Sam Wallace: Chelsea fans have the future in their hands – and beneath their feet
When you read the original letter that Ken Bates, then Chelsea chairman, sent to his club's fans on 18 March, 1993, inviting them to invest in a new company that would own the freehold to the pitch and four stands at Stamford Bridge, it strikes you that this is a football club communication from a different age.
Then, the Premier League was in its first season. Leeds United, Bates' current club, were league champions. David Webb was Chelsea manager. A Chelsea fan, John Major, was in 10 Downing Street. But most remarkable was a club chairman, in effect, giving his club's greatest asset to the fans for £100 a pop. Leeds are likely to win the league title before that happens again.
Say what you like about Bates, and many have, but his was a once-in-a-lifetime offer to Chelsea fans. They would be wrong to throw it away on Thursday by voting "Yes" to Chelsea's proposal to buy out Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) – the company Bates established – in order to reclaim the freehold of Stamford Bridge.
The question of whether CPO shareholders should sell the freehold back to Chelsea is a complex issue but voting "No" to the sale on Thursday does not represent "No" to Chelsea ever leaving Stamford Bridge. A "No" vote does not mean the supporters do not trust Roman Abramovich. A "No" vote on Thursday does not rule out the possibility that some time in the future there would be a case to vote "Yes".
A "No" vote on Thursday simply means that Chelsea supporters who bought shares in CPO do not want to give up the protection over their club that was enshrined in CPO's creation more than 18 years ago.
The club wish to buy out CPO because, they say, should they decide to purchase a site on which to build a new stadium they will have to move quickly, and they say no developer will accept Stamford Bridge without the freehold. Despite this apparent urgency, Chelsea's official position as regards the new stadium is that they have no plans to move.
Given the reduced options in south-west London – reading between the lines only the sites at Battersea Nine Elms, White City and Earls Court are realistic – perhaps it would be fair to say that they are playing their cards close. In the tough world of multi-million pound commercial land deals it is not the smartest tactic to advertise your next move.
But even so, why the sudden rush? Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 knowing full well that the deal did not include the freehold on the stands and pitch. Since then he has embarked on the biggest investment programme ever in an English football club, pre-Sheikh Mansour. All of this without owning the very blades of grass upon which his array of multi-million pound footballers have won Chelsea's three Premier League titles.
To date, his total investment in Chelsea, the club say, is £800m and for more than eight years not owning the CPO freehold has not been an issue. Yet Chelsea gave CPO shareholders just 24 days between announcing their intention on 3 October to buy back the freehold and Thursday's vote.
The fans' group "Say No CPO", which has been convened in a hurry, has made a modest request. Members say they would endorse voting to sell the freehold of Stamford Bridge if, in return, Chelsea gave them the freehold to any new stadium that was built before 2030, as long as it was within three miles of the current ground and Abramovich was still in control.
To fund the new stadium, Chelsea could redevelop Stamford Bridge and at the Samsung Battersea Bridge – or wherever the club ends up – the shareholders of CPO will still have the same rights of protection they have over their current 106-year-old ground. The club can concentrate on filling 60,000 seats and conforming to Financial Fair Play rules.
The problem for Chelsea fans is that once the CPO is gone – as it will be with a 75 per cent "Yes" vote on Thursday – it will be gone for ever. It is not the current owner whom the club need to fear; it is the owner that might come in 50 or 100 years. The future of the Bridge was imperilled in the 1980s because the grandsons of Gus Mears, the club's jolly Victorian founder, sold to a developer.
Many of the supporters of England's biggest clubs have fought battles with their owners. At Manchester United, there was horror at the size of the debt the Glazers loaded onto the club. At Liverpool, there was the debilitating fight to be rid of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The less said about the indignities visited on the likes of Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday by past owners, the better.
At every club the story is different. At some it is about debt. At others, like Arsenal, it is a case of who owns the shares. At Chelsea, it is about land. Arguably no club in England occupies a more lucrative plot than the 13 acres of prime west London real estate upon which Chelsea sits and, through a quirk of fate, the supporters who own shares in CPO hold the key.
CPO is a democratic concept. One share costs £100 and no one person is allowed to own more than 100. They are not "souvenirs" from a fight long since won, as the "Vote Yes" lobby keep saying. They are the keys to protecting the club's future and if the CPO shareholders toss them away on Thursday, they will never get them back.
Qatar offer will reveal the character of Capello
There are lots of things that Fabio Capello could do when he leaves the England job next July, but if he goes to Qatar to take up a consultancy role with that country's football association we will know that it is the money talking.
The job on offer for Capello is said to be working on a structure for children's coaching and the professional league in the country. The Qataris clearly have not noticed that Fabio's attention seems to wander as soon as conversation goes beyond the top half of the Premier League table and, as for the Championship, he has never watched a game there despite selecting Jay Bothroyd when he was a Cardiff City player.
Of course, Qatar would only be doing what the English FA once did: using their wealth to bag a famous foreigner but if Capello was to change his mind and stay in the game, you would hope he turns his thoughts to a more serious pursuit.
Mason and Co look cut above for England
I watched Derby County's Mason Bennett play for England under-16s this month and he looked a terrific prospect. He made his first-team debut for Derby on Saturday at the age of 15 years and 99 days, the youngest player ever to start a Football League game. From the same England team, 14-year-old Seyi Ojo of MK Dons has already been the subject of a bid from Chelsea and Dan Crowley of Aston Villa looks just as good. This lot were not even born in time for Euro 96.
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