“I understand some fans have only known Roman Abramovich, but the majority of fans were here before – we went through so much before he joined us and will be here after him.”
Chelsea fan Ann Amies, a season-ticket holder, summed up the defiance on show among Chelsea players, management and fans as the club come to terms with their very future being under threat after 117 years of existence.
This has been a week like no other for Chelsea. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, their owner and financer for 19 years, on Thursday was sanctioned by the UK government as part of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All his UK assets, including the football club, were frozen.
Chelsea’s 1-0 win against Newcastle on Sunday, at first glance, was just another normal Premier League afternoon. Yet while there was a great deal of familiarity about the occasion, this was the home of a club where things won’t be the same again.
Some things hadn’t changed. The Roman Empire banner – celebrating the man whose finances helped bring in 21 trophies, including five Premier Leagues and two Champions League titles, during the most successful period in the club’s history – still hung in the Matthew Harding stand.
The ‘Roman Abramovich’ chant rang out in the 65th minute of the game – not for long and not by many, but it was unmistakable – while communications company Three still had their logo on the kit and pitchside hoardings, despite suspending its sponsorship deal.
But if you looked a bit harder, you could see a few signs that things weren’t the same. The club shop was shut as part of the restrictions; those that would normally buy a programme had to do without.
Boss Thomas Tuchel even joked he would be willing to “drive a seven-seater” to help the team reach the far-flung destination of Lille in northern France for their Champions League last-16 second-leg tie in midweek after a £20,000 cap was placed on his side’s travelling arrangements.
With a £28m player monthly wage bill, a squeezing of the income can only be sustained for so long before it becomes untenable.
A sale of the club is currently on hold under the government-imposed restrictions – a move intended to stop Abramovich from benefiting financially. But without a sale, things could get tough, quickly. How bad it will get, nobody knows.
We do know the sanctions on Abramovich will impact every part of Chelsea, from top to bottom. Wages, transfers, contracts, sponsors, the number of fans in the stands, the non-playing staff and even how players travel to matches.
Fans taunts and Howe facing Saudi questions
It was a quirk of the fixture list that the first visitors to Stamford Bridge after the imposing of the sanctions should be Newcastle, the latest club to be taken over by mega-rich owners.
Newcastle’s takeover was 80% financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, whose chair is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
There are many human rights issues linked to the kingdom, with the Premier League saying it has received legal assurances from the new owners that the Saudi state would not control Newcastle United and there would be punishments if it was proven otherwise.
The Newcastle fans took great delight in chanting “no noise from the bankrupt boys” and “Chelsea are skint, the Mags are rich” at their hosts.
Just as Chelsea fans sang in support of Abramovich, a Saudi Arabia flag was spotted in the away end.
Indeed, Newcastle boss Eddie Howe, minutes after nearly grabbing an excellent away draw only to be denied in the last minute, soon found himself being quizzed on politics. Of the first seven questions he faced in his after-match news conference, four related to Saudi Arabia’s executing of 81 men on Saturday, including seven Yemenis and one Syrian national.
Howe said he was going to only answer on football, but these are questions he, and other bosses, will continue to face.
‘The League Cup final might be their last major final’
When anything bad happens to a club, whether it’s Chelsea, a side who won the Club World Cup a month ago, Derby County, fighting to avoid dropping from the Championship after being docked 21 points for financial mismanagement, or Bury, who went out of business from English football’s third tier, it’s the fans who suffer most.
Ex-Chelsea winger Pat Nevin, speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, felt the club’s supporters may have to accept the glory days are in the past.
“I have a feeling Chelsea will survive, but not in the shape it has been for 19 years,” he said. “Maybe a year down the line, Chelsea will be a little bit happier, maybe not winning as many trophies, but maybe a little bit happier.
“The League Cup final might be the last time I ever see Chelsea in a major final.”
Chelsea fan Amies, a fan since 1998, before Abramovich became involved, said: “We’re here for the club and for the players, that’s never going to change.
“If the government is able to freeze his assets, surely it can find a way to ringfence income, so we can keep a British business going.”
Dan Silver, from the Chelsea Supporters Trust, added: “Mr Abramovich has gone, we have to focus on the football club moving forward. We have to focus on the best possible owners so we don’t have a repeat in the future.
“Chelsea have been around 117 years and we have to make sure we are around for the next 117 years.
“It has been a big part of my life. If we go back to crowds of 6,000 on a Saturday, so be it. As long as we have a club.”