Everything But The Chels

Perhaps it was obvious what was going to happen from their very first statement. On May 30th 2022, two years ago today, the consortium led by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital completed their takeover of Chelsea Football Club and immediately laid out their plans. Boehly’s welcoming words spoke about being “custodians of (the club)” and a “commitment to developing the youth squad and best talent”, while Behdad Eghbali and José E.Feliciano took a more business-like approach, outlining plans to “commit the resources to continue Chelsea’s leading role in English and global football, and as an engine for football talent development.”

The differences are subtle but tangible; Boehly’s words speak mostly to your everyday fan on the street or in the Shed End – they might even have said them themselves in a similar position – while Clearlake’s modus operandi right off the bat was rather more mechanical, talking of resources and describing the club as an engine. The inference that Boehly wanted to buy a football club but didn’t have the resources to do it alone is not lost, as he brought along investment help to accomplish his goals, while having to make certain compromises to get it done.

A considerable power struggle later and it’s the latter who now call the shots, after Boehly’s initial explosion to prominence earned him plenty of ridicule, making mistakes which has subsequently seen him blamed for any and all ailments Chelsea might be suffering. Eghbali, meanwhile, has become a key mover and shaker alongside Sporting Directors Paul Winstanley and Laurence Stewart as they embark on yet another managerial installation, the third of the SD era and the fourth under current ownership.

That power struggle has had important and lasting ramifications as the club now finds itself, once again, facing an identity crisis. True, this is nothing new, as twenty years of Roman Abramovich rule saw them oscillate between pragmatism and idealism, Mourinho and Scolari, Ancelotti and Vilas Boas, Conte and Sarri, but a level of success always underpinned things and became their de facto culture. Seven years on from their last Premier League title, however, and only one trophy since that night in Porto three years ago, means success on the pitch can no longer be used as that cultural definition. Who are Chelsea in 2024? Or if you prefer, from a business perspective, what is Chelsea in 2024? What do they stand for and who is driving the club forward?

Nestled away in the depths of the club’s website is a page articulating ‘Our Values’. You can read about them here – https://www.chelseafc.com/en/our-values – but it’s important to note that they were established pre-takeover and, while they appear regularly in academy and women’s team communications and are a part of all job adverts, they are scarcely seen on the men’s footballing side. Some actions taken over the last two years would appear to contradict them entirely. It’s likely that some of the people involved in building those six pillars of accountability no longer work at Stamford Bridge or Cobham, and their overall impact might be dulled depending on who exactly you’re speaking to.

For some six months at the start of the current ownership, this was a club run by Boehly. Once the co-SDs were hired, the word was that they would hold all the cards, with Eghbali coming more and more to the fore from the summer of 2023. Joe Shields, prized away from Southampton to help lead an aggressive and wide-reaching recruitment programme, has established a notable presence too, and so the four-headed monster goes forward into the 2024 off-season with business to accomplish and agendas to drive.

But where’s the Chelsea representation within that quartet, I hear you ask? Winstanley is Brighton by way of Wigan, while Stewart is something of a Euro-trotter who spent two years in the Manchester City setup, the same place where South London-born Shields established his credentials in the 2010s. Eghbali is the man who signs the cheques but, while it’s fair to allow them time to learn what makes Chelsea Chelsea and write their names into new chapters of the history books, it’s also right to ask why there isn’t someone with institutional memory on their level with just as loud a voice and as recognisable a face.

Not long after the change of ownership, Marina Granovskaia, Bruce Buck and Eugene Tenenbaum departed, to nobody’s great surprise, devotees to Abramovich one and all. Petr Cech quickly opted to stand down as Technical and Performance Advisor, Chief Exec Guy Laurence disappeared from football, and Christophe Lollichon said his farewells after more than a decade of service across all departments that reached far beyond his primary goalkeeping remits.

Scott McLachlan served as a bridge between the old and new as Head of International Scouts before moving on after the 2022 summer transfer window, Head of Research and Innovation Ben Smith brought down the curtain on sixteen years at Cobham, and there were a host of exits from the medical department up to and including the early months of 2024 during what has been a tumultuous time for all of those involved. From front office staff to groundskeeping personnel who gave a lifetime of service to the Blues, it was out with the old and in with the new, whether they jumped before they were pushed or they were told in no uncertain terms changes were being made.

Right in the middle of all of this, though, we saw Neil Bath promoted from Head of Youth Development to Director of Football Development and Operations, a somewhat gaudy title that effectively gave him greater scope and more responsibility to manage the flow of young talent ‘across the road’ from the academy building into the men’s first-team environment, but also a wider remit on the training ground site itself, the women’s and girl’s setups, the foundation, and everything in between. An exciting new venture for sure, it involves regular collaboration with Winstanley, Stewart and Shields, but when decisions are made on personnel on and off the pitch, the final call lies with those who have only recently become a part of Chelsea, and not someone with thirty years of experience building and maintaining one of the most elite operations not just in all of football or sport, but in any discipline worldwide.

And this is a problem, because there are undeniably factions who want to pull the club in all sorts of directions away from its core, its true essence, the soul that makes Chelsea Chelsea, and they have played out so clearly for everyone to see without even trying. The Brighton bias brought us Graham Potter and his extensive (and expensive) staff, Sam Jewell, Marc Cucurella, Robert Sanchez, Moises Caicedo and so many speculative South Americans (plus David Datro Fofana, long tracked by the Seagulls). The push to turn Chelsea into ‘Manchester City South’ started at boardroom level with Tom Glick (alleged indiscretions put paid to that) before Shields’ arrival, when Romeo Lavia and Cole Palmer arrived at great cost, and even these past few days have seen links with James Trafford, another CFG expat recently relegated with Burnley, as well as Fulham’s Tosin Adarabioyo, also once of the Eastlands parish. The new manager – or Head Coach, as the preferred nomenclature goes – spent a year in charge of City’s Under-21s and served on Pep Guardiola’s staff.

Christoph Vivell got himself an Nkunku in his short spell at the club, Stewart – formerly of Monaco  – brought Badiashile and Disasi with him, while both their former employers had previously been linked with Noni Madueke. To pay for all of this, Chelsea sold Mason Mount, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Hall, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Billy Gilmour and plenty of Boehly’s buys from the ill-fated summer of 2022. They are still trying to negotiate exits for Ian Maatsen – a Champions League finalist – plus Trevoh Chalobah and Conor Gallagher, lynch pins and captains under the recently-departed Mauricio Pochettino. The academy is very much for sale.

Who is the voice speaking up for them? 40,000 fans at the Bridge have made it clear where their allegiances lie but we’re now approaching the final year of Gallagher’s contract, off the back of a season where he played more minutes than any other Chelsea player, and a new offer is yet to be presented, let alone negotiated. He has made it clear that he wants to stay. We’ve seen how this has played out before and the alarm bells are ringing rather loudly right now. His biggest advocate from the 23-24 season left ‘by mutual consent’ and, no matter how much anyone with an academy connection might protest, there is fundamentally little they can do if the SDs want to do something else.

Where is the Chelsea presence in the circle of influence? Eghbali is on record saying that he felt Chelsea were ‘not terribly well managed on the football, sporting or promotional side’ under the previous regime, despite being among Europe’s most successful clubs for much of that time, but there has been a clear preference from the newcomers to distance themselves from everything they inherited, effectively start a new Chelsea, and do things in a new way. And it’s their money, so they can do as they please, but to suggest that there was nobody and nothing worth giving a loud and identifiable voice to at the very top of the footballing structure, who at the very least could act as a bridge between old and new, who understands the landscape and knows how to win, seems an egregious error of judgment.

Those with experience of working with Winstanley in particular describe him as professional, affable and detailed; you’d expect nothing less of someone who has put in the hard yards to get to where he is now. They’ll also tell you that the way he and Stewart work is best described as ‘transactional’; that is, removing emotion from the process while relying on volumes of data and leaning on a preferred strategy to inform each and every decision. The Clearlake way, if you prefer. As regular reports remind us, their job security is nigh-on unimpeachable right now, which can only lead us to deduce that they are doing exactly what the owners want them to do.

But this brings us to the crux of the matter; we’re not dealing with assets or investments at the end of the day. Sure, they’re numbers on a page to someone, but football is inherently a people-based venture, a community-based sport and pastime, and a heritage-rich journey with more than a century of stories leading to the present day. How and what and why you identify with the club is a deeply personal choice but you’d be hard-pressed to find a groundswell of support for a process devoid of feeling, of human connection, of local representation, instead driven by numbers and cold, hard cash.

Last summer, the Fan Advisory Board (FAB) was inaugurated, promising pioneering fan engagement with the club and voice in ‘strategic vision and objectives as well as medium and long-term decision-making’. The register of actions taken since that were greeted with less than enthusiastic approval is sizeable and, most recently, an apparent conflict of interests between the FAB and the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust laid bare the problem it has created; that the newly-created body can be looked at, or indeed used, as an insulating barrier between the club and its larger fan base under the pretense of regular engagement with elected representatives.

And, sure, you can take a more positive outlook if you want, that’s what fandom and support and devotion is all about, but there is another massive fork in the road right ahead of us. Emma Hayes and her team have left for the United States after twelve revolutionary years winning every domestic honour possible, multiple times, and positioning Chelsea as a dominant force in the women’s game. There is a huge void of personality, of influence, of power to fill in the women’s team, with Sonia Bompastor and her crew from Lyon now taking up residence in leafy Surrey. Quite how much say Hayes had in choosing her successor we may never truly know, but the next few months on that side will be as instructive as anything else at the club in terms of who’s really pulling the strings. You may already have suspicions.

2023-24 was an improvement over 2022-23 at Chelsea, but it would’ve been hard for it not to be. For long spells it looked scarily similar and, while they got their house in order over the last six weeks of the campaign, it wasn’t enough to save Pochettino’s job. This is the Enzo Maresca era, this is the Sonia Bompastor era, but really it’s the Winstanley, Stewart, Shields and Eghbali era. Their most recent hires will rank among the most important because, if either or both fail, the spotlight will shine brighter, harsher and longer on them. They are the culture-setters now, for better or worse.

Bring on 2024-25.