Chelsea stadium comment: Twickenham idea is an exciting one, but also a reminder that Stamford Bridge is not viable

The current size of Chelsea's current home is simply not big enough

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There is nothing much remarkable about Estadio Jose Alvalade in Lisbon where Chelsea will play their Champions League game on Tuesday night. Opened a year before Euro 2004, it was built next to the site of Sporting Lisbon’s former stadium, named after their early 20th century founder. In the inaugural game, a friendly against Manchester United in 2003, a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo so flummoxed John O’Shea that Sir Alex Ferguson joked in his book years later that the Irishman developed a migraine. Another detail that Chelsea’s officials will find impossible to ignore is that it is bigger than Stamford Bridge.

Bigger by no small margin either. The home of Sporting Lisbon, with a capacity of 50,095 just gets into the top 50 of European football stadiums. It should be said that there are only three English clubs teams usually included in the different versions of that list – Old Trafford, the Emirates and St James’ Park – but the Bridge, with a 41,837 capacity, further reduced for Champions League nights, is not even close.

Everyone at the club knows that the stadium question goes right to the heart of Chelsea’s future. In order that they can comply with Uefa Financial Fair Play, and remain competitive, Chelsea need a stadium that holds between 55,000 and 60,000. In June, the club signalled that it was going back to Plan A, solving the intractable problem of squeezing a bigger stadium out of the 13 acres of the Stamford Bridge site. It is the club’s one and only home in its  109-year-old history and understandably a sacred place for supporters.

It was this change of direction that led the club to approach the RFU about using Twickenham for one season while their own stadium was rebuilt. The home of English rugby union is less than eight miles to the west of Stamford Bridge, it has a capacity larger than Old Trafford and almost double that of Chelsea’s ground. It is not ideal – these things rarely are. But put it this way, it is not in the same league as moving to Milton Keynes.

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A view of Twickenham Stadium

 

Leaving aside the problems of expanding Stamford Bridge for a minute – and goodness knows, you could fill pages with those obstacles – the temporary Twickenham option feels like the first innovative resolution for a long time in the club’s stadium debate. It is not only a home in crowded west London, where land prices are among the highest on the planet. It also gives Chelsea a whole new set of possibilities.

Relocation to a temporary home is usually something to be stoically endured for the long-term good but watching elite-level football in a modern 80,000-capacity stadium as well-appointed as Twickenham, would not be an onerous task. It could prove quite a thrill for Chelsea, too. As house-swaps go, it would be the equivalent of getting the keys to a Beverley Hills mansion with pool and tennis courts.

 

Cue the jokes about whether Chelsea would have the fans to fill Twickenham in the event of a temporary relocation. In reality, it would be quite incredible if they did – even just once. It would be a challenge for any English club, United included, to sell out an 80,000 all-seater for around 25 games a season, especially in light of recent police figures which revealed true attendances at Old Trafford and the Emirates to be well below capacity.

Nevertheless, a big stadium is not a reason to deter Chelsea. Instead it represents a challenge. Like all the top clubs, they are fond of those spurious surveys that project the millions of followers a club has around the globe. Could Chelsea make their numbers translate into bums on seats? Could they be more flexible about pricing?

There will naturally be the protests from the people who live around the stadium, and sympathy is due given that Twickenham does not have a Tube station on its doorstep. The local authority, Richmond council, said on Monday that it was “not happy” about the proposal. Ultimately, however, Richmond admits that the final decision will be down to the RFU. Unlike the relationship between Wembley and Brent council, Richmond does not have the power to limit Twickenham events, which currently number between 20 and 25 a season, between August and May.

The RFU has rejected partnerships with football in the past, including the offer of a part in the 2018 Fifa World Cup bid. The reaction to Chelsea’s approach has been open-minded and there is an RFU board meeting in which the matter will be discussed. The idea of Chelsea using Twickenham was first raised in 1997, when the Ken Bates regime redeveloped the Shed End and while the initial response was favourable, it went no further.

Any potential relocation to Twickenham would be contingent on a plan which made redeveloping Stamford Bridge viable, although it is a sign of the club’s belief that expansion is better than relocation that they have approached the RFU. That said, the problems of increasing the capacity of Stamford Bridge are huge.

In one analysis of increasing the size of the Matthew Harding Stand it was calculated that the new seats would be a distance of 150m from the action, or a pitch and a half’s length away. The cost of adding just a few thousand to the capacity could work out at around £20,000 a seat, according to a recent club study. The water table is too high. They would have to build out and over the train-lines to the north and east of the stadium. The list goes on.

In the June announcement, the club said it would embark upon a public consultation on the surrounding land and the “necessary” infrastructure required “to ensure a successful and feasible redevelopment” of the stadium. That was tacit acknowledgment that the forlorn hunt to acquire an alternative site, most notably the Lillie Bridge site north of the Earls Court exhibition centre and Battersea Power Station, was over.

If the club are to compete long-term with the European elite they will certainly need a bigger stadium than the likes of Sporting Lisbon and they will have to build it in a city which is regularly cited as the most expensive on earth. Roman Abramovich cannot conjure a new patch of land in west London, but he can build a stadium – infrastructure cost is FFP-exempt – although whether he would fund that himself remains to be seen.

The 2015 World Cup would make the 2016-2017 season the earliest that Chelsea could relocate to Twickenham. In the politically fraught, financially punishing world of stadium planning and building, a year away would be the least of their worries. In fact, Twickenham would be one of the more exciting parts. But either way, staying at Stamford Bridge, in its current size, is the one option Chelsea cannot consider.

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