Roman Abramovich with the Champions League trophy last season. [Reuters]
If you exclude the British banking system and Jimmy Savile, it's hard to think of an institution with a worse reputation than Chelsea at the moment. The west London club, which won the Champions League just nine months ago, continues to lurch from one crisis to another, the latest coming in the wake of Rafael Benitez's bizarre rant at Middlesbrough last night.
During his tirade, Benitez confirmed that he will be leaving Chelsea in May, and reports suggest the club are already looking for a new manager. The names of Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp and Malaga mastermind Manuel Pellegrini have been mentioned in some of the more ambitious dispatches. But what self-respecting manager in their right mind would go to Chelsea, a club where the best, clearly, is never good enough?
Of the seven managers who have won the Champions League in the last decade, Chelsea have sacked three of them - Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Di Matteo. In each case, the manager was sacked within months of guiding the club to a major trophy - Di Matteo's team had won the Champions League while Mourinho's had been beaten on penalties in the semi-final, while finishing second in the league and winning the FA Cup.
With a fourth of those elite Champions League-winning bosses, Benitez, about to part company with the Blues, the fug of addled delusion swirling over Stamford Bridge shows no sign of clearing. Sources close to the Bridge believe that, rather than a garlanded pedigree such as Klopp or Pellegrini, Chelsea are more likely to end up with Gianfranco Zola or Gus Poyet - who have a combined total of 12 months' managerial experience in the Premier League.
Given the incessant torrent of idiocy and innuendo emanating from their beloved club, Chelsea fans are, predictably, queuing up to tell the football phone-ins that their owner Roman Abramovich is an idiot. Dissenters claim the Russian plutocrat, who only became interested in football 10 years ago, lacks any knowledge of the game, and his approach to hiring and retaining managers is dictated by the whims of football fashion.
But, unfortunately for Chelsea fans, this is what they signed up for when Abramovich bought the club 10 years ago. At the time, the club was facing insolvency; Ken Bates, who himself had bought the club for just £1 to stave off an earlier bankruptcy case in the 1980s, could invest no more. Debts stood at £80m, and the club had spent just £500,000 on players in the previous 12 months.
When Abramovich bailed Chelsea out of this mess, it was hard to hear any voices of dissent. Few supporters questioned how this fiercely private man had earned such a vast fortune; no-one mentioned the rumours of arms dealing, or the mysterious drowning of a prominent business rival in 1995 [both of which were subsequently discussed in a British court]. And hardly any Blues cared that he had only begun to take an active interest in football just two months before buying Chelsea, while watching Manchester United v Real Madrid on television.
Since that remarkably untroubled takeover, Abramovich's money has propelled his club to a period of success they could only previously have dreamt of. In their ten years under Roman's rule, Chelsea have won three league titles and four FA Cups as well as the Champions League, and reached the semi-finals of Europe's elite tournament six times - only Barcelona have bettered this record. Some would argue that, after all this success, any Chelsea supporters complaining about their owner's hire-and-fire managerial strategy are pretty ungrateful.
If you want some compelling substance to this argument, just look across London, where Arsenal have kept the same manager throughout Abramovich's period in charge but haven't won anything for eight years. Or, slightly further afield, take Leeds, the club Bates bought 18 months after selling Chelsea. While Abramovich has invested billions at Stamford Bridge, his club's previous owner has been accused by Leeds fans of asset-stripping, flogging the club's best players and spending almost nothing on replacements, while muddying the waters of accountability with his opaque ownership structure. Now come on Chelsea fans, which man would you rather have running your club?
For all the fans' quibbles about Abramovich's whims and vagaries, one has to look at the bottom line. And, given he has spent an estimated £2bn on Chelsea, that bottom line is pretty healthy. Some of the owner's decisions may have been counter-productive, but Abramovich has bought the right to be capricious. One thing's for sure: Chelsea would be far, far worse off without him.
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