How Roman Abramovich turned Chelsea into modern-day giants
On 2 July 2003 when David Beckham signed for Real Madrid; shattering Manchester United's prearranged and ambitious 'plan' of bringing in Ronaldinho; it had to become the news of the day. But somehow Beckham was robbed of the limelight for the day by an unknown Russian businessman named Roman Abramovich.
It was an unfamiliar name in English football. And that was all going to change within a year. Abramovich would soon become 'Russian Florentino Perez' in English football and go on to redefine transfer market tactics and the belief that money cannot buy success.
Abramovich took over Chelsea when the club was on the brink of financial collapse for an initial £60m. He wanted a team that he could help to stand along continental winners like Real Madrid and Manchester United. However, it is a lesser known fact that Chelsea was never the first choice of the Russian millionaire.
He tried to take over CSKA Moscow but the bid failed due to a number of reasons. He then turned to Tottenham Hotspur who declined his offer. Chelsea, a club fighting for financial survival, provided him with the best chance. The club had a squad with fighting spirit (they qualified for UCL in the season before) they only needed inspiration. It all made sense because then-chairperson Ken Bates had done everything he could to save the club but it was continuing its spectacular downward spiral.
Abramovich retained Bates' last manager Claudio Ranieri and provided a war chest of over £120m for the first transfer window under the new ownership. Chelsea's home ground Stamford Bridge became witness to a number of new signings. A total of 14 players including Damien Duff, Joe Cole and Claude Makelele were signed to overhaul the squad.
The news players at the Bridge sent the fans into dreamland and media into an overdrive. It was the first example of an oligarch in English football. It was this spending spree which led British press to brand him as 'Santa Claus' with a bag full of money for the Blues. Chelsea instantly became title favourites.
But the spree paid dividends when Chelsea's on-field performances produced results. The Blues suddenly became a dominant group. There was now a sense of belief at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea finished 2nd in the league in the first campaign under Abramovich era behind Arsenal.
A second place-finish behind Arsenal could, easily, have been called a success. But Abramovich not only wanted success but also a revolution. He realized the club needed a manager with stronger winning mentality than Ranieri offered. Abramovich sacked Ranieri and brought in; the hottest prospect in football management of the time, Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho, after winning UCL with Porto, was pursued by a number of clubs. Abramovich successfully lured the Portuguese to Stamford Bridge by making him one of the highest paid managers in the world. Ranieri's dismissal was questioned but Mourinho's appointment was noted positively by the fans and pundits. The self-appointed 'The Special One' proved to be the real bargain of the season.
Another summer transfer window followed, where the west London club dominated the transfer market. A total of nine players including Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba were brought in with the Russian's backing. Abramovich's pick Mourinho became a club icon for his on and off-field character. He provided the team with winning mentality. His team dominated the field with a unique footballing style.
He delivered in the first attempt; first league title in 50 years. It was the beginning of the golden era of the club under the Russian. Abramovich's unpopular decision to sack Ranieri paid back with three full trophy-laden campaigns. The club won every domestic trophy available. The only trophy that eluded the club was continental glory; UEFA Champions League. After months of media speculation about his strained relationship with the owner, Mourinho left Chelsea "by mutual consent" in September 2007.
It was no surprise when Abramovich announced Avram Grant for the post at the club. Grant, unlike Mourinho in last days, enjoyed a very close relationship with Abramovich. Grant's appointment was met with hostility from fans for his inexperience in managing. But Abramovich's choice paid off. Chelsea fought for the league title until the last day and contested in League Cup final.
Grant, however, failed to deliver any trophy. His closest brush with glory was UCL final against Manchester United, which Chelsea lost on penalties. Grant's close relationship with the Russian was never counted when his termination was announced at the end of a trophyless season.
Abramovich's next choice, Luiz Felipe Scolari couldn't come up with the winning formula. When the team's on-field performance dropped, Abramovich got rid of Scolari after only eight months into the job.
The media dubbed the move as 'revolving door policy'. The job profile for the London club now demanded immediate and long-term success. Andre Villas-Boas was dismissed under similar circumstances after falling out with the senior players. Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho were sacked just months after winning titles. Both managers failed to build on the success they achieved.
Months after winning the title when Abramovich witnessed a fall in performance, he wielded the axe. No success, simply, means no future at Chelsea.
Abramovich surprised the world by promoting Roberto Di Matteo. The fans and critics doubted Di Matteo for his inexperience in management, but the Russian's belief in Di Matteo paid off when he won the one trophy that eluded the club in its entire history; UEFA Champions League. But it was not enough to secure his job. He was fired on the back of inconsistent results in the subsequent season.
Abramovich appointed Antonio Conte in the summer of 2016. When Chelsea lost two continuous league matches against Arsenal and Liverpool, Abramovich flew from Moscow to London and 'had lunch' with Conte. Chelsea won the next 13 matches on a trot and ultimately the league.
Abramovich's revolving door policy has paid off since its inception. In 14 years of the Russian at the club, a total of 14 managers have graced Stamford Bridge. This constant 'hire and fire' policy has ensured successful campaigns intertwined with a few bad spells.
Abramovich enjoys what most owners fail to; respect, love and trust of the fans. When club's most successful manager, Jose Mourinho, was dismissed, a large section of fans stood with the owner. On numerous occasions, the Russian has shown his dedication to the club. A frequent visitor to the club, Abramovich not only attends important continental matches against big clubs but also league matches against lesser-known clubs. Abramovich, since his arrival, has changed the philosophy of the club.
Chelsea, who spent a mere £500,000 in the transfer window before Abramovich's arrival, are now one of the biggest spenders in the world. Abramovich has changed transfer window tactics with his ruthless pursuit of targets.
Today, Chelsea are Europe's seventh most valuable football club with a value of £1.15 billion. 14 years of the Abramovich era have produced 15 major trophies including 5 Premier League titles, a Europa League and a Champions League title. No English club has won more trophies than Chelsea in these 14 years.
Abramovich's ruthless strategies in the transfer market and 'hire and fire' of managers has redefined the tactics of boardroom decision making in pursuit of success. He took over a lacklustre club and transformed them into a global brand. His relentless chase for success is setting a standard for club owners around the world. He truly is the 'Santa Claus' that changed Chelsea FC forever.