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Old 07-03-2012, 14:00
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Cool Bored with the whole Chelsea saga? Maybe Roman Abramovich is too | Paul Wilson

The Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's involvement with Chelsea is at a crossroads – will he press on or pull out?

Hands up all those bored rigid with the whole Chelsea saga. Back in the 1960s and 70s it was normal to have a healthy dislike for the London club, on the grounds that their showbizzy, dilettante image was vastly at odds with the working class ethos of the rest of the game, and perhaps the greatest achievement of the whole Roman Abramovich era was to install some grit and consistency where previously there had been a playboy mentality. Just for a few years, roughly the period from José Mourinho to Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea were undeniably quite good, and even people like Terry Collier from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads – "I can't stand Chelsea. They stand for everything I hate in football. They come out looking more like the Young Generation than a football team" – would have had to admit it.

But now that ground has been lost. Chelsea are back to being a monotonous Londoncentric story about what might be rather than what should be. After eight managers in nine years, who cares who the next one will be? Why would anyone in their right mind want to go through what André Villas-Boas has just been through, let alone anyone at a functioning football success story such as Barcelona or Real Madrid? Don't say money, because Pep Guardiola and Mourinho are not exactly paupers with their noses pressed up against the Premier League's shop window. And after something in the region of £400m already spent at Stamford Bridge, this could be the exact point at which the money begins to dry up, and not just because the financial fair play rules are making it difficult to stage the sort of splurge that got Chelsea into the European elite in the first place.

Even before financial fair play Abramovich had begun tightening the purse strings, making it known that he was not prepared to shell out endlessly and that he would prefer to see the club moving towards self-sufficiency. That never seemed especially likely, particularly when Abramovich took extravagant hits on first Fernando Torres then Villas-Boas, the latter not only a risky appointment but one that cost an eye-watering £13m in compensation to Porto. Abramovich got just seven months for his money, a spectacular bust even for an owner who has paid out over £50m to compensate his managers, but that was not why he turned up at the training ground to address the Chelsea players in person at the start of this week. That had more to do with the feeling that Steve Morgan had also picked up on at Wolves, that the players were not doing their best to help the manager out of a difficult situation.

Matters are rather more urgent at Wolves, with relegation at the door and Morgan not being so ludicrously rich he can snap his fingers and find a new manager, much less fund a second coming. But just because Abramovich has played the managerial merry-go-round before does not mean he will carry on doing so for ever. An owner does not give his players pep talks unless he is worried or annoyed about something. It is hard to know exactly what motivated the inscrutable Abramovich, but it is probably safe to suppose that at some level he is not happy. With Chelsea, perhaps with football. It is widely assumed that Abramovich is spending his spare time and spare change on a club because he would like to see it win the Champions League. It may be incorrect to assume that after nine years and with an outlay approaching half a billion, and having produced a couple of near misses and a team going slowly backwards that still needs a wholesale refit, Abramovich will merely smile enigmatically and pay whatever it takes to get Mourinho or Guardiola on the job.

Supposing Abramovich is as bored as the rest of us by the Chelsea shenanigans? Why should he throw good money after bad? Clearly he can afford to, but by the same token he can also afford to simply walk away. To decide that 10 years with a leading club was fun while it lasted but harder work than it initially appeared. One of the great ironies at Chelsea is that while managers have come and gone with bewildering speed, the core of the team has stayed remarkably stable. That in a way is a huge compliment to the strength of the side that Mourinho assembled, but if the Chelsea team are now so powerful that they can make or break managers it is not such a positive return. Even were Mourinho to return one could foresee difficulties, because his former favourites cannot go on forever and he would not be able to spend as freely as last time.

No one is suggesting Abramovich would turn his back on Chelsea or leave them in the lurch, but he could decide that this would be a good time to install a capable manager such as David Moyes or Rafael Benítez, and scale back the spending and the grand ambitions for a while. Because apart from anything else it must have occurred to the Russian by now that he isn't actually any good at the hiring and firing business. Chelsea would surely have had a European Cup by now had he kept hold of Mourinho, and they probably would have done the business under Guus Hiddink in 2009 but for the extraordinary display of refereeing in the semi-final against Barcelona. Hiddink certainly thinks he could have accounted for Manchester United in Rome that season, and based on the displays Chelsea and United put up against Barcelona that year he may have a point.

Whatever United supporters think of that argument, there can be few who disagree that Chelsea were incredibly unlucky to miss out on a second successive Champions League final, and though the rest of Europe may have been unenthused by the prospect of Chelsea v United all over again, those heady years now stand as the high point of Abramovich's involvement with the club. The question now is whether to do it all again, at great expense and no little heartache, or whether to accept that getting to within a penalty-kick of the crown in Moscow was not a bad stab at realising a personal ambition. Who knows, maybe if Chelsea had won in 2008 or 2009 Abramovich would have started to edge towards the door a couple of seasons ago. And maybe he wouldn't.

People don't know him, that is the point. People are guessing that he would like Mourinho back, but it is only a guess, as is the idea that Guardiola would be an immediate success in England after a lifetime with Barcelona. Above all, people are guessing that he will continue with this mad waste of money and managers after almost a decade of diminishing returns. This is only a guess too, but maybe Abramovich is no longer quite as in love with football as he used to be. When his 10th anniversary at Chelsea comes around, the club can celebrate a decade of great success. No European Cup perhaps, but still great success. Much more of what we have seen in the past couple of seasons, however, and the needle will start to edge back towards failure. Epic, monumental failure, in fact; failure on a scale rarely seen before. Abramovich has often been characterised as a gambler – his next call is whether to stick or twist.


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