The inside story of Roman Abramovich and Chelsea’s new era

The first thing the Chelsea players usually notice is the extra security detail.  That’s when the players know there is at least “a chance” that Roman Abramovich will appear.

“We’d ask if ‘the boss’ is in today,” former goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer explains. “The answer would always be they don’t know.”

The security are just told to be ready. Kidnapping is an ever present danger for someone so wealthy, who would command such a ransom.

Right now, they don’t know when Abramovich will be back again. He hasn’t set foot at Stamford Bridge or Cobham in a year and a half. Since Abramovich can enter the UK through his Israeli citizenship, the public theory has been that it is down to an ongoing irritation at the government’s refusal to give him a visa amid strained Anglo-Russian relations. It had raised inevitable questions about his commitment to the club, as well as suspicions he might be open to a sale.

There have been considerable answers this summer. Abramovich has more than made his presence felt. Football certainly knows he’s there.

Chelsea have so far spent around £200m on transfers this window, which is far more than any other major club, but also £70m more than that astonishing first summer back in 2003.

“It does remind of that first wave of expenditure,” former executive Paul Smith, who was at Stamford Bridge for that period, says. “I think it probably seems a bit of a reset for the club.”

The timing, amid a global pandemic, makes it all the more attention-seizing. The expenditure is so great that it is really the story of the summer, re-asserting Abramovich’s status as one of football’s major players, while forming a key chapter in the story of his ownership.

It adds a certain symmetry that Chelsea’s first home game of the season is against Liverpool. That was the fixture that ensured Abramovich bought the club in 2003, and a trip to Anfield was also the first match of his ownership. Liverpool are now the champions, and the standard that Abramovich expects of his own side. That expectation is what this expenditure represents, as much as anything.

One of the many questions is why now? Why the extent of the expenditure? Are Chelsea ready to reclaim their status as a team on a par with Liverpool and Manchester City? What – as far as we can ascertain – is the thinking of one of the most influential but enigmatic figures in football?

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It was during last season’s high-scoring early wins that Abramovich felt energised. There are stories of him watching Chelsea games no matter where he is in the world, trying to ensure the perfect satellite signal on one of his yachts, and he certainly wasn’t missing those matches. These were young players he’d personally been tracking from their days in the academy, in the hope they’d come through. This was a manager, in Frank Lampard, who’d been a personal favourite. This was clearly an “identity”, an attractive way of playing he’d always craved, but that he felt Chelsea had always lacked. Abramovich was quickly sanctioning the spending we’ve seen this summer.

The desire for a successful homegrown team that exemplifies an exhilarating philosophy of play has been a driving force of his ownership. It is something that has remained a constant, but has also consistently eluded him.

Ramon Calderon, the former president of Real Madrid, tells an anecdote about how much this has played on Abramovich’s mind.

“We were talking at the end of a dinner after a Spain-Russia game,” Calderon tells The Independent. “It was about different subjects of football: Chelsea, Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a very good conversation. At the time, he was a bit disappointed because he thought he had invested a lot of money with few good performances.”

One long-time associate did sense that, over the last few years, the Chelsea owner wasn’t as engaged as he previously had been.

“Roman, he’s like the weather, he changes,” the source says. “The last couple of years, it’s true I think he lost a little bit of interest.”

That is why, with the Stamford Bridge stadium plans halted and the ongoing situation over his visa, some parties sensed a potential opportunity in buying the club. Abramovich has turned down at least four offers over the last two years, including from Los Angeles Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly, as well as a Saudi group. While figures of £2.5bn were bandied around media, it is understood that discussions never got to the point where a price was mentioned. Chelsea and sources close to Abramovich have repeatedly denied the club is for sale.

Some did wonder whether other interests were replacing football, like a burgeoning passion for film. Abramovich now spends most of his time in Moscow, and can regularly be seen at his cinema, which is part of ex-wife Dasha Zhukova’s museum, Garage.

“He’s very into independent movies,” says Nikita Stepanov, a PR who has been in the same social circles as Abramovich. “That’s basically what he shows in his cinema. It was the first to show ‘Parasite’ in Russia. He’s the last person to enter, right as the movie starts, and the first one to exit, right when the titles roll.

“That’s something else that is different with Abramovich. Most Russian oligarchs are usually surrounded by beautiful women, often from agencies, and, well, people that would be described as a***-lickers. From what I know, that is one thing he hates. He surrounds himself only with people who he can talk to or can be interesting, and he doesn’t need to be surrounded by compliments from people he doesn’t know.”

It doesn’t take much for chat to return to football when Abramovich is relaxing. For all the intrigue about why he bought Chelsea in the first place, one thing is undeniable: he is genuinely entranced by the game. In the early days, a personal laptop had a database of thousands of players that he would eagerly show guests.

“He really enjoyed the whole matchday experience,” Smith says. “He enjoyed the thrill of it.”

One story has it that, at half-time of the 2005 Champions League final and with AC Milan 3-0 up, Abramovich put a friendly bet on Liverpool to win. It paid off. The Champions League is the competition that still entrances him the most. As innocent as it sounds, Abramovich’s grand goal with Chelsea is to regularly recreate the emotion he felt at that famous Manchester United-Real Madrid game in 2003, the sense of spectacle.

On speaking to prospective new Chelsea managers, Abramovich will always talk about “identity”.

“I want to find a manager that gives my team an identity,” he told Carlo Ancelotti. “Because when I watch Chelsea I’m not able to find an identity.”

It was one reason he was so enlivened by the start of last season.

“Now, he’s very much again interested,” that long-time associate says.

Abramovich, for his part, has attempted to ensure Chelsea have an identity in another way. That is as one of the more charitable clubs, and as leaders in football’s fight against anti-Semitism.

Some associates say the criticism he got within Russia on initially buying Chelsea did rankle. Abramovich is said to have always wanted the club to be a “force for good”.  Chelsea opened the stadium and Millennium Hotel to NHS workers during the Covid-19 crisis, and have worked with domestic abuse charity, Refuge. Just before the crisis, he gave a “significant donation” to the planting of a new Israeli forest in memory of Lithuanian Jews killed during the Holocaust.

Many around the club would say this displays his deeper commitment. Chris Weafer, the co-founder of Macro Advisory in Moscow who is seen as “the oracle” of Russian analysts, would concur.

“I had heard he was deliberately keeping a low profile in the UK in the hope the Russian controversies would die down and he could re-acquire his visa. I guess that has taken a step back. There is no sense he has lost interest in Chelsea or in having a UK visa. There are no rumours of the club being put up for sale. Equally, there is no evidence he is about to move with the planned stadium expansion.”

There is, however, a lot of expansion in the team. That fires something else in Abramovich.

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In that first summer he took over Chelsea, Abramovich immediately loved the excitement of big signings.

“He was a great enthusiast for player trading,” Smith explains. “Out of all areas of the club, it was the one he was most interested in. While he wasn’t directly involved in the mechanics of it, he was definitely an enthusiast on which players we would buy and how the team would perform and develop.”

It’s easy to forget now just how outlandish that summer of 2003 was. Any deal seemed possible for Chelsea, in a way that had never been seen in the game before.

“It did move the dial on football ownership,” one well-connected figure involved in football governance says. “It’s not sportswashing, but it did open the door to a new era, and increased the international profile of club ownership. That’s one way Abramovich was so influential. This was a new era of ownership.”

And a new era of expenditure, taken to greater levels by Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. It was this escalation which Uefa felt necessitated the introduction of Financial Fair Play, and this which necessitated an evolution in Chelsea.

They needed to be more efficient, and change the thinking.

“Once FFP came in, they had to put a structure in place,” Schwarzer says. “It had to be more economical, more strategic.”

The entire model is personified by director Marina Granovskaia. From a situation where Chelsea once paid whatever it took, she prides herself on securing the best deals.

“You can’t talk about Roman and Chelsea now without talking about Marina,” one source states. “And she is the only person he speaks to every day.” Everything goes through Granovskaia, who then feeds everything into Abramovich.

“He’s a very competent delegator. In areas where he doesn’t feel he is an expert, he will assign those to people he has confidence in.”

One of those people is Petr Cech, whose status in the Chelsea hierarchy has grown. Abramovich is also said to regularly talk football with former player Andriy Shevchenko.

It all means the club isn’t really a dictatorship in that sense. Abramovich will ensure he is informed about everything, but he doesn’t always intervene. With transfers, as the most relevant example, Lampard and Granovskaia will first discuss potential options and targets. Once they’ve come to hard decisions, they will go to Abramovich to sanction the deals.

The owner has also been swayed by Granovskaia on key matters. It was her pitch that is said to have played a large part in Chelsea rehiring Mourinho in 2013, and she was one of the few to back Didier Drogba’s new contract in 2009, a decision that helped finally deliver the Champions League.

It hasn’t always been perfect. There did feel a sense of drift with purchases like Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta around the 2017 period, as if they were trying to be a bit too calculated with second-tier signings that wouldn’t necessarily be first-team players. That is another reason this summer felt so bombastic. They have been going for the highest of quality.

“Marina is doing a very good job,” an Abramovich associate says. “She has made mistakes, of course, but everyone does. She’s far smarter than most people in football, but liked in the game.

“She is running the football business very well. They are not losing money any more. They are making a profit.”

They’ve also made quite an impression, as illustrated by one figure connected to another Premier League club.

“Do the other clubs think Chelsea’s a bit weird? Yeah. They’re not going to sit down and have a meat and potato pie up north – but it is what it is.”

Another prominent figure within the game describes them as “a little unorthodox, but extraordinarily sophisticated”.

Ancelotti has said he had up to 10 meetings before eventually being appointed by Chelsea, some with Abramovich, all involving a lot of scrutiny about how he’d handle the job; his vision; how he’d work. The Italian described this as “the correct way to do business” in his last autobiography, “but certainly not normal in football”.

“All clubs should take note.”

Other clubs also see them as tough to negotiate with, but they have naturally flexed their power more this summer.

“They have money and no one else does,” one agent says.

While this summer has been seen as a “big blip on the game’s radar”, many connected to the club say it is all planned, and FFP compliant. Chelsea have two windows worth of money saved, as well as at least £120m from the sale of Eden Hazard.

There is still an element of strategic opportunism about the signings, given how volatile the transfer market can be in general, and how depressed the 2020 market is. It is, in short, a good time to buy young talent like Kai Havertz if you have the money. Chelsea haven’t deviated from their policy of looking to buy the best players under 25. That is what is very different from 2003.

“Chelsea have in recent times always recruited young players who were oven-ready, improved them and developed their profile, before selling them off,” one source says. “Hazard is the prime example. They’re able to balance the books in terms of their trading skills. A few ingredients of that are organic, like this summer, and some a clear strategy. They’ve gone for it, maybe in an environment where they can buy players without having massive competition from around Europe. Chelsea have watched Havertz for a long time, but normally he’d have gone to Bayern Munich. Chelsea have bought him for a pretty high fee, but they can get him, whereas previous years that might not have been possible.”

The Independent has been told that, as recently as January, Chelsea weren’t expected to go in for Havertz. Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Liverpool had been favourites, and had most contact with his representatives. Then, in vintage 2003-07 style, Chelsea swooped. Abramovich is said to have personally pushed for his signing.

Some sources would caution against any idea that this represents a newly free-spending Chelsea. They say everything the club do will still be FFP-complaint. Chelsea still has restrictions, and demands.

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Lampard has seen how quickly Abramovich can switch; how an easy charm can suddenly become hard steel. The manager has himself recounted a story when, as a player, he was talking to Abramovich about the performance of some teammates. Lampard said that one particular teammate could improve a part of his technique, only to be “taken aback” by the response.

“So why don’t you tell him?”

When Lampard protested he had told him, but it didn’t have much effect, Abramovich was even more direct.

“Well you have to make him understand.”

There are many in the game who believe Lampard may now have to understand a new reality himself.

As enthused as Abramovich has been by this team, extensive expenditure does tend to have a flip side. The Chelsea owner usually expects results, and quickly.

“He has very high standards of performance, basically,” Smith says. “‘Failure isn’t an option’ would probably be his mantra. He doesn’t like seeing anything but success. He’s quite a taskmaster. You get enough rope.”

One former manager talks of how he would regularly get text messages from Granovskaia, passing on Abramovich’s opinions on the team and performances. Stories of his demanding nature abound. One of the most striking was when the team came back to the Old Trafford dressing room after the 2010-11 Champions League quarter-final elimination to Manchester United, to find the owner sat there waiting for them. Former assistant Paul Clement said “there was a silence in the room for what felt like an eternity”. Ancelotti’s time in the job was up. The Italian said Abramovich felt he was “too kind” with the players, and would try to convince him to be “stronger, tougher, and more rigorous” with them. It sounds familiar.

That Ancelotti period was perhaps the most instructive for this season because the 2009-10 campaign was the closest Abramovich has got to the kind of free-scoring attractive football he so craves. And yet the owner was still so quick to find fault.

“During that great run of games, we lost 3-1 to Wigan,” Ancelotti wrote in his last book. “It was just a blip, to my mind, something that happens in football, but Abramovich came to the training ground the next morning to demand answers… even [Silvio] Berlusconi had not been so demanding.”

One argument has been Abramovich has always wanted the instantly satisfying football that only comes with time, but has never really allowed the time for it to develop.

You only have to look at the apparent contradiction of this summer.

Chelsea have been so invigorated by so many young players coming through… but have brought in a number of signings to potentially play ahead of them.

Abramovich and Lampard would doubtlessly say it’s merely the healthy competition required to make champions.

Many others would say that it is also different this time because of the manager’s relationship with Abramovich. Lampard was one of a core of players – including Cech, Drogba, John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic – the owner would regularly speak to.

“Frank is a different animal compared to previous managers,” Smith says. “He is to some degree the golden child, having been so influential and popular with Roman during his playing days.

“He’s certainly a smart guy, very comfortable talking to Roman one on one during his playing days, where many of the squad would have shrunk from that situation.”

It’s just that Abramovich was also very friendly with Avram Grant, and sacked him.

For Chelsea’s part, there was justification to sack many of the more recent managers. They haven’t been Ancelotti situations. Everyone saw what happened with Mourinho in 2015-16. Conte was a genius, but a volatile one, whose relationship with the club in that second season far too fractious. They all required a change. Maurizio Sarri was the opposite, and it was all a bit too dull.

It doesn’t feel dull now. Whatever the debates about Lampard, it has been the most exciting summer at Chelsea in years, probably since 2014.

It’s just another reason a game against the champions, a status that Abramovich craves, is so engaging.

Liverpool will feel the presence of a very different Chelsea on Sunday.

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