Blame game

Chelsea's money has raised standards, but has it put other clubs' finances under pressure?

Many people in Britain hold ceremonial titles, positions of office that sound grand but involve no real responsibilities. The Queen Mother used to be Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, which once involved collecting taxes and dealing with criminals in five towns on the south coast, while the actress Penelope Keith was similarly honoured with the title of High Sheriff of Surrey. Another such position is the chairman of Chelsea Football Club. This post is wholly meaningless, because all power in the club is invested in their billionaire owner, who can do what he pleases, when he pleases, with no constraints on the amount of money he chooses to spend and no requirement to justify any of his actions. The chairman’s role is simply to pretend to the world that Chelsea function like any other club, with a limit on their purchasing power and a long-term business plan.

This title is a relatively new one as sinecures go. All the bearer has to do is turn up to games and applaud. It is currently held by an American lawyer called Bruce Buck, an unprepossessing individual who occasionally backs into the limelight to stress the common or garden ordinariness of Chelsea FC. He popped up again on October 8 to do his little verbal dance, only this time his dander was up. With football drawn into the raging debate about the global debt crisis, FA chairman Lord Triesman had voiced his concern about the £3 billion debt built up by Premier League clubs. Chelsea’s most recent figures suggesting that they owe £736 million, in the form of interest-free loans from their besotted owner.

Buck indignantly rejected any suggestion that they might be partly culpable for driving up transfer fees and wages. “From the start there was a transfer market for everyone else and one for Chelsea,” he told the Express. “The problem is everyone wants to charge Chelsea more than anyone else. The guy that delivers the milk, the guy that sells us pencils, clubs that sell us players.” You would hope that Chelsea made a better job of negotiating with their milkman than they did with AC Milan, to whom they gave £30m for Andriy Shevchenko two years ago, before loaning him back. In fact, Buck insists Chelsea intend to save money by buying up young local talent: “One of our priorities is finding young English players. They settle quickly and understand the English game.” 

Ashley Cole did indeed settle after signing from Arsenal in 2006, but no other English recruits have become regulars at Chelsea lately – as Shaun Wright‑Phillips, Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker can confirm. Earlier the same week, UEFA president Michel Platini suggested that clubs with massive debts might not be allowed to compete in European competition in the future, but Buck remained serenely confident that his club were not being targeted: “Platini probably did not understand the actual financial condition of Chelsea.” Or else he understands it only too well. 

From WSC 262 December 2008