Chelsea fans from all walks of life... but united in anger
There was a man who watched his first game at Stamford Bridge in 1942. There was a woman who defied her Tottenham Hotspur-supporting father to follow Chelsea in the 1970s. There was a Chelsea-supporting QC who used words like "farrago" with accomplished ease, and knew his way around company law. There was a well-spoken man called Charles who said he felt "alienated" by the behaviour of the Chelsea board.
They all had one thing in common: they were Chelsea fans and Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) shareholders and they were very, very angry.
Yesterday's extraordinary meeting of CPO, convened to vote on whether the club could buy back the freehold of Stamford Bridge, was ferocious at times. For Bruce Buck, the club chairman, and Ron Gourlay, the chief executive, it was two hours of bombardment. For Richard King, the CPO chairman, whom some shareholders alleged had not represented their interests, it was even worse.
The AGMs of football clubs are often occasions for bloodletting, an opportunity for supporters to put their views to a board that spend the rest of the year in the more protected territory of the directors' box. It was the same in the "plc" days of Manchester United and under David Moores' reign at Liverpool. And for Chelsea, a club often accused by rivals of lacking a meaningful history, there was plenty of evidence yesterday that this club has a soul, and a determined, engaged support.
Having had little more than three weeks to organise, the "No" lobby of Chelsea fans defeated the club's proposals and, as they retired to celebrate in the Butcher's Hook pub across the road from their 106-year-old home, you were reminded that there are few opponents more determined than an English football fan nursing an injustice.
For Roman Abramovich, the club's multibillionaire owner, this was a defeat to the ordinary man and woman of Stamford Bridge which, in itself, is remarkable. Yet for all the brutal exchanges that had taken place during the day, it still ended with a sense that Chelsea could move forward.
At times Buck had struggled to mask his anger at the fury of the supporters, yet his final words raised a cheer all around Stamford Bridge's Great Hall. "I don't view this as an 'us against you' situation," he said. "We are all Chelsea fans. I only hope that on Saturday we can all come together and support this club and beat the crap out of Arsenal."
It should be said that he meant that in the American sporting vernacular, not a call to arms on the Fulham Road. But it also felt like an admission from a man familiar with the cut and thrust of the boardroom that, despite this defeat, there was still common ground with the supporters who had just thrown out his proposals.
Did the club make mistakes? You bet they did. Rushing this vote through in 24 days simply raised supporters' suspicions. Chelsea also misunderstood the principle that CPO shares are a cherished stake in the club. We may never get to the bottom of who bought those 2,000-plus shares in the last few weeks but, as was pointed out yesterday, why should those shares cancel out the votes of supporters who scrimped and saved to buy them 14 years ago?
On the other side, the "No" lobby, led by "Say No CPO" (SNCPO), has always maintained that they would support leaving Stamford Bridge under different terms. Those terms would involve the club giving them a freehold at a new stadium, and Abramovich remaining in charge. Yes, it would be unprecedented but then every club is different.
It should be said that for all the fury yesterday, Abramovich was never referred to in anything other than the most respectful terms, as you would imagine for a man who has pumped £800m into the club. One shareholder, Patricia Penny, began by saying that she had "nothing but respect for Mr Abramovich" before asking the simple questions: What if something happened to Roman? And what if Roman's children are not interested in Chelsea?
Another woman, who gave her name as Kim, reminded the meeting that it was the grandsons of Gus Mears, the club's visionary founder, who sold the freehold to Stamford Bridge which created all the problems that CPO was eventually created to prevent ever happening again. There were veterans of that old battle with Cabra Estates over the future of Stamford Bridge in the 1980s for whom the wounds were still raw.
On the other side, it was the chief executive, Ron Gourlay, who gave the most impressive answer of all on why Chelsea would one day have to leave Stamford Bridge. He spoke about a 38,000 reduced capacity for Champions League games that would be further diminished by the greater demands of television; the pressure a small capacity put on ticket prices and the limitations all that would put on the club's ambition.
"Stamford Bridge is fine, if that is what a 'No' vote brings," Gourlay said, "and we will do our utmost. But that will bring other major challenges for us. We are trying to build a brand – we are a football club but we also have to be viewed as a brand – and the success of this football club has to be financed."
Much as any football fan hates for their club to be referred to as "a brand" – and Gourlay made no apologies for the term – there is an acceptance among all but the diehard Chelsea support that if they want to continue the success, and to conform to Uefa financial fair play, then they may have to move on.
"We always knew that this was going to be a very emotional meeting because it's an emotional issue," Buck said. "We accepted that and I thought the meeting went OK in terms of the dialogue."
He admitted that the club has always encountered 'difficulty understanding the make-up of the shareholder-base' and certainly his statistic that only 12 per cent of current season ticket holders are CPO shareholders went down badly at the meeting.
So after three weeks of struggle between club and supporters, the ball is in the club's half of the court. To make a misjudgement once might just about be forgivable for the club's support. What they come up with as a solution will surely define Chelsea's future.
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