 2.30pm. He goes straight to his seat in the Matthew Harding Lower, not buying a programme. At half-time, he goes down to the concourse to have a chat with mates seated elsewhere in the stand, but doesn’t buy any food or drink from the refreshment outlets. At the end of the game, Bob goes back to the Imperial for another couple of drinks and then he goes home.

Aguri lives in Tokyo. He flew into Heathrow on Wednesday not only to see London’s historic sights and attractions, but also to see Chelsea, who he has never seen live before, although he has supported them since they won the Premier League in 2005. Naturally, he booked a room at the Copthorne Hotel at Stamford Bridge, where he will stay for five nights, using it as a base due to its excellent transport links to the West End. On the day before the game, Aguri does the stadium tour and visits the museum. He then goes to the Megastore and spends £250. On the day of the game he has lunch in Frankie’s Restaurant before making his way to his West Upper seat, buying a programme on the way. At half-time, he buys a soft drink and a hot dog. After the game he goes back to the hotel, gets changed, and then goes to have dinner in Marco’s. He regretfully leaves London on Monday, hoping that he will be able to make the same visit next year.

The above is fictional, of course, but it basically it forms a large part of Chelsea FC’s business plan. In real terms, the overseas fans are the target market because whilst they may only be afford to come to a game once a year, they generally spend a lot more money than UK-based, non-corporate fans. There is of course a flaw in this argument. It’s all very well whilst Chelsea are winning trophies, but failure on the pitch has much more serious repercussions than the trophy cabinet being empty for a couple of seasons. Whilst a couple of unsuccessful years won’t deter the (generally) UK-based, long term fans, given the global coverage of not only the Premier League, but other major European Leagues,it is only too easy for those who are fickle to desert ‘their’ team once the going gets tough. Today’s Chelsea fan could well become tomorrow’s Barcelona or Bayern fan.

And of course, in addition to the potential rammifications for the global support, any slump on the pitch will also result in reduced corporate take-up, another crucial part of the club’s business model.

Since the turn of the year, with four consecutive midweek league or cup games against mediocre to poor opposition failing to yield more than a draw, it has become increasingly clear that the interim manager, Rafael Benitez, is totally ill-equipped to manage Chelsea FC. So who sacked Di Matteo and appointed the Spaniard? Was it, as has been suggested, solely Abramovich’s  decision, or was it on the advice of the motley army he seems to have surrounded himself with? Failed managers, corporate lawyers, marketing men, unsuccessful players, and P.A.s. Are these the people who the fans are supposed to trust with running our club? Abramovich’s return from his now-annual lavish Christmas and New Year festvities looked as if it might signal a change, with the almost-immediate offer of a contract extension to Ashley Cole. Did he finally realise that the lunatics had taken over the asylum?

Whilst Benitez is currently (and deservedly) taking the majority of the abuse from the fans, with the exception of sporadic episodes such as Buck’s unfortunate pitch appearance the other week, is it only a matter of time since the fans turn the ire upon the top man? If he is being badly advised, can he break free of the shackles of the likes of Emenalo, Campbell, Buck and Gourlay and ensure that the next manager of Chelsea is the right man for the job, and not Mr Right Now?

If you’re a supporter, the great thing about the 21st century is that if you have a beef with the club, social media is a great help. The media are certainly aware of the strength of feeling amongst fans right now, so you can be assured that the Chelsea hierarchy are too. But as is always the case, it remains to be seen if they listen, rather than simply hear.

I’ll be reporting from the Chelsea Pitch Owners AGM later on in the week. In the meantime you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67 and if you fancy 24 hour chat with your fellow Chelsea fans (and others), there’s always the AfterHoursFootballClub.