In my fifth decade of existence, the remaining football monsters under my bed have suddenly begun to drop like flies.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s mediocre 3-year managerial reign at Manchester United, which regrettably ended earlier this season after a 1-4 defeat to Claudio Ranieri’s Watford (incidentally, one of only two wins the Italian managed during his short time in charge at Vicarage Road), was the sterilising effect it seemed to have on his substantial legacy as a player.
Not so much for Manchester United supporters, of course, who will always be able to fondly reminisce about the 126 goals he scored for the club, and especially the late ones he grabbed in 1999 to knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup in January and win them a second European Cup in May. But for the rest of us, the ones for whom those same goals were the stuff of nightmares, the ones who could only look on helplessly as our club’s greatest rivals enjoyed their greatest ever season, it has been frankly supernatural over the past few seasons to observe a process whereby those same successes as a player (and one in particular) ensured that his failures as a manager would be excused and allowed to linger on for 35 unforgettable months, long enough to inflict real damage on one of the world’s richest and most preeminent football clubs.
For just shy of 3 years, that evening in the Nou Camp in May 1999, and more specifically the moment when Solskjær swept home the winning goal for a team that had been seconds away from defeat minutes earlier, seemed to serve as a rallying point for his former teammates in the media, the likes of Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, to either rouse support for this lame-duck manager or at the very least justify pulling their punches as their beloved club lurched from one embarrassment to another. This, in turn, served to nullify dissenting voices and reasonable criticisms, valid concerns about where he was leading them. The praise for United finishing 2nd in 2020/21, for example, which included Neville naming four of their players in his team of the season (Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford), was so deafening that no one thought to ask why Liverpool, having suffered through a bitterly disappointing campaign that saw them lose six home games in a row at one stage, were able to nonetheless finish within five points of United and with a better home record.
But then, who the fuck was going to criticise the hero of Barcelona? Certainly not Liverpool supporters, who remained quite content with the way events were unfolding at Old Trafford throughout Solskjær’s reign, and certainly not his former teammates in the media. As Neville himself said explicitly in October 2021, with Manchester United in the middle of a wretched run of 1 win in 7 that would ultimately see the manager sacked, “I’m not going to come on this show and ask for a manager to get sacked. He’s a club legend, he’s my team-mate, I actually like him a lot.” Beautiful, Gary, beautiful.
In the process, Solskjær has slowly turned from a haunting memory for Liverpool supporters to a cherished one. Ask yourself this: could anyone have fathomed on the evening of 26th May 1999, in the moments following Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Bayern Munich, that 3,000 Scousers would one day be joyfully singing the Norwegian’s name to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band’s classic 1982 feel-good hit Give It Up, inside Old Trafford no less, following a historic win for their team that was partly engineered by the man himself? What crazed, certifiably insane mind could have ever conjured such a thing? And yet there they were last October following that 5-0 victory, Liverpool’s biggest away from home in 200+ games against their greatest rivals going back to the 1890s: “Ole’s at the wheel, at the wheel, Ole’s at the wheel. Na na na na na na na na na na na…”
It was the sweetest tonic to the poison ingested some 22 years earlier, and in some ways it was only possible because of that night in Barcelona. Nobody else was getting 168 games in a job for which he was so patently unqualified, nobody, especially one with only a couple of Tippeligaens as the highlight of his CV. Teddy Sheringham, scorer of a last-gasp equaliser that same night, would have finished his spell as caretaker in May 2019, one that in Solskjær’s case included a 0-4 drubbing at Goodison Park, and been sent on his way. Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, scorer of crucial goals home and away to Juventus in the 1999 semi-final, would have scarcely survived that humiliation against Everton on 21st April 2019 long enough to lose at home to relegated Cardiff City on the final day.
But there was just something about Ole. Perhaps it was the heartstrings still being plucked by lingering memories of the innocent-looking “baby-faced assassin” of his playing days or, more likely, the powerful legacy of that 1999 final, but regardless of how many times the famous Austin Powers gif surfaced online, no matter how many memes were made of him in the process of crashing a vehicle of some description, some of the most high-profile and influential Manchester United supporters in the media simply couldn’t bring themselves to blame him.
Five years before that Everton result almost to the day, on 20th April 2014, David Moyes’ Manchester United had lost 2-0 at the same ground. Writing later in his autobiography, former player Patrice Evra recalled the result as being the death knell for Moyes at the club. “On Easter Sunday 2014, we lost 2-0 to Everton. Giggsy, who had been dropped, went mad after that match when Everton fans surrounded our bus and started abusing us. One of them threw something that bounced off the coach window. Giggsy stood up on the coach and shouted: ‘Fucking Everton fans are now taking the piss out of us. Enough is enough.’”
By 2019, standards had evidently shifted. The aforementioned Neville, like Giggs a veteran of 1999 and a serial-winner as a player under Alex Ferguson, chose to furiously attack the Manchester United players afterwards rather than the manager, making reference to “weeds in the garden” and using the word “embarrassing” to describe them. He suggested that Solskjær’s predecessor Jose Mourinho had “lost all faith in those players” by the end. When asked to “name names” by Sky presenter Dave Jones, Neville countered that “I don’t need to name names, Dave, everyone knows who they are, they’re in the newspapers every single day, they’re on social media every single day”. He went on to stress the need to “rebuild this team and rebuild this squad”.
He was at it again after the (first) Liverpool humiliation earlier this season, making reference to the squad that Solskjær inherited as including “three or four players to be fair who were probably mercenary” (that’s “fair”? LOL). Another example was Keane after United lost 0-2 at West Ham during the opening weeks of the 2019/20 season, making it a dismal 8 points out of 18 to start their Premier League campaign (they would slip to 14th in the table by mid-October). “I can tell he’s fuming” said Roy of his former teammate, as though Solskjær was just an innocent bystander powerless to do anything, as though he hadn’t just been handed £130m of defensive reinforcements in the summer (Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, granted, but that’s still a lot of money).
Of course, pulled punches were just one feature of Solskjær’s time in charge of Manchester United. Far more damaging, arguably, was the praise handed out to him for the merest hint of competence in the job. Infamously, the club’s 3-1 Champions League win over PSG in March 2019 had Ferdinand rubbing his hands together in glee on BT Sport while declaring that “Man United are back!” and advising the club to “get the contract out, put it on the table, let him sign it, let him write whatever numbers he wants to put on there, given what he’s done since he’s come in”. Meanwhile, over on beIN Sport, Neville was asking Solskjær “how long would you like on your contract, what would you like your salary to be, and where would you like your statue?”
Evidently, the club’s hierarchy was listening: roughly three weeks after the memorable result in Paris, and about three and a half away from that aforementioned destruction at the hands of Everton, Solskjær was handed a permanent deal. They would win two out of ten the rest of the way in all competitions. He subsequently signed an extension in July 2021. As it stands at the time of writing, the club has won no silverware since 2017.
The beauty of all of this is that Solskjær and Manchester United’s greatest night, the European victory that actually meant something rather than simply setting up a 0-4 aggregate loss to Barcelona in the next round, is the one that two decades later facilitated the sheer cataclysmic hubris of placing the world’s fourth-richest football club, recently valued by Forbes at $4.2 billion, into the hands of a man whose twin qualifications for the job only ever seemed to be a goal he scored on an early summer’s evening in Barcelona some 20 years earlier and the fact that he wasn’t Mourinho, and then leaving it there for three long years. In truth, this experiment was always going to end in grand humiliation, and it was inflicted by the worst possible source.
Many years later, Neville would recall Solskjær’s intervention in the Nou Camp in 1999: “My first words to Ole were ‘you have no idea what you’ve just done, you’ve just created history in that moment’”. How right he was, on both counts: it was history, and neither man did have any idea what he had just done. That awful goal effectively begat Liverpool’s 5-0 win at Old Trafford in 2021, following three years of futility for Manchester United that have coincided with the ascension of Liverpool’s greatest team for at least three decades and probably significantly longer that that. Miraculously, in the process, it has become possible to find the merest hint of humour in the spectre of Manchester United’s greatest ever season. And once you find yourself laughing at something, well, is it really that scary anymore?
In the immortal words of Nadia Vulvokov: “What a concept”. What a fucking concept, indeed.
* * *
One of the great things about growing up is that you inevitably out-grow your childhood fears, the monsters under your bed. But that process doesn’t stop as you move through life, and football is a great example of that. On that note, while contemplating the ultimate, uncanny subversion of Solskjær’s greatest moment into the stick that until fairly recently could be seen flogging Manchester United on a weekly basis, I thought of a few other monsters that have similarly been slain over the past few years.
Roy Hodgson’s departure from Liverpool in January 2011, for example, after a period that was both mercifully brief and felt terminally long, was ultimately a harbinger for better days ahead, but the scars ran deep for a while. The healing process began with those humiliating major tournament exits for England at the hands of Costa Rica and Iceland in 2014 and 2016 respectively, his allies in the media suddenly and hilariously hoist by their own petards. It has continued in recent years as Roy has become a thorn in the side of Liverpool’s title rivals, with his Crystal Palace side winning 3-2 and drawing 2-2 at the Etihad in 2018/19 and 2019/20 respectively. He couldn’t quite make it a hat-trick with Watford a few weeks back, but it’s nonetheless safe to say that Hodgson doesn’t occupy my thoughts much these days. Even his recent failure to acknowledge his own supporters at Selhurst Park following the result that saw them relegated only raised a chuckle with me. Never change, Roy.
Then there was Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, which quickly illustrated to me that even 20 years of pain can seem like a blip once it’s over. I was 13 when Manchester United won their first Premier League title in 1993 and 33 when he handed the reigns to Moyes, so these past nine years have been the first in my adult life without the constant threat hanging over me of my club’s greatest rivals hoovering up all the major silverware on offer (instead, they have won three trophies in nine years that have not included the Premier League or the Champions League). There is also a double-edged aspect to this, in so far as many a Manchester United supporter is conversely having to come to terms with an unsuccessful team for the first time in their adult life. Coupled with Ferguson being obliged to watch Liverpool reclaim their famous “perch” in his absence, which included being present for that 5-0 win in October, I think this one very much counts as another monster slain.
There have been smaller victories too. It took me until the aftermath of that same match last October, as Neville strained at the seams of his Communion suit to explain away Manchester United’s difficulties without implicating Ole, that I was able to finally reclaim a bonafide Liverpool legend. Maybe it was the emotion and gravity of the day, but as he sat on the opposite side of the Sky studio from Neville wearing a shit-eating grin the size of the River Mersey, I found myself letting go of the baggage associated with both his disastrous spell as manager of the club in the early 1990s and a long-term gig as a Sky pundit that has seen him heap scorn on many of his successors and clutched Graeme Souness to my heart once again, where he remains nestled for the time being. Needless to say, it has been nice to do that with one of the club’s greatest ever players.
Finally, on the wider subject of pundits: for the longest time I was minded to agree with the late Gérard Houllier’s comments in 2003 about the conduct of former Liverpool players in the media, particularly when compared to their counterparts from other clubs: “I just hope the players are as strong as the board and the manager can be, but I know the players are hurt by these sort of comments. Some don’t understand why former players are having a go at them and at their former club. I envy Everton for that.” But suddenly, at the ripe old age of 42, I have begun to see the silver lining in that cloud as well.
I am certainly not the only Liverpool supporter who has formed the impression over the years that many former Reds in the media, be it Jamie Carragher, Graeme Souness, Jamie Redknapp, Danny Murphy, Michael Owen, Didi Hamann, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton or Mark Lawrenson (before his current LFCTV gig, at least), have couched their “analysis” of Liverpool in terms designed, first and foremost, to avoid accusations of bias about a club that seems to elicit a strong dislike from anyone who doesn’t support it (i.e. the majority of the televised audience). And lest the argument be put forth that this is simply part and parcel of being a big club, former players from other teams of a similar stature, like the aforementioned Manchester United cohort, appear to be free to wear their club allegiance like a badge of honour, objectivity be damned.
A simple, and recent, illustration of the points made above concerns Carragher, one of Houllier’s favourites from his time managing the club and who may very well have been one of the individuals who Ged professed “don’t understand why former players are having a go at them and at their former club”.
In February 2021, Liverpool found themselves in the midst of a historic run of league defeats at home after previously going 68 unbeaten. The reason for this sharp deterioration was obvious: on the day Everton won at Anfield for the first time this century on 20th February, the club was without its three first-choice centre-backs (Virgil Van Dijk, Joël Matip and Joe Gomez) for the season, temporarily without its fourth-choice central defender and shield in front of the back-four (Fabinho), and had been reduced to partnering captain Jordan Henderson, a midfielder, with loanee Ozan Kabak (11 league starts this season for relegated Norwich City). By the time Fulham concluded this wretched spell with a 1-0 win at Anfield on 7th March, Henderson and Kabak had also gone down injured, with Nathaniel Phillips (currently playing for Bournemouth in the Championship) and Rhys Williams (recalled in January from a loan spell at Championship side Swansea City having only featured eight times) now anchoring the team.
Liverpool would eventually cycle through a staggering 20 centre-back partnerships over the course of 53 games during 2020/21, with the most used combination (Phillips and Kabak) starting only eight together. While this naturally destabilised the defensive side of the team, it had an absolutely disastrous effect on how it attacked. The likes of Van Dijk, Matip, Gomez and new arrival Ibrahima Konaté can be relied upon to defend the vast open spaces vacated by full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, whose importance to the team is equally vested in their ability to attack as defend. The capacity of players like Kabak, Phillips and Williams to do similar was clearly not the same.
So while four of the defeats during that awful six-game run were “only” by a scoreline of 1-0, Liverpool failed to score in five of them and Alexander-Arnold and Robertson, who combined for 23 Premier League assists in 2018/19, 25 in 2019/20 and currently sit on 22 for this season with three games to play, managed only 14 between them in 2020/21, a 44% reduction in output from the team’s assist leaders in comparison to the previous campaign. This went a fair way to accounting for how the number of goals scored by the team went from 85 the season before to 68, a reduction of 24% in a campaign where top scorers Firmino, Mané and Salah all started 30+ games.
This concept, that Liverpool’s defence actually defines how it attacks, and does it damn well too given that the team currently boasts the second-best goalscoring record in the Premier League as well as three of its top-five goalscorers and top-three assist-makers, is somewhat topical, of course, given the recent media scares about its high defensive line that has routinely caught opposition players offside to such an extent that not even Manchester City, themselves partial to playing high up the pitch, are remotely in Liverpool’s orbit. This is the very identity of a team currently competing on four fronts, allowing it to condense games into areas of the pitch (i.e. the opposition half) where it wants to play. In that context, to suggest that the drop-off from Van Dijk–Matip to Phillips–Williams is not going to have a paralysing effect would be laughable.
Yet that seemed to be exactly what Carragher was suggesting following Liverpool’s 0-2 defeat to Everton last February, when he stated: “I said during commentary that ‘l am sick of talking about Virgil van Dijk’…The reason I don’t want to use Virgil van Dijk as an excuse (is) because Liverpool started the game against Everton with 10 Champions League winners. That is why it is not an excuse in individual games. They have to find a way to win” and “…the problems Liverpool have, with centre backs out and midfielders at centre back, does not mean they can’t win home games against Everton, Brighton, Burnley, West Brom”.
Actually, at the elite level of competition represented by the Premier League in the third decade of the 21st century, much less the insane levels being reached by Liverpool and Manchester City season-on-season, it absolutely is an excuse. Not just Van Dijk (which is a bit of a strawman anyway because without him Liverpool won 7-0 at Crystal Palace to sit top of the table going into Christmas 2020), but Van Dijk and Matip and Gomez for the majority of the season, and then Fabinho as well? 100%.
But surely Carragher, a paragon of objectivity, would react the same way if, say, Manchester City lost Rúben Dias, Aymeric Laporte and John Stones under similar circumstances? Well, actually, City’s season doesn’t need to be ruined for us to find the answer to that one. Speaking in October 2019 after City lost Laporte for six months, Carragher stated: “I think what we are seeing with Man City now is they are being affected by injuries now in the same position and that’s a problem for them. That’s a problem for anyone even though they have got a better squad than Liverpool and you see how much it is hurting them. You may actually think it would hurt Liverpool more if they injuries (sic) because, as I said, they don’t quite the squad City have (sic). But to be fair, Man City have problems where they are weakest, at centre-back, in terms of numbers and quality.”
So there you have it: an acknowledgement in October 2019 that injuries in the same position would be “a problem for anyone” as a means to excuse results like Norwich City 3-2 Manchester City, as well as an implicit acknowledgement that Liverpool would struggle more if the roles were reversed, had by February 2021 morphed into “it is not an excuse in individual games. They have to find a way to win” when Liverpool were down four centre-backs and during a season where Champions League qualification ended up residing in the hands of a central defensive partnership (Phillips–Williams) which, charitably, would have resided somewhere below twentieth on the list of defensive duos behind any combination that included Van-Dijk, Matip, Gomez, Fabinho and, on the evidence of the season, Kabak.
This is the kind of double-standards and inconsistency regularly visited upon Liverpool teams by their former players over the years, and it used to send my blood pressure through the roof whenever I heard it. The likes of Neville and Keane raging on-air after Manchester United have lost 5-0 to Liverpool or 4-1 to Manchester City is at least founded in genuine angst and disappointment at the state of their club on the pitch (as well as a fair degree of showmanship, naturally). With Carragher, I honestly don’t know. His words, to simply “find a way to win” as if it’s ever that easy, instead seemed designed only to heap pressure upon a manager and a group of players who had delivered a sixth European Cup, a first league title in 30 years, back-to-back 97 and 99-point finishes, and a club-record 68-match unbeaten run at home in the league during the previous two years, in the process making a big show of his honesty and objectivity.
When you’re in the maelstrom of a run like that, as Houllier was in April 2003, as Klopp was in February 2021, then the temptation to wonder at the motivations of these people, as well as to“envy Everton” (if only to laugh at the absurdity of such a concept), must be as overwhelming for these managers and players as it is for the supporters. And yet you only have to look at the long-term effects on Manchester United of Ferdinand calling on the club’s hierarchy to give Solskjær a permanent contract, of Neville asking him where he wanted his statue, of the constant diversion of criticism away from the manager and onto the players that allowed the situation to linger on, to understand that having ex-players supporting you in the media can also be counter-productive and even damaging.
Ultimately, the only purpose served by the support, both explicit and otherwise, given to the manager by his former comrades and their professed optimism that his team were on the cusp of contending once again, best exemplified by Neville in the autumn of 2020 claiming that United would win a league before Liverpool, was to make Manchester United supporters feel better as Liverpool ascended to the top of English football once again. But for us, the likes of Neville and Ferdinand in particular were just useful idiots, propagandising for a cause without fully comprehending what that cause actually entailed. I would hate for the likes of Carragher, Murphy or Redknapp to ever become that for our rivals.
On that basis, and with the caveat that their lack of balance can often be detrimental to Liverpool’s chances on the pitch (look no further than Paul Tomkins’ superb, and shocking, article in March on Mo Salah bias amongst Premier League referees that I would wager has been driven, consciously or otherwise, by a similar level of bias in the media), I have slowly grown to accept and even appreciate the ex-Reds in the media. They may come across as a little too ambivalent, and even bitter at times, about the club they used to represent for my taste, but if the price you pay for supportive pundits is what has happened to Manchester United over the past few years, then they too may serve as useful idiots, at least until the day Steven Gerrard eventually takes charge.
Another monster slain, then. Unfortunately, some are harder to defeat than others.
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For reasons that will shortly become clear, one of my favourite wrestling promos of all-time, namely the tour de force delivered by Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts at Wrestlemania VI in April 1990, has resonated with me once again over the past few months. Can you guess why?
In a 2016 article for the New York Daily News titled “Curse of the lottery: Tragic stories of big jackpot winners”, author Nicole Bitette noted that “[n]early 70% of lottery winners end up broke within seven years.” She went on to quote Edward Ugel, writer of the book “Money for Nothing: One Man’s Journey Through the Dark Side of Lottery Millions”, who said “[y]ou would be blown away to see how many winners wish they’d never won.” I wonder how many Chelsea supporters will feel that way by the time the dust finally settles on Roman Abramovich’s exit from their club? Or how many are already feeling that way right now? At least they can console themselves with the fact that they lasted considerably longer than 7 years, just under 19 to be more accurate.
Liverpool supporters have long been smart to the fact that the Russian’s arrival at Stamford Bridge at the start of July 2003 was the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket for Chelsea. Its effect on Liverpool was not quite so positive, but we’ll get to that. Chelsea was a modest club back then, one which won had won just four major honours in its first 87 years of existence prior to the commencement of the Premier League in August 1992 (one League title in 1955, a League Cup in 1965 back when the bigger clubs often declined to participate but we’ll allow it, an FA Cup in 1970, and a European Cup-Winners Cup in 1971) and was less than a decade removed from starting line-ups that regularly featured the likes of Dave Beasant, Paul Furlong, John Spencer and Tony Cascarino.
They had managed to add another five trophies in the meantime, chiefly by riding the first wave of foreign talent coming into the English game in the early years of the Premier League. The likes of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Di Matteo, Franck Leboeuf, Gianfranco Zola and Marcel Desailly put them in a position to win FA Cups in 1997 and 2000, and the League Cup, European Cup-Winners Cup and European Super Cup in 1998. Stamford Bridge had also been redeveloped, to the point where they were even able to phase out the ubiquitous cars parked behind the goal at the Shed End. This rise to relevance did come at a price, however: by the time the club was sold in July 2003, it was apparently on the verge of having to default on a £75m loan that would have plunged it into financial crisis two decades early.
That run of success in the 1990s made it nine major trophies in 98 years (or about one every 11 years on average) for Chelsea prior to Abramovich’s arrival, equal with Wolves but below the likes of Nottingham Forest and Newcastle United, and well below clubs like Aston Villa and Everton. They were also regular contenders for Champions League qualification, but had only made it twice prior to July 2003, finishing 3rd in 1998/99 and 4th in 2002/03 (they had also qualified for the inaugural edition of the European Cup in 1955, of course, but had declined to enter). Their only attempt to date had been a creditable exit to Barcelona at the quarter-final stage in 1999/00, but the fact remained that Newcastle had played more Champions League football than Chelsea at that point.
That all changed in the summer of 2003. From the moment he took charge, Abramovich’s wealth would enable this moderately successful club, bought for the relatively modest sum (for a billionaire) of £140m, although it was twice the £70m that Steve Morgan would offer for Liverpool a year later, to embark upon a level of spending never before seen in English football. The first list below, taken from Transfermarkt.co.uk, shows the transfer spending of English clubs between 2003–2007, a period that commenced with Abramovich’s arrival in England and created the foundation of what Chelsea would become. This was financial doping by any definition, with the club’s gross spending outstripping that of their closest rivals by a staggering £306 million and the net spend by around £294 million, in just four years.
This was the equivalent of pumping a skinny kid full of steroids and human growth hormone until he had the cobra neck and swollen, v-shaped torso of a bodybuilder, and it distorted the entire ecosystem of English football. If anyone is wondering (as plenty have, albeit belatedly, in the past year following the European Super League (ESL) debacle in April 2021 and Chelsea’s recent situation) how nation states and those with corrupt ties to them, not to mention foreign investors driven by motives of profit and/or carrying alien concepts regarding how the game should be run, have come to control so much of English football’s real estate, then this was the moment. The establishment of the Premier League in 1992 laid some of the foundations, but the deep yearning of loyal supporters for sugar daddies that has come to characterise much of the past two decades only really kicked off in the years following the arrival of the first, and the incontrovertible data that followed as to the practical effects of such wealth being lavished indiscriminately upon a club.
The second list below, also taken from Transfermarkt.co.uk and encompassing the full period 2003–2022 (to date), shows that while that initial level of spending would gradually taper off to some extent as Chelsea reinvented themselves as arch purveyors of young talent (only Liverpool come within £300m of them for transfer fees recouped in the table below, and about 40% of that was the result of unwillingly losing six key players: Xabi Alonso for £30m, Javier Mascherano for £18m, Fernando Torres for £50m, Raheem Sterling for £50m, Luis Suárez for £65m and Philippe Coutinho for £142m), only Manchester City, whose journey from also-ran to contender largely followed the same path, are in the same universe as Chelsea for gross spend over two decades, with Manchester United joining them on net. Liverpool, over a period of 19 years, lag behind them on both to the tune of £710m (gross) and £420m (net) respectively.
This was Chelsea’s winning lottery ticket in action, and the yield was twofold. First and foremost is the silverware. Abramovich’s wealth and willingness to spend it quickly transformed a moderately successful club that was a regular contender for Champions League football each season and won the odd trophy into an absolute behemoth that, with the FA Cup still left to play for this season, has won more major trophies in the past 19 years (19, excluding Community Shields) than Manchester United (14), Manchester City (13), Liverpool (9) and Arsenal (6), and can legitimately claim to be the biggest club in a city that houses a couple of the English game’s aristocrats (it’s still Arsenal for me, by the way, but Chelsea are undoubtedly in the conversation now). It also enabled a club that had played just one season in Europe’s premier club football competition before 2003 to qualify for seventeen of the next nineteen, reaching the semi-final or better in eight and winning it twice.
The second yield was, perhaps like Abramovich’s motives for buying Chelsea in the first place, a lot more subtle. It can be defined, simply, as influence. Around this time last year, when six English clubs agreed to be part of the breakaway ESL and the whole world seemed to be crashing down on the likes of UEFA, the Premier League and Sky Sports for a few days, the focus of the conversation immediately seemed to be on Liverpool and Manchester United. Rightly so, in some ways: as I pointed out in a post last year reviewing the whole fiasco, both of those clubs (as well as Arsenal for sure, and possibly Tottenham at different times as their fortunes fluctuated) had been involved in discussions around breakaway domestic and European leagues since at least the 1980s (back when they were all under English ownership, incidentally), a function of consistently remaining at the forefront of the English game for decades. For their parts, Chelsea and Manchester City wouldn’t have even been in the same building back then, much less in the same room and sat around the same table.
By April 2021 they were very much at that table, smoking cigars and sipping whiskey with the rest of them, new money set snugly against old. Some, like the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust who blamed Chairman Bruce Buck and Chief Executive Guy Laurence for the decision of the club to join the ESL, and football writer Jonathan Wilson, who described Chelsea as having been “reluctant partners in the fiasco”, were moved, like so many over the past 19 years or so, to either excuse the club’s owner of culpability for that puddle of urine on the floor or, better yet, omit his name entirely from the conversation.
On the ESL issue, as with the club’s more recent off-field struggles, they have consistently missed the point: Chelsea were only in a position to make a call to enter the ESL in the first place because of Roman Abramovich. Had he never arrived, it is highly debatable whether aristocrats of the game like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United and Juventus, reported to have been the masterminds behind the whole thing, would have ever invited them into the room in the first place. Rather, they may very well have been on the outside looking in, perhaps like Leeds United, setting out snarky t-shirts in the away dressing-room regarding a competition that they have about as much chance of reaching in real terms as Tranmere Rovers. More intriguingly still, Fenway Sports Group (FSG) would arguably have never been in a position to buy Liverpool in the first place had it not been for Abramovich. But we’ll get to that.
Similarly, the club’s plight in recent months, where they were precluded from selling match tickets and merchandise, signing players or handing out new contracts, and where sponsors were no longer willing to be associated with them, was because of Roman Abramovich. Not the supporters of other clubs, whose protests against the Russian’s gravitational influence on the English game were alternately laughed off and scorned for the best part of two decades, and not the UK government, the Premier League or the media, who largely facilitated him by looking in the opposite direction since his arrival. Had it not been for his very arrival in the first place, and certainly had it not been for the machinations of his affairs outside of football, Chelsea Football Club would be in much better health now than it has been since the start of March. Surely that point can no longer be argued?
The truth is that some events are too big too ignore, no matter how hard you try. On 2nd March, and in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Abramovich announced his intention to sell the club after some 19 years in charge. Perhaps symbolically, his statement arrived three days after Liverpool, so often under-funded relatively and consequently outgunned in big games against his club going right back to his early days at Stamford Bridge, traded haymaker-for-haymaker in outlasting the reigning European and World champions in a gripping League Cup final at Wembley, ultimately prevailing 11-10 on penalties to reclaim their competition record from another rival built on new money, Manchester City.
There has already been, and will continue to be, plenty of discussion over how implicated Abramovich is in Russia’s military action. Needless to say, I won’t be wading too far into the deep waters of either the British legal system or (God forbid) global geopolitics here, chiefly because I am not qualified to do so but also because there is already enough analysis out there, some worthy (there is a very good primer by the Guardian’s David Conn HERE, for instance) and plenty not, about an event of sufficient gravity that it should put football very much in the shade in comparison. Suffice it to say, however, that the Chelsea owner clearly felt himself to be implicated enough to have taken the unusual step of putting his football club, which sits around 2,500 miles away from events in Kyiv and for which he apparently feels “pure passion”, up for sale before it became embroiled in economic sanctions to which he may have been subjected in the future. One can only imagine that such an “incredibly difficult decision” would not have been made unless there was a fairly realistic prospect of such an action being taken.
Sure enough, on Wednesday 10th March, the UK government made its move: seven of Russia’s wealthiest and most influential oligarchs, Abramovich amongst them, were hit with sanctions in a bid to further punish allies of the Russian President over the invasion of Ukraine. The Chelsea owner was found to have “received preferential treatment and concessions” from the Kremlin and, through his business links, to have been “involved in destabilising Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence” of the country. This followed hot on the heels of the revelation by Labour MP Chris Bryant that a 2019 Home Office document indicated that “…Abramovich remains of interest to HMG (Her Majesty’s government) due to his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices. An example of this is Abramovich admitting in court proceedings that he paid for political influence” (see David Conn’s article linked earlier for more on that last point).
In light of subsequent events, which included an attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol, it is difficult to imagine a more serious level of shit for any football club owner to be in. That has focused minds, if there were any left that needed it. Up to the point that sanctions were formally imposed, the reaction in football to the situation had been somewhat mixed, certainly once you went beyond the official line being presented by the authorities and the clubs. This was nicely encapsulated by the Match of the Day coverage of Chelsea’s FA Cup Fifth Round tie with Luton Town on Wednesday 2nd March, where BBC presenter Gary Lineker looked to be on the verge of tears at the Abramovich announcement while Alan Shearer correctly noted that there was no condemnation in his statement of the Russian action in Ukraine. Meanwhile, Newcastle United’s new co-owner Amanda Staveley stated that “I’m really sad that someone is going to have a football club taken away because of a relationship he may have with someone. I don’t think that’s particularly fair to be honest.” But then, she would say that, wouldn’t she?
Elsewhere, the official line that “Football Stands Together”, emblazoned on the Ukrainian flag and displayed so prominently before the League Cup final, jarred strikingly with the presence in that final of a team whose owner allegedly holds intimate financial ties to the man ultimately responsible for the invasion and its bloody aftermath. And Chelsea supporters themselves kind of underlined this inherent tension at Burnley a few days after his initial statement, chanting their owner’s name through a minute’s applause held in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
Hovering over all of these events is the fact that English football has finally been dragged kicking and screaming to a long overdue, (somewhat) meaningful consideration of Abramovich’s presence in English football, even if the associated long-term ramifications for the game of his arrival in July 2003 remain the elephant in the room.
I can only speak with any kind of authority about my own club, and that initial four-year burst of spending by Chelsea’s new owner in particular had far-reaching consequences for Liverpool. If Chelsea was a moderately successful football club back in 2003, the same could have been said of Liverpool, albeit the respective histories of the two clubs were night and day. Since their last League title 13 years earlier, the Reds had won seven major trophies to Chelsea’s five over the intervening period (FA Cups in 1992 and 2001, League Cups in 1995, 2001 and 2003, and a UEFA Cup and European Super Cup in 2001), but had just lost 1-2 at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the 2002/03 season to narrowly miss out on Champions League qualification. In many ways the two clubs were at a similar level, competing with each other for the scraps being left by Arsenal and Manchester United at the time.
Abramovich changed all that. Between the Russian’s arrival in June 2003 and the start of the 2004/05 season alone, a period of a little over a year, they signed a staggering seven players in excess of Liverpool’s club record (at the time, £11m for Emile Heskey and subsequently £14m for Djibril Cissé): Juan Sebastián Verón for £15m, Adrian Mutu for £15.8m, Damien Duff for £17m, Claude Makélélé for £16.8m, Hernán Crespo for £16.8m, Ricardo Carvalho for £20m and Didier Drogba for £24m. By then, they were also rumoured to be coveting Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and were supposedly willing to pay whatever it took. For the few days in the summer of 2005 when it looked to be happening, that price appeared to be £32m.
Notwithstanding Manchester United’s global reach and related wealth, Liverpool had finished ahead of them in the league as recently as 2001/02, had beaten them in the 2003 League Cup final, would finish within a point of them during 2005/06, and would finish the decade within four points of arguably Ferguson’s greatest ever team in 2008/09. Liverpool could hope to compete, at least intermittently, with a single financial monster like United, as well as Arsenal whose spending was more moderate in comparison and would in any case be affected by the construction of their new stadium from the mid-2000s onwards.
The magnitude of their transfer spending meant that Abramovich’s team were a different animal entirely. Liverpool had won a Champions League in 2005 and an FA Cup in 2006, both of which included semi-final victories over Chelsea, and they had also taken the 2005 League Cup final to extra-time, but the scale of the over-achievement inherent in both was evident from the points-gap between the two sides in the league, which had fluctuated from a gigantic 37 in 2004/05 down to 9 in 2005/06 and back up to 15 at the end of 2006/07. By the time Liverpool’s then-owner, Scouser David Moores, was apparently loaning the club money to facilitate the £9m arrival of Dirk Kuyt in the summer of 2006, Abramovich was writing cheques of £24m and £32m for Michael Essien and Andriy Shevchenko respectively without giving it a second thought (although as it turns out, those may also have been loans).
It was at this point that Moores must have begun to see a binary option emerging before him: either operate an also-ran or move aside for someone who could fund a successful 21st century football club. In February 2007 he moved aside, which is partly why I chose that year as the end-point of that initial four-year period for Abramovich at Chelsea: it was the year that Liverpool was sold to foreign investors for the first time. Moores’ successors, Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks, would, of course, subsequently prove to not be the right men for the job. Nonetheless, the source of his motivation to “sell my shares to assist in securing the investment needed for the new stadium and for the playing squad” was understandable in the context of his inability to provide or develop the funds required to compete. That situation was undoubtedly worsened by Abramovich.
Much like the Glazers down the road at Old Trafford, who had completed their takeover of Manchester United in June 2005, Gillett and Hicks loaded much of the purchase price onto the club as debt as part of a leveraged buyout, with their ultimate goal to flip their investment in a few years and make a killing. Unfortunately for them, a once-a-century global economic crash happened on their watch and the club’s finances were simply not robust enough for them to dig in and hold on, unlike the Glazers. As a result, present owners FSG were able to swoop in and buy the club for a knockdown £300m.
Again, if anyone is wondering how John W. Henry came to be a mover and shaker in English football, this is the etymology. Furthermore, for the bargain of a lifetime (£300m for a club that had been sold for £435m as recently as 20 months earlier), there were only two interested parties, an American hedge fund manager and a Singaporean stockbroker. All of the supposed English investors who would “get” the game and its traditions were nowhere to be seen (a concept which, in any case, ignores the fact that arguably the worst owner in English football over the past two decades was born in Walsall). Even an avid supporter of the club like Morgan couldn’t afford to pay that. The price of entry had ballooned even then to the point where only foreign interests could afford to pay it and the majority, certainly in the media, were more interested in seeing Rafa Benítez sacked than looking beyond results on the pitch.
Herein lies another example of missing the point that I mentioned earlier. Carragher (again), perhaps studiously ignoring the fact that previous English owners of the club were almost certainly party to similar conversations about breakaway leagues in the past, went so far as say the following about Liverpool’s current owners following the ESL debacle in April 2021: “There’s nothing left for them. I don’t see how they can continue. I don’t see a future for the ownership for FSG at Liverpool on the back of this. I think they’re making it worse for themselves.” What Carragher and many of his colleagues left unsaid, of course, was something I subsequently highlighted, namely:
Most of all, the likes of Carragher have missed (or ignored) the clear and obvious problem. It is less that an American steeped for a good 30 years in the American school of professional sports ownership thought that a similar model in football was a good thing; it’s that said American was ever in a position to make that decision in the first place. Expecting someone like that to understand (or even want to understand) the nuances and traditions of the English league football pyramid and their importance to the supporters of its constituent clubs, almost all of which significantly pre-date the oldest franchises in American professional sports, is intelligence-insulting nonsense. Why do you think a native of Quincy, Illnois (or Rochester, New York, in Malcolm Glazer’s case) would buy a “soccer” club thousands of miles away in a foreign country if not to make money? How are people apparently only waking up to this reality in 2021?
Of course, Chelsea supporters never had to worry about any of that with Roman Abramovich. When he says, as he did in his March statement, that his ownership of club has “never been about…money for me“, I tend to believe him. After all, what’s an initial outlay of £140 million and a reported £1.4 billion in the 19 years since (so, around £81 million per year) to a man with a net worth estimated by Forbes to be $12.2 billion? Chump change, is what it is. So regardless of whether his motives were pure or sinister, the direct accumulation of more wealth was unlikely to have played a part.
This is what every Chelsea fan means when they tell you that he was a great owner: he was willing to invest millions on players and trophies without expecting any return on that investment (he appeared to confirm as much in his statement, clarifying that “I will not be asking for any loans to be repaid”, although that initial stance may now have changed). Well, based on that desperately narrow definition, of course he was a great owner. His presence meant that the club was never required to be sustainable, could afford to buy the world’s best players, could sack managers and their coaching staffs at a frightening rate (fourteen in 19 years by my count), pay the associated compensation and still hoover up silverware every season.
Given the direct line you can draw between the “great owner” Abramovich’s arrival in 2003 and the sale of Liverpool to Gillett and Hicks in 2007, owners that would clearly be any football fan’s worst nightmare, the savage irony of seeing Chelsea supporters so unnerved at the prospect of new owners in the days and weeks following the Russian’s initial statement was not lost on me. Who will it be? What are their motives? How much money will they be willing to spend? Will it be a leveraged purchase? Will they take money out of the club? Liverpool supporters were here just over 15 years ago, and even as the situation at Stamford Bridge escalated to talk of potential administration at one point, the parallels remained: the club was officially hours from that fate before FSG bought it in October 2010.
In the greatest irony of all, both situations were as a direct result of Abramovich’s arrival at Stamford Bridge in July 2003, even if only one of them is due to an owner being implicated in a geopolitical conflict. The result for Chelsea supporters is that their lottery win has turned into a grand experiment, one termed by the New York Times’ Rory Smith on the Anfield Wrap podcast around that time as: “What happens when we stop being used?”
It shouldn’t need to be clarified, but the monster to which I’ve been alluding here is not Abramovich but, rather, Chelsea Football Club itself, or at least the ‘roided up version it has become since 2003. The club’s future now appears to be secure following the announcement on 7th May that a consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and including his fellow Dodgers co-owner Mark Walter, Swiss billionaire Hansjoerg Wyss and the primary shareholders, US investment firm Clearlake Capital, have purchased the club for £4.25 billion. But whatever happens next for them, the future is likely to be very different from the past 19 years. Certainly, the likelihood of the new owners being another benevolent benefactor like their predecessor would appear to be virtually nil, if only because £4.25 billion is a significantly higher initial outlay than the £140m Abramovich paid in 2003 or FSG’s £300m to buy Liverpool in 2010.
Besides, the clue is in the name: the motive of an “investment firm” tends to be financial gain. Chelsea are now likely to find themselves part of another experiment, namely whether it is genuinely possible to extract profit from a 21st century football club while still maintaining success on the pitch. Manchester United cost the Glazers a total of £790m but that was almost 17 years ago; Liverpool sold for £435m in 2007, and £300m in extraordinary circumstances in 2010, but again, that was over a decade ago; Manchester City, bought for £210m in 2008, were nowhere near their current stature at the time; Newcastle are the only other recent example, but you’re talking about a yo-yo club that has won nothing of note since 1969 going for around £300m. Chelsea are selling for £4.25 billion. That’s a hell of a lot of money to make back, especially at a club whose business has been under-written by one individual for many years.
Whether these owners end up being the “good” kind like FSG, whose presence at Liverpool has never been ideal but who have run the club very well indeed even while making plenty of mistakes along the way, or the categorically terrible kind like Hicks and Gillett, the days of Chelsea being able to rely upon an owner with deep pockets to give them a boost are almost certainly over. Even accepting at face value their claims to now be self-sustaining, under normal circumstances they would still have had to find £1.4 billion to repay their debts to Abramovich at some point in the future (and it still remains to be seen how that plays out). Furthermore, as outlined by Swiss Ramble below, it isn’t as if the Russian’s contributions have tapered off completely in recent years.
Of particular interest is the fact that Arsenal’s owners have only invested £15m in the club over a ten-year period, which is outstripped considerably to the tune of over £100m even by the fiscally conservative FSG and represents some £544m less than the funds Abramovich was sinking into Chelsea. If Boehly and his partners end up resembling the Kroenke’s in any way, it’s hard to imagine a club ever experiencing a harder pivot that wasn’t going bust.
There is a scenario, of course, whereby this becomes the best thing that’s ever happened to Chelsea, freeing the club of the complications associated with an owner who has been implicated in global geopolitics since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and setting it on a less morally ambiguous path, or at least in so far as possible for a team that still has an organisation with far-right ties called the “Chelsea Headhunters” associated with it and one whose supporters still openly sing about tragedies like they’re just another rich source of banter (see below).
Additionally, there is an interesting parallel between Boehly’s group in 2022 and John W. Henry’s in 2010 as regards a track record of success in other elite sports leagues, with FSG’s Boston Red Sox having bridged an 86-year wait for a World Series in 2004 and the Los Angeles Dodgers having recently won a first in 32 years. But in all likelihood Chelsea’s future, much like Liverpool, will now need to be sustainable, and that will be quite a change from the past 19 years and the aftermath of their lottery win. As Liverpool have shown, you can still win under those circumstances but you have to be patient, a virtue that’s beyond the comprehension of many modern football fans. If only Saudi Arabia had waited a few months, eh?
Leaving aside political and legal considerations, which many would argue is an impossibility but I hope I’ve succeeded, the truth is that while Abramovich himself may or may not be a monster in a wider sense, he absolutely created one at Stamford Bridge in a way that has had a profound effect on the football club I have loved for 36 years. But much like Solskjær’s intervention in Barcelona all those years ago, and on the eve of an FA Cup final between the clubs that Liverpool will surely enter as favourites, a rarity over the first decade and a half of the Russian’s ownership, an influence that felt so malign for so long, like a cold hand on nape of your neck, like a nightmare that drenches your sheets in sweat, has suddenly begun to transform into something else entirely some 20 years after it all began. Instead, the towering monuments of the past two decades now seem to crumble with the disgrace of how it all ended, and a scary new horizon dawns in their place.
And now, as we enter the final weeks of a season that may ultimately rank as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever, there arrives the potential for one more monster to be slain in Paris. But that’s for another post.