The Premiership Interview: Bruce Buck

Bruce Buck is the quietly spoken American who succeeded Ken Bates as Chelsea chairman. In a rare interview, he talks to David Hellier about salary caps, why Roman Abramovich would like the Stamford Bridge crowd to be noisier and which Chelsea goal he could happily watch 20 times a day.
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Bruce Buck has little time for those who think Chelsea's runaway success is damaging the competitiveness of English football. "Maybe I am being paranoid," he says, "but no one raised these sort of issues about competition, or the apparent lack of it, when Arsenal and Manchester United were trading the Premiership crown for 14 years. Chelsea wins it once, and maybe again this season, and everyone wants to bring in rules to stop Chelsea."

Buck is Chelsea's chairman, the man who succeeded Ken Bates a few months after the Abramovich takeover in the summer of 2003. The two could hardly be more different: Bates, the confrontational Englishman who was never happier than when picking a fight; Buck the softly spoken American who fights his corner with practised diplomacy and an impressive smoothness.

"How do you think Wigan got from where they were to the Premier League if not by outspending their rivals? But it's about a lot more than money," Buck continues. "Nothing is certain in the football business and you never know what will happen from day to day. One of the features of this season is that the contenders have lost quite a few points."

That point was neatly illustrated on Wednesday night when Chelsea dropped two points at Villa Park only to find their lead at the top of the table actually extended by Manchester United's defeat at Blackburn. Even third-placed Liverpool who travel to Stamford Bridge tomorrow, failed to capitalise on the slip-ups by the top two, letting an early lead turn into a disappointing home draw with Birmingham.

All of which adds to the impression that Chelsea will win the title this season without breaking sweat - but without a great deal of acclaim either. Critics accuse them of buying the title and of doing so in an efficient but less than thrilling manner.

Chelsea's financial might presents a daunting prospect to their rivals, and many of them are unhappy about the huge resources laid at the disposal of Abramovich's employees. However, Buck is dismissive of salary caps, one idea that has been suggested - most recently by the Wigan owner, Dave Whelan - to counteract Chelsea's advantage.

It would never work, he says, unless they were brought in throughout the whole of Europe and even then the best players would decamp to south America. Buck prefers to let the market do its own thing. "We live in a free society and we should let these things take their natural course."

He is talking in the Canary Wharf offices of the US firm Skadden Arps. Buck, a lawyer by training, is head of the firm's European operations and he works much like an investment banker, advising his clients, which included Abramovich's oil group Sibneft, on takeovers and mergers. He helped set up the deal that brought Abramovich to Stamford Bridge and has combined his two working roles ever since.

As chairman, Buck has regular contact with the most important, not to say intriguing man in English football: Roman Abramovich. The Russian billionaire refuses to give interviews and remains an intensely private man, though he can be seen, without fail, watching his side every week. Buck sees him more than once a week and insists there is no great mystery to Chelsea's owner. "He's a real football supporter. He wants to be like you and me. He tries to walk from his home to games and he doesn't wear a shirt and tie and sit in the directors' box but sits with his friends instead. It's difficult for him to be a fan just like somebody off the street but that's what he wants to be.

"He likes to gossip with the players and he shakes every player's hand in the dressing-room after the game and then he talks to Steve Clarke [the assistant manager] about the game while Jose [Mourinho] takes the press conference.

"He's 15 years older than many of the players so I wouldn't say he is friends with them but he has a very good relationship with them. They realise he's a real Chelsea supporter. He's only been here for three years but he has a very deep support for Chelsea and it's there for the long-term."

Buck says Abramovich doesn't tend to get directly involved in the specifics, such as the case of Adrian Mutu, the Romanian striker sacked last season for drug-taking. "He would not interact with Mutu over the drugs situation, although he was involved in the discussions as to how the thing should be handled - it's his money that was written off after all."

What about the owner's relationship with the two managers he has employed at the club? Abramovich inherited Claudio Ranieri, the popular Italian whose final season at Chelsea was clouded by persistent speculation over who his replacement would be.

"Roman had a different relationship with Ranieri to the one he now has with Mourinho," says Buck. "Ranieri is a real gentleman and the two men treated each other cordially. But Ranieri was not so open with the owner and the board as to why he did certain things. There's no question that the manager picks the team and the tactics. But Roman is interested in why certain things are done, and Jose is very open about his team selections, substitutions or whatever."

Mourinho does not socialise much with the owner, though. "If Jose's not working, he wants to be with his family," says Buck. That seems to suit Abramovich. "Roman isn't very big on going to black tie dinners and things. He tends to hang around with people he's known since his twenties, and they tend to be his Russian friends."

Abramovich, says Buck, asks little about finances, despite the £440m he has poured into the club over three years. "He knows we've got a five-year plan and he's happy to let us go ahead and implement it. He's much happier going down to the training ground to watch training sessions and he's mad on football. He plays videos of all sorts of games at home."

Abramovich shares his manager's frustration about a lack of atmosphere at some matches at Stamford Bridge these days. "Roman has said to us that he would like to see a way to improve the atmosphere. When we went to Liverpool last season for the Champions' League semi-final the roar of the crowd was deafening, almost frightening."

The atmosphere and ticketing issues top the agenda at a meeting the club's management has with a supporters' group tomorrow ahead of the Liverpool match. Since the new management team arrived at Chelsea it has instituted a fans' forum which meets between four and six times a year, something which would never have been entertained during Bates's more autocratic regime.

Some Chelsea fans, especially the older ones, feel the club has overpriced tickets - they start at £45 for Premier League and Champions' League matches - and that this has resulted in a wealthier fan base that is not as passionate as it used to be or as willing to turn out in all weathers or for all opponents. Buck hints that there might be more discounted tickets next season.

Despite being as strong on the pitch as at any point in the club's 100-year history, Chelsea still have trouble selling out their 42,500 capacity for some matches, especially in the early stages of the Champions' League, where one attendance earlier this season came in below 30,000. The club even resorted to employing people to hand out leaflets inside railway stations to advertise the matches in a move which embarrassed supporters who couldn't imagine one of their rivals needing to do the same thing. Taking adverts in the Evening Standard imploring people to buy tickets for an early season Premiership encounter with West Bromwich also smacked of desperation for a club that has pretensions to be one of Europe's most powerful.

Whatever the current situation, the club is confident that if success on the field is maintained it will want to have a larger capacity. Buck says that is not really for the extra revenue it would bring but mainly for the better atmosphere that could be generated from a 50,000 plus crowd.

Trying to expand Stamford Bridge is still the number one option but if that cannot be achieved other options will be considered. "It's very important, though, that if we do go for another stadium it should be in the area. We wouldn't want to move to Wembley or Stratford or Milton Keynes."

With Arsenal moving to a 60,000 stadium next season, Chelsea will be upstaged, in one sense, by one of their fiercest rivals, but Buck does not appear particularly concerned. "The way to prove that we are the biggest club in England or London is on the pitch. Jose was recently asked how it felt to have one of the worst pitches in the Premier League and he replied he would rather have the worst pitch and the best team than the other way around. That's how we feel about the stadium, too, but an expanded stadium could help us improve our overall product for our fans."

Buck's role as the chairman of Chelsea is a long way from his sporting roots. Born in New York City 59 years ago, his first love was baseball and the New York Yankees whom he has followed since the age of five. But when his work took him to London in 1983 he soon needed a new outlet for his sporting passions. Living in Fulham, he went to his first Chelsea game in the late Eighties and became an east stand season ticket holder in 1991, before the Hoddle era which most Chelsea fans see as the beginning of the club's rise to its current status.

"I was instantly surprised at the passion English supporters have for their local club," he recalls. "There's often a cultural thing in that people support the club near where they live from the day that they're born to the day they die."

The Chelsea he first saw was very different to the club now. There was the hint of trouble at many matches - he remembers being genuinely scared at a European match against FC Bruges in the mid-Nineties - and there was the slightly "downtrodden stadium," which he says a lot of the fans liked.

And there was also Bates.

Buck never had any contact before the takeover but became quickly acquainted afterwards when Bates took umbrage with the new management, as many thought he would, a few months after the takeover of the club. "I was sorry that Ken went off in a huff," Buck says now. "I was just a fan in those days, with no aspirations other than for the team to win two or three in a row, and maybe knock off Liverpool or Arsenal in a cup game."

These days his role brings him into direct contact with the players he once watched simply as a supporter, and Buck talks with genuine affection about Chelsea's current crop. "One of the things about these young men is that they are generally speaking a good group. They are polite and helpful in assisting us with charitable activities. As fans we should be proud of them."

His sons tease him now about the way he has immersed himself in Chelsea, to the point where he has almost cut the chord from his Yankee roots.

Certainly, he seems to understand all there is about the English fan's tribalism and obsession with local rivalries. "I take the tube to the matches at Spurs and Arsenal and I really enjoy that," he says with a smile. "And I could watch that Wayne Bridge goal in the Champions' League game at Highbury about 20 times a day."