IN JUNE 2003, Ken Bates sold Chelsea Football Club to eccentric Russian Billionaire, Roman Abramovich, for £140 Million, an average team with a few good players who had just qualified for the Champions League the previous season after years of underachievement. Abramovich knew the task he had at hand; this was a team that had last won the Premier League in 1950 (called the First Division back in those days). After years of financial problems, internal turmoil and off the field troubles things were finally looking up for the West London side as they finally had an owner who came in with a promise to compete with the best in Europe for trophies.
Abramovich came with a vision, he wanted to make Chelsea a commercial superpower, a brand that could rival the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid and started off with an immediate injection of £20 million into building a state of the art training complex in Cobham, Surrey. This was swiftly followed by perhaps the highest transfer overlay by a single team in one window at that time as Chelsea spent in excess of £120 Million to bring in Glen Johnson, Geremi, Wayne Bridge, Damien Duff, Joe Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Adrian Mutu, Alexey Smertin, Hernan Crespo, Claude Makele in the summer followed by Scott Parker in January. The expensive overlay paid dividends as Chelsea finished 2nd in the Premier League behind Arsenal’s Invincibles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. While that may be considered a success for many it wasn’t the same with Abramovich as he sacked Claudio Raineri in May 2004 and decided to bring in Jose Mourinho, a man who had just surprised European football by lifting the Champions League with Porto.
The arrival of Jose Mourinho was like a prophecy, here was an arrogant young manager, self-proclaimed ‘The Special One’ joining hands with an ambitious owner to make Chelsea a European Superpower. What followed was more spending as Mourinho and Abramovich splashed in excess of £200 Million but the difference this time was the players. While Mourinho brought in some young names with great potential it was the signing of world-class winners that really shook the traditional Powerhouses in the Premier League. With the acquisition of the likes of Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben, Petr Cech along with Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho who were a part of the Champions League winning side with Porto, Chelsea went on to win the Premier League but it was the manner of the win that got people’s attention. They had the most away wins (15), most clean sheets kept in a season (25), most wins in a season (29), fewest goals conceded in a season (15) and most points in a season (95) as Mourinho and Abramovich took the Premier League by storm and continued their dominance by retaining their Premier League crown the following season while spending another £54 Million on the way with majority of it going in for Michael Essien and Shaun Wright-Phillips. There seem to be an air of Invincibility about Chelsea, they were not only dominating teams on the pitch but were also doing better than every Premier League side in the Transfer Market, but nothing is ever built to last.
On a fateful morning in July 2006, the first crack appeared as Chelsea announced Frank Arnesen who was the Chief Scout would be handed complete control of all transfers in and out of Chelsea. A very bizarre move considering Mourinho had been calling the shots in the market and had delivered the trophies to justify the massive overlay on players. Of course, the decision did not go down well with Mourinho and in spite of another expensive window where Chelsea spent £66 Million on the likes of Andriy Shevchenko, Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and more, Mourinho failed to deliver the title as they were beaten by a reborn and resurgent Manchester United. This was the first time Abramovich’s Chelsea faced a challenge in the Premier League since the arrival of Mourinho with Manchester United having rebuilt their team around the core of Rooney & Ronaldo and it all started to fall apart.
Chelsea spent another £50 Million on the likes of Florent Malouda, Nicolas Anelka, Branislav Ivanovic taking their overall spend under Abramovich close to £400 Million along with a few sharp deals bringing in the likes of Claudio Pizzaro, Fabio Borini & Steve Sidwell for free but they failed to acquire Samuel Eto’o, Micah Richards both of whom were identified as key transfer targets by Mourinho to propel Chelsea to the top in Europe. This also coincided with the arrival of Avram Grant who in some words was forced upon Mourinho by Abramovich to be a part of the coaching staff. Avram Grant started having one-on-one meetings with players asking about their happiness in playing the system they were, there were questions about being played out of position. Grant had come in with an agenda and all this internal meddling ended with Mourinho banning team meetings. The board had appointed Avram Grant and Mourinho’s reaction did not go down well with clubs hierarchy and 6 weeks into the new season Mourinho had had enough. September 2007 it was announced that the man who had won two Premier League titles, two League Cups and one FA Cup, a man who averaged an unprecedented 2.33 points from his 120 Premiership games in just over three seasons would be leaving the club by Mutual Consent.
While Avram Grant taking charge of Chelsea and guiding them their first ever Champions League final did paper some cracks there suddenly seemed to be an air of vulnerability around Chelsea. People close to the club said things had changed, Abramovich had changed, no longer were decisions made based on merit but by the influence of the people in and around Abramovich. Thus initiated the start of a topsy-turvy ride as Chelsea saw 7 different managers taking charge of club between 2007 to 2013 and while they did win 6 trophies including another Premier League title along with the coveted UEFA Champions League and spending another £300 Million on transfer acquisitions Chelsea football club had become the epitome of short-termism with a trigger-happy owner sitting at the helm. Jose Mourinho meanwhile went on to guide Inter Milan to a treble before moving on to Real Madrid and winning the La Liga with a record number of points, while Chelsea were being outspent by Manchester City who now became the only team challenging Manchester United for Premier League supremacy.
All hell broke loose in May 2013 as Sir Alex Ferguson after 26 years in charge of Manchester United announced his retirement with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola being touted as replacements, message from the Mourinho camp was that they expected him to get the Old Trafford job but Manchester United decided to bring David Moyes leaving Jose exasperated. Chelsea meanwhile was in search of a new manager and Abramovich saw the retirement of Sir Alex as an opportunity to end Manchester United’s domination in England and make Chelsea the biggest club in the land. Abramovich turned his attention to one man who had done it all before, JOSE MOURINHO!
Mourinho’s ‘homecoming’ was like the return of the prodigal son, everything seemed perfect, almost biblical, the man who was loved and adored by the fans like nobody else was back again and this time it seemed for good. Abramovich and Jose quickly buried the hatchet and were all praises for each other as they embarked on a new journey with the hope of creating a dynasty unrivaled and unparalleled. Mourinho was given the final say in all transfer dealings as Chelsea manager and used it his advantage as he splashed in excess of £100 Million by bringing in the likes of Andrew Schurrle, Willian, Nemaja Matic, Mohamed Salah and Kurt Zouma in the first year back but could only manage 3rd place, all of this while playing down his team’s chances calling them ‘little horses’ but progress was being made and there seemed to be a growing belief around Stamford Bridge that they were headed in the right direction.
Mourinho started the second year of his second spell in 2014 by splashing more cash in adding Diego Costa and Felipe Luis from Atletico Madrid while snatching Cesc Fabregas from right under the nose of Manchester United, Fabregas looked to be the missing piece of the puzzle in a very talented and expensive Chelsea side. Chelsea started the season strongly and raced away with the Premier League winning Jose his 3rd Premier League crown and Chelsea’s 4th since Abramovich took over but suffered disappointment in Europe as they were beaten by PSG on goal difference in the Round of 16. Chelsea completed the double by winning the League Cup and it seemed like the air of Invincibility from the years of 2004-6 had returned to Stamford Bridge. Mourinho seemed to have built a team that was not only physically imposing but also one that possessed the necessary guile to break down stubborn opponents.
Mourinho was rewarded with a new four-year contract in the summer as he spoke about staying Chelsea, building a dynasty for the next 10 years propelling them to the heights he provided a teaser of during his first stint with the West London club, little did he know things were about to change AGAIN. For the second time during Mourinho’s Chelsea career the final say in Transfer dealings was taken away from him and handed over to Technical Director Michael Emenalo who was the right hand man to Marina Granovskaia, the Russian Club Director who has been Abramovich most trusted and strongest ally and is responsible for signing the players on behalf of the Russian Billionaire. Suddenly the ‘Happy One’ seemed to be gloomy come August as Chelsea failed to get his 3 main transfer targets in Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba and John Stones. Mourinho understood he needed to strengthen his squad and freshen up his ageing defence but a mix of complacency coupled with failure to act and match their main title rival’s ambition in the market led to Chelsea ending up with Pedro, Baba Rahman and Papy Djilobodji, add to that the sale of Petr Cech, one of Mourinho’s most trusted stewards, sold to a rival club Arsenal led to a very unpleasant summer.
Chelsea started their Premier League campaign in disastrous fashion as they were held to a 2-2 draw at home by Swansea but the game in future will come to be known as the start of the end of Mourinho with the ugly episode of former club doctor Eva Carneiro dominating the headlines after the match and would continue to do so in weeks to come. Mourinho has had disagreements with his staff before and while the so-called ‘Curse of Eva Carneiro’ was being talked up on Social media, it was everything happening behind the scenes in the dressing room that really started the downfall of the Mourinho and more importantly the club. It was clear that the likes of Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were underperforming while age finally seemed to have caught up with John Terry, but it was murmurs of growing discontent in the dressing room being leaked out to the media due to Mourinho’s criticism of their star players in the media that would eventually turn out to be the nail in the coffin for Mourinho.
Too many times in the recent past we have seen the level of influence players can have on the futures of Managers, gone are the days of Sir Alex Ferguson where he sold club captain Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy because of their indiscipline and criticism of the team, managers are now considered disposable objects rather than architects of the future. There was a growing mutiny in the Chelsea dressing room and with Mourinho’s constant jibes on the incompetence of match officials, failure to bring in his transfer targets it was clear Mourinho had long lost the dressing room. With the top 4 out of sight Mourinho was sacked from Chelsea for the second time in his career. While he did get a hefty severance package (rumoured to be in excess of £8 Million) the media considered this to be the end of Mourinho, he was no longer ‘The Special One’ and was considered finish. Chelsea bought in Guus Hiddink for the second time on a short-term deal to steady the ship as they lined up Antonio Conte as a replacement. But the question was could the Chelsea hierarchy have done more to stop the mutiny between the players and manager, could they have openly backed the manager rather than cryptic post’s about support towards him and what about the leak’s from inside the dressing room about growing discontent who was responsible for that, were players who were underperforming given too much power?
Antonio Conte was brought in at Chelsea, their 11th different Manager under Abramovich in 14 years. Jose Mourinho meanwhile got his long-desired wish as he was hired by Manchester United and with Pep Guardiola arriving at Manchester City all signs were of the title race to be between the two Manchester Clubs. Chelsea benefitted from not participating in the Champions League as they went on a run of 13 wins in a row despite a very shaky start to the campaign and ended up winning the league with a comfortable margin towards the end of the season. In May 2017, the decision to bring in Conte while letting Mourinho go was looking like a masterstroke but too many times at Chelsea had there been a false dawn. Once again the power struggle between the Manager of Chelsea and its hierarchy showed its ugly head as Chelsea again failed to deliver on their manager's primary transfer targets. Conte complained of a need to strengthen especially as Manchester clubs splashed the cash and he knew with the participation in Champions League it would be difficult for Chelsea to be competitive unless they strengthened. Chelsea, in fact, went back as they entered the new season weaker than last season having sold the likes of Nemanja Matic and with Diego Costa axed from the squad they failed to sign replacements. Antonio Conte in the summer talked about of avoiding what in his words was a ‘Mourinho Season’ but he now finds himself in the same situation his predecessor did in 2015, in fact even the mood and body language looks the same, there have once again been reports of growing discontent in the dressing room, that along with constant criticism of Chelsea’s transfer policy by Antonio Conte looks to be turning into his ‘Kryptonite’ as the club reportedly search for a new manager to replace him.
The Roman Empire now stands at a crossroad, two of their best players in Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtouis have been flirting with Real Madrid and might leave in the summer, Abramovich has developed an image of a little boy who keeps buying expensive new toys (managers in this case) disposing them once he’s bored. The question now is where do Chelsea go next, there are only a handful of world-class managers left who Chelsea can hire but who would want to take up a job that might not last for more than 8-9 months, after all if you remove Mourinho’s tenure of 5+ years Chelsea have been averaging a manager every season with 10 others who have taken charge of the club. Michael Emenalo has left the club but they once again failed to acquire their transfer targets in January eventually settling with average players, the power struggle meanwhile still continues to occupy the coveted seats at the club hierarchy but the only loser in this battle seems to be Chelsea football club
Perhaps it is time for Abramovich to ponder of choices that were made by him when he brought in Mourinho the first time, the decision to take away control of transfers and handing it to Frank Arnesen in 2006, maybe things wouldn’t have fallen apart with Mourinho and maybe they would have had stamped their authority as the new trailblazers of the Premier League. It’s clear that the people closest to Abramovich have perhaps had more influence on the football club and the owner’s mentality that they should have, constant chopping and changing every time they’re faced with a challenge. There’s no doubt Abramovich had a chance to made amends when he managed to convince Mourinho to come back to the club, alas the politics on the board level stopped him from publically backing his manager who is the most successful manager in the clubs history or from taking a stand on the transfer policy that might have resulted in a different outcome.
One thing is for certain, Chelsea and Abramovich never did manage to get over the ‘Curse of Mourinho’ when we left the club for the first time in 2007 that has now become a fabric of this historic football club and every man stepping into the hot seat at Stamford Bridge suffer from it.
Photo Credits: Official Chelsea FC Twitter Handle
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