With the Battle of the Bridge well underway, Hassam Hadi peeks over the parapet to assess the extent of the damage on both sides
The jackals are out there waiting, warns Chelsea chairman Ken Bates and he should know, as he’s spent a lifetime trying to escape them. So far he’s caged them in, blasted them for daring to question his decisions, but now he’s worried they’ve found a new pack leader.
In London SW6, the “jackals” take the form of the Chelsea Independent Supporters’ Association (CISA), who have pinned their colours to the mast of Matthew Harding in his bid to oust the venerable chairman and regain control for us, the punters. “I’ve always said that the worst possible scenario would be an unseemly open row, which is exactly what we’ve got,” says chief jackal Ross Fraser of the CISA.
On the face of it the battle lines are clearly drawn. The outspoken Bates has ruled the club for over 13 largely disappointing seasons, but has managed to secure Stamford Bridge. He may be dictatorial, but stories of plans for electric fences aside, has always claimed to have the best intentions of the fans at heart.
Harding, meanwhile, poses as someone who is far more comfortable in a Ruud Gullit autographed replica shirt, chanting in the stands, than as a soberly dressed, conservative member of the directors’ box, from where he was now been banned by Bates who branded his fellow director as being “totally unfit to be chairman of this club”.
The whole episode has raised a number of points regarding the way Chelsea Football Club is run. A cursory look around Stamford Bridge reveals not so much an impressive sporting stadium but a Spanish hotel building site where the contractors have run out of money. It makes a stark contrast with any other ground in the Premiership (even Bolton, who may perhaps only be fleeting members of the elite, have announced plans for a major new development).
For all his posturing during his tenure in office, Bates has overseen the development of only one stand, the finance for which came in the shape of a loan from his rival and grants from the Football Trust. The South side of the ground is still covered by a temporary stand that fronts a grandiose underground car park while the outmoded West Stand has absolutely no facilities and offers little comfort to any one over five feet tall.
Bates seems to recognize the need to develop Stamford Bridge, which makes one wonder why his only active move to this end has been to relocate a number of seats in the gigantic East Stand. For the privilege of sitting in one of the worst grounds in the top fight, the fans are required to pay the highest prices in the country, an equation that defies even the most advanced thinking.
If that were not enough, the programme is the most expensive on sale, merchandising over-priced, and catering, though improved, far short of ideal. The standard answer offered to fans’ complaints about the cost of supporting their team is the necessity of paying legal fees arising from court battles with previous landlords. Given that these sums are likely to have been high (as usual, exact figures are hard to come by) the fact remains that there is no evidence of other sources of income being utilized. Television money from Sky, the sponsorship deal with Coors and the benefit of ever rising gates all seem to have been swallowed up by running costs which have yet to show themselves either in the stands or, heaven forbid, on the pitch.
The way out of this vicious circle, Bates claims, is to lessen the financial emphasis on the football side by developing the vast expanse on which the ground stands. Enter Chelsea Village, the holding company which owns the football club. Harding’s resignation from the parent board at the beginning of the current furore was interpreted as a “vote of no confidence” in the current regime. Bates retaliated by demanding that if Harding was serious in his intent to take control of the club he should start buying shares, something he has so far refused to do.
Worryingly, as the News of the World recently revealed, there seems to be some confusion as to exactly who does hold the majority of shares in Chelsea Village. Empty offices in Hong Kong do not bode well for a financially-secure future. “Chelsea Village clearly have no money, otherwise they’d have developed the around already,” Ross Fraser says. “I’m worried that we’ll have the smallest pitch in the country hemmed in by commercial developments that will end up like Luton where there is no room to expand the stadium.”
It does seem amazing that a team managed by a man who, everyone keeps telling us, is one of the new breed of exciting coaches, should be forced to play on a postage stamp of a pitch so designed to maximize profits from commercial development. Still, it really doesn’t make much difference when successive Chelsea sides have proved themselves totally incapable of winning anything anyway. (Those sick of seventies nostalgia be warned: Chelsea as a club have yet to advance beyond 1972.)
Strange to recall that Uncle Ken used to champion himself as a man of the people. All right, so he never sang rude songs about Manchester United, but he did elicit the views of the supporters. Unfortunately as time wore on, it grew apparent that he wasn’t heeding any of the issues being raised.
Harding, who has already stated his intention to put the club in trust to safeguard its future, may be another egotistical businessman, but at least he has put his money where his mouth is, by buying the ground, funding construction work and making funds available for the purchase of players. Long suffering Blues fans must be hoping that the Day of the Jackal comes to Stamford Bridge sooner rather than later, or they will be howling in the wilderness for some time to come.
From WSC 107 January 1996. What was happening this month