The Raine Group selected four bids for the sale of Chelsea FC as a short-list last week, with a view to presenting a winning bid to the Government by the end of April. The bids on the short-list are from Todd Boehly, the owner of the LA Dodgers, the bid led by Sir Martin Broughton, the Ricketts family who own the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca.
Three of these bids appear to be a little problematic. The Ricketts’ bid has been met with a wave of protest from Chelsea supporters not seen since the outcry over the European Super League; Broughton’s bid is backed by David Blitzer, and Josh Harris who have a significant shareholding in Crystal Palace and Pagliuca owns 55% of Serie A side, Atalanta. To succeed in buying Chelsea these last two bids will need to relinquish their Palace and Atalanta shareholdings.
What has been remarkable in this somewhat unseemly battle to buy Chelsea is just how many prospective buyers there have been; all prepared to part with upwards of £2.5billion to do so. Chelsea supporters should not be surprised when you consider exactly what the bidders will be buying, and many commentators have described the sale as a once in a lifetime opportunity, with good reason.
Thanks to Roman Abramovich’s investment since 2003, he transformed Chelsea, and they are the most successful team in England in that time, and no English team has a better haul of trophies since 2003. Chelsea also has the added cache of being reigning European and World club champions. How often do reigning European and World Club champions come on the market? The answer is rarely, if ever.
In Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea has arguably the best manager in football at the moment but better than that, a manager who genuinely just seems to symbiotically fit with Chelsea. Given his success to date and the relationship he has established with the players, the Chelsea board, the supporters and the media, it appears to be a match made in heaven.
Chelsea also has a world-class squad with a mix of experienced winners and talented youngsters full of potential, for arguably the first time in its history. And there is more to come, thanks to the academy production line of potentially even more world-class talent.
Chelsea is situated in one of the most desirable parts of one of the greatest cities in the world. The training ground at Cobham lies in the heart of the wealthy Surrey commuter belt. The bidders will be buying into one of the best locations for football on the planet, and as former Chelsea legend, Jimmy Greaves once said “It’s probably the greatest name in the world: Chelsea. You think about it. It conjures up the best part of the biggest city in the world. Chelsea… it’s magical.”
Add to this mix an incredibly passionate and loyal UK based match going support, many of whom have been making their weekly pilgrimage to watch Chelsea play for 50 years or more and a fervent, vocal, younger support evidenced by their reaction to the European Super League idea.
This is enhanced by a massive global fan base from every corner of the globe, some match going and many not lucky enough to do so, but all passionate about the club and live and breathe it. And this all feeds into a massive commercial opportunity for a new owner with an eye on monetising the club as a huge, instantly recognisable global brand.
Behind the scenes, the club is in good shape too. Abramovich always had the sense to hire the best people to work at the club, but also with a nod to the history and culture of the club, with so many ex-players welcomed back in the club’s employ, such as Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Claude Makelele amongst others.
Many of the operational employees have been at the club for decades. It’s like a family, with a special atmosphere and indeed it is special, the people, the place and the club. No wonder so many former players, even those who played abroad or had more illustrious careers elsewhere, come back to Chelsea and proclaim more of an affinity with the club.
Roman’s legacy is indeed bountiful, especially considering this point. He will be leaving the club with no debt, and very few Premier League clubs can make that offer to a prospective new owner. Therefore, it is imperative that the new owner does not load any debt onto the club due to the amount of money they have had to raise to buy it.
They may have to pay through the nose for it, but whoever wins the bid and buys the club will be buying a jewel in the crown of the European game, akin to winning the lottery. When we finally know who the winning bid is and they take root as new owners, the first thing you expect would be to change, and change can either be good or bad. Either way, the new owners will most likely want to stamp their identity on the club.
This, of course, will be an unsettling time for the current employees of the club, from top to bottom, as well as the long-suffering supporters. I would expect members of Chelsea’s current board to be the first to go. Bruce Buck, Eugene Tenenbaum and Marina Granovskaia would be the most likely to go due to their long-established relationship with Abramovich. Guy Laurence, as Chief Executive is also likely to be vulnerable as a new owner will almost certainly want their own choice of CEO. They may also want to put their own people into key positions in areas such as Communications and Marketing.
It’s interesting to note that David Barnard was recently promoted to the board as Director of Football Operations having been club secretary for many years. Barnard has been with the club since before Abramovich bought it and has extensive experience and contacts within the game he has worked in for 45 years. He is the man responsible for transfer agreements and contracts and compliance with the football authorities, including FIFA, UEFA, the FA, the Premier League and the EFL.
While letting the people at the top go is understandable, replacing the likes of Barnard and Steve Atkins (Director of Communications) would be a massive risk. Continuity in many areas will be key for any club under new management, but even more so with the upheaval, the sale will have caused Chelsea due to the sanctions.
My advice would be to make any changes as smooth as possible and to retain as much of the existing management as possible in a transitionary period. These people have the knowledge, know-how and experience to have kept a football club at the top for nearly 20 years and are arguably some of the best in the business in their various roles.
This is literally true of Marina Granovskaia, who in November 2021, was named the Best Club Director in European football at the Golden Boy awards organised by Italian newspaper Tuttosport. However, I would imagine that the new owners will be keen to bring in a Director of Football and given that Granovskaia and former goalkeeping legend Peter Cech have been filling that role for the last few years, it could present an issue.
Chelsea, unlike many clubs of the same size, have always seemed reluctant to have a Director of Football at the club. There were mixed views about Michael Emenalo’s stint as Technical Director, and many believed that Abramovich and several close advisors were the ‘de facto’ directors of football.
A new Director of Football may put Cech’s future at the club in jeopardy as well as Granovskaia’s. It also puts the club in a vulnerable position. Thomas Tuchel’s relationship with Granovskaia and Cech has been hugely successful and has worked well, judging by Tuchel’s comments about it. In fact, I find it hard to recall a time under Abramovich when the coach has worked so harmoniously with the board in a footballing sense.
Of course, the most important person at the club right now has to be Thomas Tuchel. He is the key factor in Chelsea’s playing success, and he must be kept happy at all costs. He’s mature and pretty sanguine about life, so I’m sure he’ll cope with any change, but he is no idiot, and I’m sure he’s more than aware of his worth and won’t stay around long if he feels he is being patronised or mucked about.
I would hope the bidders get to meet Tuchel as well as Chelsea’s board over the next couple of weeks and hopefully address any concerns he may have, to his satisfaction. Tuchel as far as Chelsea is concerned, is the critical success factor.
On the more optimistic side, Tuchel’s data-driven approach to football may suit the Boehly bid. Like Liverpool’s owners, the Fenway Sports Group, Boehly is informed by analytics, inspired by the ‘Moneyball’ ideas originated by baseball executive Billy Beane and he may look to introduce a data-driven approach across the club to gain a competitive advantage.
Taking data and evidence-based decisions would also take the emotion out of the decision making which could lead to more stability at the club and less managerial casualties. Who right now would argue against Tuchel being given a length of tenure similar to Jurgen Klopp.
There are so many issues at the club to potentially give the new owners a massive headache, such as a possible stadium development, complex transfers in and out; youth development and progression as well as the plethora of loanees. All these issues will need input from those best placed to understand what’s needed, and in my view that is much of the current management.
The same could be said of the heritage and culture issues of the club, which is within the purview of the supporters and has been so well-articulated by the Chelsea Supporters Trust in recent weeks. Simply put, the new owners must listen to the advice of years of experience within the club and don’t ‘throw away the baby with the bath water’.
The foundations at Chelsea are remarkably sound, and while the club could benefit from some change and improvement, it should be evolution, not revolution. Ultimately anyone buying into the club needs to be adding to it, rather than destroying the legacy and great achievements on and off the pitch over the last 20 years. To do the opposite would be incredibly arrogant and stupid and would put the club and everything it has achieved over the last 20 years in jeopardy.