In his first week back from holiday, Chelsea's manager, Claudio Ranieri, could be forgiven for not knowing, in any sense, whether he is coming or going. His chairman's decision to embrace the Russian bear has shaken up football's bear market - prices for players and television contracts falling everywhere - to such a degree that one financial analyst claimed it had "changed the face of the sport".
Working for a billionaire owner in Roman Abramovich, as he hopes to continue doing, will certainly change the approach of the genial Roman manager, whose whole strategy of the past two years will now be turned upside down again; the irony being that Ranieri has just achieved his most successful season at the club, earning a place in the final Champions' League qualifying round, without spending a rouble.
In three seasons at Stamford Bridge he has operated under constantly changing criteria. Initially, money could be spent as long as the average age of the squad came down; so £40m was shelled out on Jesper Gronkjaer, Boudewijn Zenden, Frank Lampard, William Gallas and Emmanuel Petit, and half of it recouped on players who have done little or nothing since leaving, like Tore Andre Flo (for whom Rangers paid £12m!), Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet and Jon Harley. But as pay-back time to the banks grew nearer, there was virtually nothing available.
A Kevin Keegan would have raged about what it said in the brochure and stomped off; Ranieri shrugged and got on with the job, which actually led to sensible consolidation as the inveterate tinkerer developed a much more consistent approach to selection. The result was fourth place in the Premiership, narrow cup defeats by Arsenal and Manchester United, and only one notable failure, the usual embarrassing Uefa Cup collapse. Meanwhile Bates, as well as acknowledging that Chelsea had paid "stupid salaries and stupid transfer fees" in some cases, was telling agents: "We've stopped signing pensioners."
A sensible policy for the new regime would be to strengthen the squad just enough to cement their popularity with supporters, without offering the impression that they can be held to ransom by greedy clubs, players and agents, who may feel that newly enriched Chelsea are again the soft touch they were under Gianluca Vialli and Ruud Gullit. Bates appeared to be on the right track in suggesting late last week: "This man [Abramovich] is a billionaire and hasn't become that by making silly, emotional decisions. It will be evolution, not revolution. We're only four or five weeks from the season, and it'd be madness to buy players and throw them in willy-nilly.
"But we are looking to strengthen, as we're one or two short after letting a few go at the end of the season. We're looking for quality players and were looking for them before last Thursday."
Part of the plan is also to offer more attractive terms to players Ranieri wants to keep, such as John Terry and "my lion" Carlton Cole, who have now agreed improved contracts, and William Gallas, who has not. Sadly, the new riches came just too late to dissuade the incomparable Gianfranco Zola from returning to his native Sardinia. Even at 37 next season, he will be a huge loss, concentrating Ranieri's mind on a creative midfielder as a prime requirement. Edgar Davids fits the bill; of the young Englishmen under consideration, West Ham's Joe Cole would be a more likely proposition than Charlton's Scott Parker, if only because his club need the money more urgently. The new owner, according to Bates, "had a print-out of every top player in Europe", and Chelsea supporters can expect their club to be linked with most of them in the next few weeks, Milan's formidable defender Alessandro Nesta (who is not for sale) having been the first.
The worry for Ranieri would be if his new master had print-outs of Europe's leading coaches as well. He deserves Bates's backing, whether or not he is reassured by Abramovich's line that there are no plans for a change of manager "at the moment", or by the club's official statement that "the purchaser has given assurances to the board of Chelsea Village that it will fully safeguard the existing contractual and statutory employment rights... of all Chelsea Village employees".
The Italian arrived as an unknown quantity in this country, compounded for players and supporters by his lack of adequate English, so that some began to wonder if he was to be west London's Christian Gross. After a difficult start, he has done a steady if unspectacular job given the recent financial constraints: sixth, sixth and fourth in the Premiership and one (losing) FA Cup final. The chief failure has been in Europe, with those three successive early exits from the Uefa Cup, after the last two of which questions have been raised about his future. They will be asked again after every significant setback of a season that begins with a friendly away to Lazio on 18 July.
As for the new men, it is disappointing that the Football Association are still nowhere near introducing a "fit and proper person" test to examine the credentials of such influential figures as Abramovich and his proposed board members, leaving it to the government instead. But Stamford Bridge's Russian Evolution promises to make fascinating watching.Reuse content