Why Chelsea's new chief needs results on the pitch and in the balance sheet

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The Independent Football

The Chelsea Football Club shop was selling much of its stock at knockdown prices yesterday. On one shelf, the half-price Chelsea management computer game urged players to "work with the chairman to establish Chelsea as the greatest team in England".

The Chelsea Football Club shop was selling much of its stock at knockdown prices yesterday. On one shelf, the half-price Chelsea management computer game urged players to "work with the chairman to establish Chelsea as the greatest team in England".

Such is the task that faces Roman Abramovich today, after the £140m deal to take over Chelsea Village, the holding company that owns the football club. But for Chelsea the task is bigger than just the game and the performance of the team on the pitch.

The club that Ken Bates built up after buying it for £1 now incorporates two hotels on its 12-acre site, five restaurants, exhibition halls and an exclusive health club.

It offers deals for conferences - the summer "sizzling offers'' including a £155-a-head package that ensures the 291 luxury rooms were fully booked last night.

In the cafés and bars surrounding the ground in south-west London, the talk was as much about international recruitment of medical staff as about the Russian oil baron's takeover as delegates spilt out of an NHS conference held at the ground.

These attempts are typical of the way big football clubs have searched for sources of income other than the turnstile. But there is much still to be done: Chelsea Village reported a loss of £16.6m last year and in the latest six months to the end of December 2002, a deficit of £11.3m.

In the in-house glossy magazine - also called Chelsea Village - distributed freely around the lobby of one of the hotels, it was dutifully reported that business broke even last year with turnover up 23 per cent to £115m. But it accepted that those figures failed to take into account player- related costs including the £48m wage bill of its foreign legion of players, which plunged the club into the red.

What Mr Abramovich has bought is a club intent on following Manchester United as a global brand and as London's "premier sport, leisure and entertaining destination''.

Conference suites are dotted throughout the Stamford Bridge stadium, including a great hall to cater for trade shows and a series of venues for receptions and dinners. The Chelsea Club, a health club, is pitching for the wealthy of the district with £3,000 membership fees. Chelsea World of Sport, a themed tourist attraction, unsurprisingly includes a feature on the development of the complex. Car hire, travel agency and a nightclub are also on site.

While the hotels were full yesterday - tennis professionals playing at nearby Wimbledon swelling the conference crowds - the apparent lack of popularity of some of the other "premier destinations'' pointed towards the financial problems that have beset Chelsea.

Signs at the entrance to the village complex advertised 3,000sq ft of office space, which the agency confirmed yesterday was still available. Only a handful of people were in Le Bistro coffee shop or the Shed Sports Bar, mainly watching Tim Henman's quarter-final match. At one point during lunchtime yesterday, five businessmen were the only people eating at the Fishnets Restaurants ("voted as the best fish restaurant in London for value and freshness") and a table for six people and one for two were the only ones booked for the evening.

Stadium tours were also cancelled for the day for security reasons. Staff revealed that tours can be translated into French and German but not yet Russian. Season tickets were also on sale for parts of the stadium but not many fans could be found.

One of them, Darren Brown, 33, brought his six-month-old son, Daniel, dressed in full Chelsea kit, and looked around the shop. "I don't think Ken Bates has ever sold us down the river," he said. "When I first came here we were throwing money into a bucket to save the club. While I am not over enamoured about the club being sold, especially to someone not really interested in football, I am sure Ken Bates has done his homework. But it's probably another 10 per cent on ticket prices."

Mr Abramovich's swoop was the talk of EC1 as well as SW6 yesterday. There was even a suggestion that some people in the City had been aware of the takeover before Tuesday's announcement.

The Financial Services Authority, the City regulator, is investigating a flurry of activity in Chelsea Village shares that sent the shares 50 per cent higher in the past few weeks.

But if his arrival was greeted enthusiastically in the City, there was a rather cooler welcome in the dressing room. The morning after the deal was announced, Gianfranco Zola said he was leaving the club to play in Italy with Cagliari - the midfield maestro was returning to where he started his illustrious career, after writing his name large in Chelsea's history.

Much as Chelsea Village has tried to diversify its revenue away from events on the field, the fact remains that its new owner will only prosper if Chelsea remain among the best teams in the country. More departures after Zola's and the Russian may find the Stamford Bridge stands he has just acquired are as empty as his new restaurants.

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