Russian buyer to use Chelsea as a 'calling card'

Takeover deal has not only saved cash-strapped Premiership club but looks to have few drawbacks for billionaire Russian buyer or fans
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The Independent Football

A solid-gold bust of Jesper Gronkjaer should be mounted in the reception at Stamford Bridge. It was his goal against Liverpool which secured entry in the qualifying round of the Champions' League and probably persuaded Roman Abramovich to consider buying - and saving - Chelsea.

The good news for fans is that their club has been secured. The debts have been cleared and they can make a genuine tilt at winning trophies seated safely in one of the best, fully-paid for, football grounds in the country.

The bad news? Well, amazingly, there may not be any bad news. True, Abramovich is unlikely to go on a wild spending spree buying up the finest players throughout Europe. "That only happens in fantasyland and Real Madrid," one source said. Furthermore, he may not be around in the long term.

But whatever the motive, it is a deal which, at face value, can only be regarded as incredibly fortunate. Henk Potts, an analyst at Barclays Private Clients, said: "It's a deal that changes the face of English and European football. This guy has got real fire power - it makes the house that Jack built at Blackburn look like a bungalow. If I was a Chelsea supporter, I'd be celebrating."

Abramovich has not, despite the club's depressed share price and much debate over the primeness of its central London property value, acquired Chelsea on the cheap. Commercial property prices are on the slide, as is the football industry. Even the playing "assets" are dwindling. In striking a £60m deal, he has probably paid around £50m over the odds for Chelsea.

So why? Firstly, because he can. Secondly, Abramovich undoubtedly arrived at Stamford Bridge yesterday with an agenda. "In effect, what he is paying for is a very, very expensive calling card," one business analyst said. The allure of London should not be overestimated. Major oil companies are based throughout Europe and wheeling and dealing while the owner of a premier football club, is highly attractive. Abramovich may, as reported, have considered Manchester United, Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur, but Chelsea were always the easiest to secure.

"Owning a big football club is a bit better than being a member of a golf club," the analyst said. "Football is a good meeting point. He will enjoy the Champions' League campaign, London is a cosmopolitan city and this deal will open doors."

But what is in it for Chelsea? Solvency for a start. The £70m eurobond, used to build the new west stand, will be serviced. That in itself should not be underestimated. In 1999, every penny earned by the football team in qualifying for the second phase of the Champions' League simply covered the interest payments.

Chelsea also spent last summer in the ignominious position of having to try to hawk around players such as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to reduce a crippling wage bill. At the same time, they pulled the plug at the last minute on deals to bring Geremi and Sergio Conceicao to the Bridge.

This summer, they have been unable to retain Gianfranco Zola, have lost Quique De Lucas and, so far, failed to satisfy their most valuable players, John Terry and William Gallas. Recruits? The coach, Claudio Ranieri, has not been able to challenge seriously.

Money will be made available, but, if Abramovich is as shrewd as observers say he is, it will be limited. "Chelsea is a loss-making asset and not likely to be profitable for the time being, even if they win the Champions' League," the analyst said. "I cannot see him spending millions and millions. If he does, he is in for a shock."

It is also likely that ground-sharing with Fulham will be discussed again. After two aborted attempts, which resulted in a fall-out between Chelsea's departing chairman, Ken Bates, and his Fulham counterpart, Mohamed Al Fayed, a deal will probably be struck this time if they can persuade the local council.

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