Ranieri bears brunt of Bates' Village dream

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Claudio Ranieri, the third major overseas name Ken Bates has hired in four years to shoulder the burden of his "Chelsea dream", has immediately prescribed double training, with knuckling down, for the highly-paid stars said to be sulking in the Stamford Bridge dressing room. Bates' peremptory sacking of Gianluca Vialli only five games into the season will leave Ranieri in no doubt about the chairman's demands.

Claudio Ranieri, the third major overseas name Ken Bates has hired in four years to shoulder the burden of his "Chelsea dream", has immediately prescribed double training, with knuckling down, for the highly-paid stars said to be sulking in the Stamford Bridge dressing room. Bates' peremptory sacking of Gianluca Vialli only five games into the season will leave Ranieri in no doubt about the chairman's demands.

A Chelsea manager now bears more than mere footballing ambition. Bates' strategy for Chelsea, particularly since the 1992 Premier League breakaway and football's subsequent commercial revolution, has been spectacular - spending hugely on a multi-national glamour parade of players, while building his hotels-to-health-club Chelsea Village empire around the ground - described, without irony, as the "Covent Garden of West London".

It is also spectacularly high- risk. Chelsea's debts, according to the latest, 1998-99, club accounts, were £115m. Of Chelsea Village's principal activities - football, catering, hotels, retailing, media activities, travel agency, car park management, event organisation, property development and management - run by 17 subsidiary companies - only football (£3.5m) and property sales (£767,000) made a profit. Chelsea Village turned over £91m, but still made an overall loss, of £713,378. The hotels, which had had only 70 per cent occupancy, lost £2.2m.

The £115m owed to creditors included the bulk of a £75m mortgage bond, taken out in December 1997, which costs Chelsea 8.75 per-cent interest per year - £6.5m. The bond, which has to be repaid in 2007, was itself taken out to pay off around £29.5m of existing debt, buy the Stamford Bridge freehold for £11m, and "assist in the completion of the development." Over the 10 years, the interest payments alone will have cost Chelsea £66.5m.

Ken Bates refused to be interviewed for this column, or to answer specific faxed questions relating to the ownership and running of Chelsea Village. But he regularly, angrily, refutes suggestions that footballing success is now a necessity for Chelsea's financial stability, insisting that Chelsea Village will move into profit. Yet Bates' long-term close friend David Mellor, writing his own commentary on Vialli's sacking last week, said that perceived weaknesses in Vialli's management "were troubling some of those who, having invested so much, couldn't afford to contemplate failure."

The Champions' League, in which Chelsea played for the first time last season after finishing third in the Premiership in 1998-99, brought Chelsea £11.6m in television revenue alone. Coupled with revenue from seven glamour home ties, the Champions' League offers riches on which Chelsea can ill-afford to miss out. Even a five-game sniff of not making it this season was deemed not worth the risk.

Bates, who surveys his empire from a Chelsea Village penthouse overlooking the ground, points proudly to his achievement in transforming Chelsea, which he bought for £1 in 1982, taking on the club's debts. But for all that, Stamford Bridge hosts a corps of bitterly disgruntled supporters. James Edwards, editor of the Chelsea Independent fanzine, does not claim to speak for all fans, who he says are divided into pro and anti- Bates camps, but for "a significant alienated proportion". Chief among their complaints is the price of tickets.

As recently as 11 years ago, before post-Taylor Report ground rebuilding - and universal price hikes, Chelsea's average price was £7.30, then the League's highest. Chelsea tickets are still the Premiership's most expensive, but now even the cheapest season ticket is a whopping £590. A much-hyped part of the West Stand's final development will be 10 corporate boxes, costing £1m a season for 10 seasons.

"After all these years," sighs Edwards, "it's hard still to be outraged. But it is disgraceful. We have had hundreds of letters from lifelong Chelsea fans saying they simply cannot afford to go anymore."

Edwards is a confirmed Chelsea Village sceptic, saying: "We'd have preferred Chelsea to concentrate on football, build a bigger stadium, which might have been able to charge reasonable prices. Instead, we have a huge, speculative development, not making money, effectively being subsidised by the football."

Supporters have also raised concerns for years over the mystery at the heart of the ownership of Chelsea Village. Bates himself has around 20 per cent - which, at yesterday's share price makes the £1 he paid in 1982 now worth £17.25m to him personally. Previously, Bates has declared he holds these shares through Mayflower Securities, a company registered in the offshore tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, but the 1999 accounts simply state that he owns them personally. The accounts name the only other three major shareholders as Havering Ltd, an offshore company based in Guernsey; NY Nominees, a London-based nominee company which does not trade, which had 22.5 per cent; and Swan Management, another Guernsey-based company, which, since the £40m deal with BSkyB last summer, manages 26.3 per cent.

Bates has never revealed who is behind the trust fund which owns the shares managed by Swan. In the book Ken Bates: My Chelsea Dream, by The Sun's football writer Brian Woolnough, who had "unique access to the man himself", this major shareholder is described as: "An offshore investment trust based in Guernsey and operated by friends of Bates."

There is nothing illegal about British companies being largely owned by offshore trusts, out of the taxman's reach. But the mystery behind Chelsea's largest shareholder has provoked plentiful speculation, and is a source of profound disquiet to some supporters. Football Association and Premier League rules on club ownership are pathetically thin, concentrating solely on the requirement that the same person cannot be substantially involved in two clubs. They do not require clubs, even major clubs, actually to declare who owns them.

The Chelsea Action Groupof supporters has written to Adam Crozier, the FA's chief executive, expressing concern about the propriety of anonymous offshore holdings, and asking how the FA can enforce even its own limited rules on multiple ownership if the identity of a club's owners is hidden. Feeling that Crozier's reply did not address the issue, the CAG yesterday wrote to Minister of Sport Kate Hoey, raising similar questions.

"We implore you," the letter said, "to look at the matters we have raised."

Bates, along with his Chelsea chairmanship, sits on the FA's main 12-man board, and is chairman of the FA company building the new Wembley. With an office block planned, a hotel, 2,000-cover banqueting centre and visitor attraction, the £500m project, to be financed with a £400m, 25- year loan, is being built in Chelsea Village's image.

"The project's ambition and scale," said the Wembley spokesman Chris Palmer, "are due in large part to Ken's experience at Chelsea."

Yet ambitious as it is, Bates' Chelsea experience is currently laden with debt, loss-makingin most areas, shrouded in doubt over its ownership, with an air of desperation whistling over the football team. The national stadium, supported by £100m Lottery money, may be backing Chelsea Village as a winner, but its chances depend largely now on Ranieri, as to whether his new boss's west London Xanadu proves to be a stately pleasure dome or an overblown folly.

davidconn@freeuk.com

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