Banks still in fear of a grim ending to the toy story

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The Independent Online

There's a story going the rounds that Iraqi freedom fighters have captured Saddam Hussein and are handing him to the Americans for the $25m reward - but Chelsea are offering them $27m.

The former sports minister Tony Banks laughed when he heard it shortly after watching his beloved and now billionaire-boosted Blues virtually guarantee themselves Champions' League qualification with their victory in Slovakia. "I doubt if he'd be much use in defence," he said. But, more seriously, he hopes what has happened at Stamford Bridge will not turn into a much sicker joke.

When Roman Abramovich spun his Russian roulette wheel of fortune, bringing glee to the lives of football agents from the nation which once spawned only secret agents, lifelong Chelsea fan Banks raised sceptical eyebrows. They still rest quizzically on his forehead, even though he was delighted by Chelsea's jaunty start.

"It is still quite difficult to come to terms with. It is like winning the Lottery three weeks running, you can't quite believe it. The man clearly has the money, he is worth what he says he is, but you can't help wondering why this has happened to us in such a short space of time, and why.

"Being one of life's great pessimists, I wonder what price we're going to have to pay. I suppose that comes from having been a Chelsea supporter for so long. I always work on the assumption that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Banks, the 60-year-old MP for West Ham, has been following Chelsea since he was a 10-year-old nipper on the terraces, and has held a season ticket for 30 years. "I was one of those lucky people who managed to see all of Chelsea's home matches in 1954-55 - I've still got all the programmes - and that was the last time, in fact the only time, we won the championship. Hopefully, I shall see them do it again before I die." Thanks, perhaps, to their new Russian godfather.

Banks would like to believe it, but thinks the deal still needs further investigation. "What I said at the time it all happened wasn't just a knee-jerk reaction. When I was minister I said that no football club should be taken over until the football authorities had satisfied themselves about the bona fides of the proposed new owner, whether the intentions are honourable. If the FA are not satisfied they should be able to say to him, 'You will not have a licence to operate a football club.'

"One of the other things they could do is insist that a surety bond is deposited with them, surrenderable should the new owner decide to play dirty.

"This should apply not only in the case of Chelsea but to every professional club, because they are not simply economic entities, they are also institutions which go far beyond capitalisation on the stock market or how much they are worth in shares. They are part of people's lives, whether they are Chelsea or Cheltenham."

So is the jury still out on Abramovich? "My real worry is that here is someone who has taken over a club with which he had no previous association. I've heard Chelsea described as his rather expensive executive toy, and that is a matter for some concern. I've invested 50 years of my life in Chelsea FC and I'm concerned about what happens if he loses interest in his toy. And on what basis is the money being provided?

"This is what the FA should be finding out. I think the sports minister, Richard Caborn, should be asking some serious questions. Who will know what is going on at Chelsea now there is just a single owner?"

Has he talked with his pal Ken Bates about it since the deal was struck? "No, principally because I don't want to be told to eff off. But I might risk it when I next bump into him.

"Of course, when Ken himself appeared from nowhere and took over the club we wondered what the hell he was going to do with Chelsea. We had no idea whether he was in love with the club, but he stayed around and grew to love it, and we have to make sure that's what happens with Mr Abramovich. Whatever his intentions are we must hope that if it is a toy he will learn to love it and, like a kid's teddy bear, will hold on to it for ever. That's the hope, but there's always the fear."

So will it be a case of from Russia, with love to follow? "I just hope he's true to his word, that we win the Premiership and become the greatest team in the world. If so, I'll kiss his boots."

If not, you can bet that Banks will be first in the queue to kick his backside.

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