Chelsea, Abramovich and Torres

Without Abramovich and his billions, who knows where Chelsea would be now; whether the club would exist at all, given its mountain of debt? Abramovich, in his philanthropy, is wont to write off debt and call it shares but he and his fortunes enable Chelsea to live far above its former means, writes Brian Glanville.

It is almost a common place that at one stage or another a club's Chairman, President, owner, call him what you please, will interfere with his manager. But in the last analysis, shouldn't he? It is, after all, his money and if he feels there is danger of losing it, or such nightmares as relegation to a lower division or failure in Cup or League, it may be natural to intervene. I remember many years ago the then Chairman of Chelsea, Brain Mears, whose own family had founded the club in 1905, telling me that he had discovered that managers themselves sometimes needed to be motivated. He was talking of the club's then manager, Dave Sexton, a dedicated, knowledgeable figure, an excellent tactician, who seemed to have lost his way and to be in need of guidance.

The current Chelsea owner, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, is a very different breed of cat. Where Mears' family were steeped in soccer, his father Joe the previous chairman, being the son, himself, of the founder of the club, Abramovich is a plutocrat who has come out of nowhere. Born into grinding poverty, he has somehow worked his way up from street, trading to the acquisition of a colossal empire of interests. The key to which was evidently his friendship, and that of certain other oligarchs, one of whom at least has come to a sticky, imprisoned end — like poor Khodorkovsky — with the daughter of Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Soviet Union. These oligarchs were thus enabled to lend money to major State enterprises in gas, oil, etcetera. Then, when the companies were unable to repay these loans, the oligarchs snapped them up at prices which were vastly below their true worth.

Abramovich, who, unlike Khodorkovsky, has had the self-protective wit to stand good terms with Putin, the autocrat of the Russian state, bought Chelsea from Ken Bates for some £17 million, mere chicken-feed for an oligarch but a massive profit to Bates, who was thus able to leave a club profoundly in debt. Which Abramovich proceeded to pay off and put many millions more besides into the club, which was able to buy the best internationals in the transfer market.

Without Abramovich and his billions, who knows where Chelsea would be now; whether they would exist at all, given their mountain of debt? Abramovich, in his philanthropy, is wont to write off debt and call it shares but he and his fortunes enable Chelsea to live far above their former means.

And massive expenditure has meant great success. Last season, Chelsea even attained the League and FA Cup double. In their previous history, it had taken 50 years to win the Championship, with a team assembled on a shoestring budget by manager Ted Drake, the former Arsenal centre-forward, a feat not repeated for another 50 years. As for the FA Cup, their inability to get anywhere near it inspired before the last War a satirical ditty, ‘The day that Chelsea went and won the Cup', by a comedian. They'd win it at last in 1970, 65 years after their foundation.

The season before last, they actually went all the way to the European Cup final in Moscow and lost to Manchester United only on penalties. The manager then was the Israeli coach Avram Grant. Ideally, it should have been the self-styled Special One, the flamboyant Portuguese, Jose Mourinho, who, months earlier, had been forced out of managership by Abramovich. This after a brief unsuccessful spell in the League which seemed to culminate in a defeat at Aston Villa when, on the scoring of the decisive second goal by the home side, Abramovich, in the vernacular, threw the toys out of the pram and stalked out of the directors' box.

Avram Grant, a gloomily anonymous figure, close, seemingly, to Abramovich and acting in an advisory role, took over. Under this aegis the team moved on to the European final. Though the rumour, strongly denied by Chelsea, circulated that on one pre-match occasion the players held their own team meeting, from which Grant was excluded. Reminding me of a satirical American comic book cartoon named ‘I go Pogo', concerning a bunch or small animals in the Florida Everglades.

In consequence, they are trekking miserably through the rain when they make the alligator their leader. Almost at once, it stops raining. “There you are,” the alligator says, to which the others reply, “Ain't got nothing to do with you.” The alligator rejoins, “Happened during my administration, didn't it?” This, I felt, and still do, reflected Grant's own type of triumph.

Before Mourinho, who had unquestionably given the team new drive and organisation, there had been the Italian coach, Claudio Ranieri, whose manifold changes of players had him named “The Tinkerman.” In a European match, he tinkered once too often and too ill-advisedly and out he went. Latterly, there has been the ill-starred advent of a famous Brazilian World Cup winning manager, the Big Phil Scolari, but he failed worse still and Abramovich had every right to look elsewhere, most productively so in the brief acquisition of the highly and experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink; who couldn't stay.

And now, hanging by a thread, is Italy's Carlo Ancelotti, once a star midfielder and highly successful manager — at Milan, briefly — in his own country. But after winning that League and FA Cup double, he found himself this season burdened with Fernando Torres. Just, you might say, as Mourinho was self-burdened by the fading Ukrainian striker Andrei Shevchenko, bought for a wasteful ?30 million, clearly at the behest of Abramovich. Winning, this instance, seemed ready to allow Mourinho to exclude him, though he remained for a couple of vastly overpaid seasons.

Not so with Torres, a shinning star of the 2008 European Championship for Spain but for many months prey to debilitating injury, and by more months of ineffectuality, at Liverpool. Accommodating him, strongly, against his own wishes, has far too often and farcically made Ancelotti to omit by far the most powerful and effective of his strikers Didier Drogba, who has hit some spectacular goals when given the chance. Plainly Ancelotti knows as well or better than anyone else that Torres, now so tentative and so unable to score, is unable to find harmony with a clearly disenchanted Drogba. Chelsea would surely have done far better to hang on to Daniel Sturridge, scoring goals galore on loan at Bolton.

Even if Torres does now keep scoring goals, Chelsea's problems will not yet be all over. It is all too plain that he and Drogba cannot co-exist. Equally plain is that, whatever the merits of Torres' belated goal against West Ham United, helped, admittedly, by a puddle, problems loom. And Drogba, with his great thrust and power, is beyond doubt the true ace in Chelsea's pack. To exclude him in Torres' favour, as has sometimes been done, has always seemed a hostage to fortune. Just look at how his splendid strike briefly transformed the European game at Old Trafford, when he came on.

Whoever takes over from Ancelotti, and it does seem inevitable he will go, even if it be a returning Guus Hiddink, will have to face the same dilemma with Torres. In other words, team selection with one hand figuratively tied behind his back.

Owners, especially if they be oligarchs, cannot be gainsaid.