Monday marked the tenth anniversary of Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea, sauntering through the gates of Stamford Bridge with his burly troupe of henchmen and altering the Premier League forever. By the time everyone’s favourite Russian oligarch turned up in 2003, football had already undergone a revolution on the pitch: Before the henchmen came the Frenchmen, with Arsene Wenger’s new-age arsenal of yoga, yoghurts and young Gallic imports transforming the highest level of the English game into something rather sexier than the old Division One. In fact, it was this fresh brand of fluid, ultra-athletic and attacking football that attracted Abramovich to our shores in the first place, thrilled by Manchester United’s high-octane 4-3 dismantling of Real Madrid in 2002.
But Abramovich’s arrival led to a second great paradigm shift in English football – the game off the pitch is barely recognisable from ten years ago. Our man Roman cannot be held entirely responsible for the enormous influx of money into the Premier League, he’s had a hand both from TV rights (recently renegotiated to a minimum of £60m per team per season) and other foreign tycoons, but he certainly set a precedent as the first ever mega-bucks chairman to muscle in from abroad, effectively buying the Premier League. Blackburn had, of course, won the league on the back of enormous financial investment in 1994-5, but the circumstances were rather different; by the time the Abramovich era began, more than a decade of the Sky-fuelled ‘Premiership’ had moved the financial goalposts somewhat. Abramovich proved to the bored billionaires of the world that our silverware was, essentially, on sale. Moreover, in football he found a different (and rather more exciting) product on sale, unavailable in any other market: people.
Abramovich’s tenure has been characterised more than anything by the ruthless hiring and firing of personnel, playing or managerial. Anyone who, like myself, has ever gleefully indulged in Football Manager, will be familiar with the addictive thrill that derives from the pseudo-omnipotence created by prodding around the great sporting stars of the world like ants. One can only imagine the sort of exhilaration that comes with this power in real life. (There have certainly been a number of occasions on which Chelsea’s owner has seemed very much like a spoilt child throwing his Playstation out of the pram.) It is no secret that he has made a significant financial loss on the club; Chelsea FC have been a very expensive, but very entertaining plaything.
And how he has played with it. Before his time, most of the top clubs had had a couple of foreign superstars: a Cantona here, a Klinsmann there, a Bergkamp, a Zola or a Di Canio. But these players were very much a luxury, crowd-pleasing extravagances. In the Abramovich era, it has become quite common to see the cream of world football gracing our fields. His early spending brought him Cech, Drogba, Essien, Makelele, Veron, and Crespo, the great hopes and the Galacticos, and egged on by his success, the Premier League has attracted all number of exotic speculators, from the Glazers to the Sheikh Mansour’s Abu Dhabi group, Stan Kroenke to Randy Lerner. Not all have been successful – notably the incompetent Venkys at Blackburn – and some have even had the ambition to build from below, like Tony Fernandes at QPR or Niccola Cortese at Southampton. But across the land, we have seen foreign emperors putting huge deposits down for their own little sporting colonies.
The results have been extraordinary. The new spending civil war has privileged us with the presence of some of the finest athletes in the world, and performances on a weekly basis. For a brief period, we had the dominant league in the world, ruling the latter stages of the Champions League, and stealing the finest crop of the continent, the Ronaldos and the Fabregases and the Robbens. We have since ceded superiority to the Spaniards, and the Germans, but such is the fickle nature of world football that our time will no doubt come again soon. The Abramovich era has blessed us with a national game of the highest quality – even this one-eyed Arsenal fan can admit that.