The bid by Chelsea to buy back the freehold of Stamford Bridge was defeated at a stormy meeting yesterday in which the club's supporters angrily rejected the proposal endorsed by owner Roman Abramovich with a large enough threshold of "No" votes.
In a fractious meeting of Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) at the stadium, chairman, Bruce Buck, and the board of CPO came under sustained attack from shareholders who claimed that the sale of a tranche of more than £200,000-worth of shares in recent weeks was allegedly to tip the balance in favour of a "Yes" vote.
As emotions ran high, one shareholder, Mark Wyeth QC, described the terms of the vote as a "farrago". Another shareholder, who gave her name as Kim but did not wish to be identified, said that the club's alleged promise to give "Yes" voters a place on a roll of honour at a new stadium was "shabby". Clint Steele, who initiated a move to get the meeting adjourned, alleged it was "corrupt".
After the vote, Buck claimed that defeat was "not a catastrophe" for the club, which won 61.6 per cent of the vote to the "Yes" side, short of the 75 per cent required under the CPO protocols to buy the freehold. The Chelsea chairman said that the board would now discuss with Abramovich their next move and did not rule out coming back to CPO shareholders with a different offer.
The mood among the 700 shareholders was adversarial from the very start with the chairman of the CPO, Richard King, a particular target. However, the temperature rose when Steele alleged that there had been "manipulation" of the vote by the sale of a relatively large volume of more than 2,000 shares since the club's proposal to buy out CPO was announced on 3 October. Chelsea deny any wrongdoing.
The meeting was moving towards an adjournment on those grounds when King unexpectedly told the shareholders that, with the 4,000 proxy votes counted, the "Yes" lobby required 1,400 of the 1,700 votes controlled by shareholders at the meeting to win. Recognising that the mood in the Great Hall at Stamford Bridge was clearly in favour of a "No" vote, the shareholders present shelved the adjournment and went to a vote. Less than an hour later it was announced to the meeting that the "No" vote had won 38.4 per cent, 2,227 votes, comfortably higher than the 25 per cent threshold required to defeat the "Yes" vote. King, who had to face calls from the floor to resign, said that he would consider his position and announce a decision today.
The club had previously announced on 3 October that they needed to buy the CPO freehold on the four stands and pitch at Stamford Bridge in order to facilitate any future move to a new stadium. CPO was established in 1993 as a block against a developer ever being able to acquire the potentially lucrative freehold of Stamford Bridge and close down the club – as had been a threat in the 1980s and early 1990s.
While the defeat in yesterday's vote by their own supporters was something of an embarrassment for the club, Buck said that he believed that the club had at least established to the majority of its support that Chelsea would have to move at some point. Nevertheless it was clear that they will have to mend relations with many long-term supporters who feel that they were railroaded into the vote.
Later Buck categorically denied allegations that the club had encouraged people sympathetic to their cause to invest the maximum £10,000 in 100 shares blocks to win the vote in recent weeks. He said: "If we wanted some kind of a conspiracy on this particular issue, we would've bought them some months ago.
"There's a lot of suspicion about the purchase I have of 100 shares [bought in April]. If I wanted some kind of subterfuge or to hide that, I could've bought those shares through my mother or grandmother or whatever and hidden the fact that I own them. But I'm proud to own the 100 shares and have them in my name."
Shares have always cost £100, with a limit of 100 per person, but suspicions had been raised at the volume of shares sold in the last few weeks up until the suspension of sales eight days ago. Given that there are believed to be more than 18,000 CPO shares in existence, in many cases the owners of which have proved impossible to trace, yesterday's vote recorded just 5,796 shares – less than one third of the franchise.
The "Say No CPO" (SNCPO) fans' group, which campaigned for a "No" vote, said the club had misjudged the mood. Tim Rolls, of SNCPO, said: "The club simply do not understand the fans. That has been demonstrated by the emotions that surfaced at this meeting."