In the first of a new series chronicling the bad old days of some of modern football's most successful clubs, GARY THACKER recalls Chelsea's pre-Abramovich struggles to join the game's elite.
Chelsea Football Club was formed in 1905 and fifty years later, they became Champions of England for the first time. The following year I was born, hence missing out by twelve months on the best year of the club’s existence up to that point. The next time they topped the domestic tree would be in 2005. Chelsea titles were just like London buses, regular as clockwork – one arrived every fifty years. Two years before the second title however, something happened at the club that would redefine perceptions of ‘success’ lifting the club to heights the like of which case-hardened fans such as me could hardly comprehend.
It would be wrong to describe the following fifty years after that first title as anything like a time in the wilderness though. In the time of my youth, the club enjoyed a celebrity status, with players like Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke and Alan Hudson. Success, however, was measured in cup triumphs, and even sometimes as winning the Second division title as they occasionally ingloriously yo-yoed between the top and second flights.
Three FA Cups, two League Cups, even a couple of nights of European triumph with UEFA Cup Winners Cup victories and a couple of other spurious pots such as the ill-fated Full Members Cup were the sum of the glories that many clubs of similar stature didn’t enjoy in the same period. League-wise though, finishing in the top half-dozen or so was about the measure of a successful season. As a fan at the time, I knew no better and it seemed my glass was half full, rather than the more depressing rationale of that scenario. In July 2003, though all that was to change.
At the time, the club was going through one of its regular financial crises. As the 2002-03 season was drawing to a close, the final game saw Chelsea entertain Liverpool. It was a high-stakes match up with the last Champions League qualification spot on the line. Controversial, but for Chelsea fans a bit of a redeemer, cuddly old Ken Bates had purchased the club for £1 plus the debts it had in 1982. Over the next couple of decades he built it into a more successful operation, with regular qualification into the Champions League, and also introducing a host of stellar players, even if some were a little past their peak.
The financial machinations of Chairman Ken were beginning to show wear and tear though by 2003 and gaining qualification for the Champions League was seen less at the time as an opportunity for a tilt at glory, and more the chance to get in some extra revenue to stave off the creditors for a while longer. Playing icon Gianfranco Zola’s contract was coming to an end, and talk was that there were not even sufficient funds to offer him a new deal. Other players looked ripe to be plucked by clubs with better finances. Do-or-die is too dramatic a description, but for many fans it felt like it was going that way. As it happened though, the stakes were so much higher than that.
Bates had delivered a surprise appointment as manager back in 2000 when he appointed the little-known Claudio Ranieri to replace the harshly dismissed Gianluca Vialli. The popular Vialli had delivered an FA Cup, League Cup, Charity Shield, UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and UEFA Super Cup in his couple of years at the helm, and to many fans the folly of the dismissal was compounded by the appointment of someone very few people had ever heard of, even though he had a long list of previous clubs. Chelsea was in fact his eighth managerial appointment, and at the time of writing he has doubled that figure.
All that said though, on the eve of the last game of the 2002-03 season, Ranieri had taken the club to the brink of boarding the financial lifeboat offered by playing in Europe’s premier competition. A draw against Liverpool would suffice for the home side, whilst only a win for the Merseysiders would see them hop over Chelsea and land on the big stage themselves.
As it happened, despite falling behind to an early Sami Hyypiä goal, Chelsea fought back with goals from Marcel Desailly and Jesper Grønkjær to secure a victory and European qualification. It was a time for relief and celebration, probably in equal measures, but behind the scenes, there was a revolution brewing; a Russian Revolution that would herald the beginning of a Roman Empire, if that’s not mixing too many historical metaphors.
I remember the day in July when the radio alarm went off to tell me it was time for a quick reconnect with reality as Morpheus struggled to keep me in his all-embracing sleep. The news was on, and an item came through saying that a Russian billionaire had purchased Chelsea Football Club. I remember so clearly sitting up in bed and thinking this is a dream. It wasn’t though.
Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich was born almost exactly ten years after me, but had the kind of CV that would make anyone feel like an underachiever, let alone me. Some would have described his fortune as being the product of outstanding individual enterprise, and having the ability to identify and exploit an opportunity, others may have taken a less sanguine view. Whether the truth lay mainly to one of those sides, or somewhere in the middle is open to debate. What was certain though was that all Chelsea’s financial woes were to be wiped away like so much minor irritation. By August he had obtained full ownership and delisted the business, taking it back into private ownership, and clearing the vast majority of the £80million debt.
That summer was like letting a hungry kid loose in a sweetshop as the Abramovich largesse was deployed on collecting new players for the club like some Panini sticker advocate on heat. The press – as usual – were hyping things up to the sky. Talk was that all of the best players in the world were likely to beat a path to Stamford Bridge for a slice of Roman’s dosh. Zidane? Of course. Beckham? Why not! And take Giggs from Old Trafford as well. Not because he’ll get a game, just to stop him playing for Manchester United. It was crazy stuff, but with the money came a big change in fans’ definitions of success.
Of course when the dust settled, there was no Zidane or Beckham, and Giggs would still weave his hip-swaying magic, damaging Chelsea hopes for years to come, but the deals struck that summer were a clear statement of intent. The total outlay was around £120million, pretty small beer by today’s standards but it still brought in 14 players offering Ranieri a bloated squad. There had been talks of a new manager as well, but as the season got underway, Ranieri was still at the helm.
The old adage suggests that it’s all about the timing. It’s probably not stretching things too far to declare that in most other seasons, Ranieri’s team would have won the title, but 2003-04 was the year of Arsenal’s so-called ‘Invincibles’ and despite Chelsea finishing as runners-up in the league, it’s probably fair to say that fresh air was in second place as Wenger’s team secured the title by an eleven point margin. Although the title was a big thing for most fans, many of which like myself had never seen the club lift a Championship trophy in our lifetimes, for the club’s owner, the pot with the big ears - the European Cup, the Champions League, or whatever you choose to call it - was the big tamale.
If timing had been against Ranieri domestically, it played out the other way in Europe. After skating through a group comprising Lazio, Sparta Prague and Beşiktaş, a stuttering victory over Stuttgart took the club to a tie against Arsenal in the last eight. After drawing 1-1 at the Bridge, a dramatic late goal by Wayne Bridge delivered a 1-2 victory away, and took the team into the last four.
When you arrive at such exalted levels, inevitably the other survivors are likely to include Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Manchester United or the like. This time though, all of the big guns had been spiked earlier in the competition. Along with Chelsea were Monaco, Deportivo La Coruña and Porto, with the Blues to face the former in the semi-final. Chelsea were the bookies’ favourites to become Champions of Europe.
Despite falling behind to a goal to the club managed by former Blue, Didier Deschamps, Crespo quickly equalised and Chelsea were in the ascendancy. Drawing 1-1 at half-time and dominating the game in the away leg was right on the money, but then things began to fall apart. Inexplicably, Ranieiri decided to send on a half-fit Veron to replace the pacey Grønkjær and what had been midfield control melted away. Even when the French team lost a player to a red card after a dubious dive and roll around by Makelele, things didn’t improve. With ten men, it should have been all over, but Ranieri tweaked again in what became the longest resignation letter in the history of Chelsea Football Club. “Dear Mr Abramovich, it is with regret that I feel compelled to offer my resignation from the post of manager…” It took 45 minutes to end, the flourishing signature was played out as only Ranieri could write it.
Crazy switches ended up with Robert Huth playing wide left midfield and Monaco, with ten men, took over control and scored a further two goals. There’s the classic line about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This game almost defined it, and guaranteed that Ranieri was now out of a job for the new season unless he could turn it around in the return leg. Despite leading by the required two goal margin at one stage, Chelsea conceded two from Monaco and were out of the tournament.
For all the tea in China, the club may have turned a financial corner when Ronan arrived with his roubles, but at the end of the day, they had again been also rans when the trophies were handed out. It was a time for the parting of the ways for Chelsea and Ranieri, and in a strange twist of fate, their paths would cross again in what amounted to a Friends Reunited meeting where each smiled politely and patted each other on the back in congratulation and genuine warmth.
The following season Chelsea appointed Jose Mourinho and kicked off a run of success that delivered enough silverware in the following dozen or so years to eclipse all the trophies won in its first century. Under an eclectic collection of managers, they accumulated four Premier League trophies, the same number of FA Cup triumphs and a hat-trick of League Cups to boot. In 2012, they also achieved the Holy Grail and won the Champions League on a dramatic night in Munich, following it up the following year by securing the Europa League and becoming one of a select band of clubs to have won all three European club trophies and completed a domestic league and cup double.
For Claudio Ranieri, the path was somewhat more tortuous. After leaving Chelsea he moved to Valencia in Spain, before returning to his homeland to manage Parma, Juventus, Roma and Internationale, with various degrees of minor success, never staying for more than a couple of years at any club. He then took over at Monaco, his European Nemesis, before being appointed as manager of the Greek national team.
At the time however, the Greek job was very much a poisoned chalice with politics and intrigue despoiling any hope of forging a team, and defeat at home to the Faroe Islands in November 2014 saw him out of work again. If his appointment at Chelsea was left field, when Leicester City announced the replacement for the sacked Nigel Pearson as being the same Claudio Ranieri, surprise didn’t even cover it.
Despite this, and against all odds, well 5,000-1 odds anyway, Ranieri somehow delivered performance after performance from a team many – if not all – pundits thought would finish the season so much closer to the bottom of the league, than the top of it. As if things move in cycles, the previous season had seen Chelsea win the title under a returned Mourinho, but by the time the Portuguese took his team to Leicester in December, they were hovering dangerously just above the relegation zone. The club was in a state of disharmony and to use the accepted parlance, Mourinho had seemingly ‘lost the dressing-room.’ Chelsea lost 2-1 and in a strange twist of fate, Ranieri’s defeat of the man who had succeeded him at Chelsea, doomed Mourinho to the sack.
By early May, the only challengers with a chance of catching Ranieri’s Fearless Foxes were Tottenham Hotspur. Visiting Stamford Bridge on 2nd May, the north London club knew only a victory would keep the ‘Foxhunt’ alive. Goals by Kane and, just before the break, by Son Heung-min seemed to have delivered the necessary three points, but perversely, the Blues struck back through Cahill and then in the closing minute an immaculate strike by Eden Hazard, apparently rejuvenated by the absence of Mourinho, snaffled a draw from Spurs, handing the most unexpected title in a neatly ribboned package to the former Chelsea manager.
A couple of weeks later, as fate would have it of course, Leicester’s last game of the season was at Stamford Bridge and in a cordial atmosphere, a diplomatic 1-1 draw was played out. In the years since Chelsea and Claudio Ranieri had parted company, they had experienced different fortunes, but at that moment, both seemed happy with the way things had worked out from the time before they were famous.
GARY THACKER is a regular contributor to The Football Pink and is the author of 'I Don't Even Smoke' a book about life, love and football. Follow him on Twitter @All_Blue_Daze or visit his website allbluedaze.com