It was beans on toast, rather than sardines, when John Terry met Eric Cantona. Fourteen years old, a Manchester United supporter, it was a "dream come true" for the young Terry, who had been invited for lunch with the Old Trafford first-team squad in a London hotel before a match against West Ham United nine years ago. "I was too scared to eat it," Terry admitted yesterday. "It's just one of those moments that will always live with me." Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to sign him, as he had signed fellow Essex boy David Beckham who shared a car up to the North-West with Terry for training. Terry said no.
He went to Chelsea instead and made it as a Premiership footballer. Although he insists he has no regrets - Chelsea, after all, had bought him football boots and not just beans as part of their wooing - there was, surely, always the nagging doubt that he had missed out on joining the biggest club in British football. That doubt would have grown last summer when talks over a new, improved contract at Stamford Bridge stalled as the club tried to stave off administration. It looked like he would have to leave anyway. Suddenly, out of the blue, it was all sorted and life would never be the same.
Roman Abramovich arrived. A new world order was established and Chelsea usurped every club as a financial power. The effect of their £111m summer spending was illuminated by one deal - the first deal: the purchase of Glen Johnson from West Ham United. The price was £3m plus £3m on appearances. The custom was to pay in instalments. The very next day, £6m was deposited in West Ham's account - for a 19-year-old with a smattering of first-team football. There were even talks mooted among the powerful G14 - the biggest European clubs - of a transfer cap to curb the spending of the arrivistes, the new Galacticos. Rumour has it the talks, which quickly floundered, were proposed by an increasingly nervous Manchester United.
Tomorrow Chelsea face the champions and Terry will be wearing the captain's armband. He is one of just four first-choice survivors from last season. It is the biggest, most public examination of what the coach, Claudio Ranieri, calls "new Chelsea". The other captain will be Roy Keane, and yesterday Ranieri paid Terry an astonishing compliment. "Ferguson is Manchester [United]. Roy Keane is Manchester," he said. "His mentality is in the team and Roy Keane is an expression of this mentality. There is the same link - Roy Keane is Alex Ferguson as a player."
So who, in that equation, is Chelsea? "Maybe John Terry," Ranieri replied before adding that critics should come back "in 17 years" - the length of time Ferguson has spent at Old Trafford - and ask him the same question then. Except the Italian, and everyone else, knows that he does not have that long. Such spending demands instant success - especially when there are many more millions in the bank.
Tomorrow's match will indicate more than when they faced Liverpool on the opening weekend - or when Besiktas gave Abramovich and his money men their first dispiriting jolt in the Champions' League or when Ranieri then took his team to Rome and destroyed Lazio. It will even mean more than the defeat against Arsenal.
Indeed, that result adds an extra dimension. The Premiership is already a league within a league and the top three are untouchable - even a circumspect Ranieri now calls his team "the third force". Results against each other could be decisive - and Chelsea cannot afford to lose a second in succession. Meeting United provides one further parameter. Against Arsenal they faced a team of boundless character, continuity and organisational strength. A club constructed over many decades. Against United they will face a similar proposition but also one with a spending leverage which, if unequal to Abramovich's apparently infinite wealth, remains threatening. The £30m signing of Rio Ferdinand remains £13m more than Chelsea's record purchase - Damien Duff. And, as if to add to that allure, the outstanding young Irishman would have preferred to have joined United.
Chelsea have work to do. And money alone cannot buy heritage. It can buy the badge but not the love of the badge. What Abramovich is trying to achieve is to construct from the top down - not, like United or Arsenal, from the bottom up. It can be done. Jack Walker's millions bought the championship for Blackburn Rovers, and Chelsea undoubtedly have an advantage with a bigger potential fan base and more cash.
But that is the future. For now it is about tomorrow and whether or not they are true contenders. Ranieri was dampening down expectation. "I'm sure there is a gap because they [United] have been champions since a long time ago," he said. "They are used to staying at a high level in England and in Europe. I think the gap is closing. Of course you cannot compare at this moment Manchester and Chelsea. Chelsea are born new this season. The gap has not closed but we're working hard to close it."
His players, however, are more revealing. Take Duff. "Everyone knows we have to win it this year after all the money we've spent," he says of the Premiership. "I really don't think we can afford to wait two or three years after the quality that has been brought in. There's no point in lying."
To his infinite credit Ranieri has bought well. It is no mean feat. In every spending spree there are usually a few duds. The coach has also, significantly, settled on his best XI - to the extent that he says, in jest or otherwise, that he would not welcome any signings in the January transfer window.
For a manager who revels in being called the "Tinkerman" this is not to be underestimated. The largesse has concentrated his mind, not distracted it. At the start of the season the players could expect four or five changes a game as well as tactical improvisation and diplomatic substitutions. That has stopped.
Chelsea have quickly embraced the habit of winning. And, sometimes, with a team of such beautiful ball-players, of winning ugly. They are not playing that well - yet. Chelsea have prevailed nine times by a single goal and, in Claude Makelele, the Tinkerman has his Tickerman. A signing of intent, of adding foundations to the fount of creativity around him - just as retaining Terry was.
Off the field, things are moving on apace. Sir Bobby Robson, the Newcastle United manager, has understandably questioned Abramovich's stickability. "How long is he going to bankroll it, how long is he going to credit-card a football club?" Robson asks. "There is no way Chelsea can make a profit this year, no way, no way ever." True, but the Russian is no fool. Profits are for the future. He balked at Internazionale's astronomical asking price for the 30-year-old, injury-prone Christian Vieri and bought Hernan Crespo instead. The new players are all, largely, young. They will have a sell-on value if needed.
There are plans afoot to expand Stamford Bridge - some of the underused Chelsea Village developments, the hotels and so on, may be bulldozed. Land for a state-of-the-art training ground at Cobham has been purchased for £15m. And then there was the poaching of Peter Kenyon to be the chief executive to maximise revenues, branding, merchandise. A Manchester United man to take on Manchester United off, as well as on, the field. The regime has the feel that it intends to be around for a long time and, if not, to at least run the club to a world-class standard while it is in place. For Abramovich it is not just a rich man's plaything. He means business.
FIRST XI CHELSEA'S PECKING ORDER
Signed for £15.8m from Parma this summer. Clearly first-choice, although either Duff or Cole can be used in this role. First-choice reserve striker is Gudjohnsen, who has usurped Hasselbaink for the big matches
Signed for £16.8m from Internazionale. In his absence, Ranieri has tended to use Hasselbaink, especially in the Premiership where the Argentinian has rarely started. The two have started together only once
Signed for £17m from Blackburn in the summer. Ranieri has increasingly used Duff in this role although the Italian has deliberately maintained a fluidity, and interchangeability, with the three midfielders in front of Makelele. Veron is the alternative although, sometimes, Lampard is pushed just in front as against Southampton. Further back-up provided by Cole
Juan Sebastian Veron
Signed for £15m from Manchester United in the summer. Veron is just as likely to be in central midfield or on the left. Duff is the conventional alternative if he is not playing in the centre or with a "free" role. Back-up provided by Cole or Petit
Signed for £11m from West Ham in 2001. Just as likely to be used in front of Makelele. Veron is also occasionally pushed right. Back-up provided by Geremi (who was meant to be first-choice when he signed), Cole and Gronkjaer if Ranieri wants a more conventional winger
Signed for £16.6m from Real Madrid in the summer. The "battery" that makes Chelsea tick. Cover provided by Geremi or, when fit, Petit. Lampard can also be withdrawn
Signed for £7m from Southampton in the summer. Secure as first-choice, having easily displaced Babayaro. Only threat will be if Ranieri switches Gallas
Signed for £6.2m from Marseilles in 2001. May be moved across to left-back if Ranieri decides to play both him and Desailly. The coach's experiment with three centre-halves against Besiktas failed spectacularly
Signed as trainee in 1997. Captain in the continued absence of Desailly, who will do well to force his way back into the fully-fit side. Cover is also provided by Huth
Signed for £6m from West Ham in the summer. Was initially regarded as one for the future but has displaced the unconvincing Melchiot. There is speculation that Valencia's Ayala, who also plays centre-half, may be signed to provide experience
Signed for free from Castel Di Sangro in 2000. First-choice replacement is Ambrosio, but he has been alarmingly error-prone. Sullivan also available; Macho is injured. None provide sufficient cover, or pressure, for Cudicini so Chelsea may target another
Mario Stanic: sometimes used as midfielder or auxiliary striker. Could provide cover at left-back
Carlton Cole: Striker on loan at Charlton but still likely to have a future at Chelsea
Mikael Forssell: Striker on loan at Birmingham. Likely to be sold in the summerReuse content