After a season treading water – albeit successfully enough to grab the financial lifebelt of a Uefa Cup place – Chelsea go back into the swim against Newcastle United this afternoon determined to reclaim a place among the top four clubs in the land, but admitting that it will not be done with the nucleus of English players that Claudio Ranieri once hoped to construct.
The four summer recruits hoping to play a part today are two Frenchmen (Emmanuel Petit and William Gallas), a Dutchman (Boudewijn Zenden) and a lone Briton in Frank Lampard. In addition, Jon Harley, an England Under-21 International, has been allowed to leave for Fulham because the Nigerian Celestine Babayaro is first-choice at left-back.
"Foreigners have given Chelsea the most successful era in the club's history," said the club's managing director Colin Hutchinson. "Claudio said with the best of intentions that he'd like an English backbone to the team, but while it's a great ambition, it isn't achievable. When you look around to bring in quality players, where are they available? You're not going to get Liverpool, Manchester United, Leeds and Arsenal selling them to Chelsea.
"We brought Frank Lampard in because of circumstances at West Ham and he cost £11m. But the English system doesn't encourage Premiership clubs to do deals with each other because if we buy a player from a Premier League club he's got to be paid for within 12 months; if we buy one from, say, Inter Milan, he can probably be paid for over three years."
Hutchinson knows about these things. Given far more authority than most people would assume by the perceived dictator-chairman Ken Bates, he is the man who not only negotiates fees and wages for new players, but identifies new managers, once he and Bates have decided it is time for a change.
That time came unexpectedly early for Gianluca Vialli, four matches after his side had begun last season with victories over Manchester United in the Charity Shield and West Ham in an opening Premiership match that held the promise of a genuine challenge for the title.
"The circumstances were such that something had to be done," Hutchinson said, just a touch mysteriously. "We always said the reasons would be kept private. Luca agreed with that and we've honoured it. Ruud Gullit and Vialli were my choices as managers, so if things didn't work out, I take the blame. The key factor in those appointments was continuity."
Vialli, like Gullit before him, had been promoted from player to manager, adding more cups to the Dutchman's and reaching the Champions League, but failing to take a first championship since 1955. Critically, the average age of the side was over 30, and this time, it was decided, an outsider was required to do the necessary weeding out.
"There's never a perfect time to restructure your squad, but we knew we had to prepare for the future," added Hutchinson, whose files held the identity of the man to undertake that rebuilding: "We follow European football quite extensively, we were aware of Claudio's work and we had good recommendations [about him] from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Gianfranco Zola."
Those players, who had worked with the new man at Atletico Madrid and Napoli respectively, were reasonably sure of their place and their role. As Gustavo Poyet revealed in these pages last week, others found the constant changes of personnel and tactics, often in the course of a single game, difficult to cope with. Poyet, Dennis Wise and Frank Leboeuf, all well into their 30s, have moved on, but the current squad will have to accept Ranieri's belief that modern football demands that sort of tactical flexibility. This season, those ideas will be expressed in his improving English, as will media interviews, which should allow his natural warmth to come across better.
"We're very happy with him," said Hutchinson. "It took him a little time to find his feet, but if you look at our form after Christmas, we did pretty well. Our target now is one of the four Champions League places."
Off the field, Bates and Hutchinson believe they have done their bit; a £15m training centre at Sunbury awaits planning permission, and in among the hotels and restaurants of "Chelsea Village" the new West Stand will be open today, allowing a crowd of more than 42,000. Stamford Bridge has not seen that number since 1986. Indeed, only seven years ago a Premiership game against Coventry attracted just 8,932. It will not help Ranieri, but it is worth remembering how recently Chelsea were swimming against the tide.Reuse content