Chelsea fan Mike Ticher pays grudging and limited tribute to the man who has run the Blues for good or ill for the past 21 years – and isn’t going anywhere just yet
For more than 20 years, Chelsea have been run by a man who has sailed close to the wind in his business dealings. Some of Ken Bates’s closest associates have been in serious trouble with the law and the ownership of the controlling stake in Chelsea Village was officially a mystery for many years.
Now the club is owned by Roman Abramovich, a man with an even more colourful business background, much more alarming connections (such as the fugitive tycoon Boris Berezovsky) and, of course, a whole lot more money. Predictably, the only thing that has interested most Chelsea fans so far is the size of that fortune and the quality of the players it might buy.
Bates and Abramovich have something else in common. Abramovich’s vehicle for buying Chelsea Village, called Chelsea Limited, is ultimately owned by a company of which he is the sole shareholder, based in the British Virgin Islands. Among the still obscure companies (with addresses in tax shelters around the world) that have sold their shares to him is Bates’s own Mayflower Securities – also based in the British Virgin Islands. Curiously, it was in those same islands that Bates made part of his fortune back in 1970, in an unusual land deal.
The extraordinary purchase of the club raises far more questions than can be satisfactorily answered at this stage. Nor is the Bates era entirely open for inspection yet, since it is not really over. Quite apart from his continued presence on the board, the circumstances of the sale mean the history of the club’s finances is likely to be buried beyond reach before long. Abramovich intends to acquire enough shares to make Chelsea Village a private company, which means there will be even less chance of scrutiny. But, as London’s Evening Standard commented, “with Abramovich’s deep pockets behind the club, that will probably not matter”. Just hold on to that “probably” for the time being.
Leaving aside the Village’s massive debts and unorthodox financial structures, most fans would concede, with varying levels of reluctance, that Bates has some solid achievements to his name. The ground has been transformed, albeit not entirely to everyone’s satisfaction, cups have been won and an array of (mostly) fantastic players has passed through since the mid-1990s.
You still have to remind yourself that in 1981-82, the season before Bates took over, Chelsea lost twice to Rotherham in the league (6-1 away, 4-0 at home) and 6,009 saw their penultimate home game, a 2-2 draw with Orient. The next year they almost went down to the Third Division. It would be easy, but wrong, to assume that the subsequent revival was inevitable. Chelsea might well have plumbed the depths of a Wolves or a Derby, or gone under altogether. Bates may not have “saved” the club in quite the manner he likes to portray it, but, by the standards of British football chairmanship, he certainly was not incompetent.
So much for the plaudits. The most obvious charge against Bates is one of charmlessness combined with an infuriating habit of rewriting history. Most of his appointments as manager have changed almost overnight from being a genius to a dangerous wrecker, but somehow the buck for giving them a job in the first place never seemed to stop with Bates.
The latest, shameless, instance of retrospective blame concerns former managing director Colin Hutchinson, who has now become the official scapegoat for the financial mess of Chelsea Village, which is pretty close to being the opposite of the truth.
Bates’s inability to do anything with grace or dignity has damaged the club’s image immeasurably, though, again, few fans care as long as success comes on the field. Some, though, might have more than a twinge of regret at his other most glaring failure, the bankruptcy of the club’s youth policy. Chelsea have not produced a goalkeeper since Steve Francis, whose last season as No 1 was 1982-83. No homegrown striker has scored more than 20 goals for the club (that’s in a career, not a season) since Clive Walker. It was bad enough when young players got into the team, only to be found wanting or, in a few cases (such as Graeme Le Saux and Muzzy Izzet) for the club to misjudge them. Now, of course, they rarely even make it that far. If Carlton Cole wants to play for England he would probably be well advised to fix up a move to somewhere such as Charlton or Southampton before it’s too late.
Perhaps under Abramovich the long-promised academy will take shape and the embarrassingly basic training ground will find a new home. Although it seems unlikely this will be any more of a priority for him than it was for Bates. The attempt to buy success rather than nurture it is hardly likely to change.
In many ways the club’s underlying situation has not really altered, either. It is still part of a loss-making group that would be on the verge of a debt crisis if it wasn’t being supported by the massive wealth of one individual (who seems keen to commit the club to vast new liabilities in player contracts). “Probably” the cash will keep flowing, although being Chelsea you would be unwise to bet that it will bring the titles that some expect. On the other hand, if anything were to happen that prevented Abramovich from pumping that money in, the consequences do not bear thinking about. But in the stable and peaceful world of Russian big business, that’s hardly likely, is it?
From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month