Bruce Buck is not just Chelsea’s chairman. He has been a key ally of Roman Abramovich since before his time at Stamford Bridge, advising him on a number of oil producer Sibneft’s acquisition deals before following him to Chelsea in 2003. Whenever the owner needed a little positive PR, Buck was usually happy to oblige. He was influential in establishing Abramovich’s perceived personality in English football that has now been scorched.
Eugene Tenenbaum is not just a Chelsea director. Tenenbaum is one of Abramovich’s closest and longest associates, formerly the head of corporate finance at Sibneft before it was sold to Gazprom in September 2005. Until last week, Tenenbaum was also listed as a director of Evraz, the steel manufacturing company that was deemed most significant in the sanctioning of Abramovich by the Government. Tenenbaum resigned from that position in the wake of those sanctions; his Evraz webpage di lui now redirects to the company’s pared-down structure.
Marina Granovskaia is not just Chelsea’s transfer negotiation guru (and director). She has been with Abramovich for longer than anyone. Having graduated from Moscow State University in 1997, she almost immediately became Abramovich’s personal assistant at Sibneft. She has also worked at Millhouse Capital, the oligarch’s UK-registered investment vehicle that was set up in 2001. Granovskaia was named as the best club director in European football at the Golden Boy awards last November.
None of this comes as any great surprise. Billionaires do not share power or relinquish control easily and delegation is typically afforded to a small circle; Abramovich is no different. If you have established trust in several key individuals, particularly those who have become privy to sensitive information, it makes sense to take them with you. It was also logical for Chelsea; by appointing Abramovich associates into key positions they maintained effective lines of communication with the owner.
But it creates an awkward position with Abramovich forcibly removed from the equation. His ownership of him is ending. His wealth of him, upon which Chelsea relied, is now not available to them. But his influence of him? That’s a more complicated question. His closest allies di lui are still Chelsea’s chairman, make up two-thirds of the other directors and one of the six Foundation Trustees. It is Buck’s photo that dominates that page of the club’s website.
Buck has been under pressure for some time, ever since Chelsea’s attempt to join a European Super League was kiboshed by supporter protests that forced a hasty U-turn. Twenty-four hours before that change of heart, Buck defended the plans at a fans’ forum. According to the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust, that made his position of him untenable. On Tuesday, another U-turn – even more hasty this time. Chelsea’s statement, intending to put pressure on the Government to relax their ticket sales restrictions, was grossly tone deaf and provoked anger from Middlesbrough and scorn from just about everyone else.
It is as if Chelsea have still not grasped that they have been permitted a special license that even allows them to play matches. That is a privilege and there will be few others.
Chelsea’s immediate future, as bleak as it may appear, places the club at a crossroads. It is incredibly rare for a major club to come onto the market but without its incumbent owner having complete control of its destiny. That creates an opportunity. If Chelsea have learned anything from the past three weeks, it is the risks of allowing yourselves to be sportswashed. And that risk may well increase as the geopolitical ramifications of Russia’s invasion become clear. Saudi Arabia and UAE appear to be aligning more with Russia.
There are clearly Chelsea supporters who are clamoring for a mooted Saudi takeover. They are broadly those who became bewitched by Abramovich’s investment and the success it brought Chelsea, who judge a club by what it wins rather than how it operates and who is bankrolling the project. They are not at fault, not really; the Premier League itself birthed this desperation culture.
But is this not also a unique chance for a deep clean, a break from that axis of sportswashing which brought Chelsea success and then took it away? Fans really can make a difference, in the same way that they ended the ESL project. They can – must – follow the lead of the Official Supporters’ Trust by campaigning for the introduction of a “golden share” that would protect elements of the club’s heritage and ensure fan representation on the club’s board.
Some will take plenty of convincing, but this really does matter more than who plays up front and whether they challenge for the title next season.
That process of releasing the club from the Abramovich era cannot be completed until his closest associates also leave their positions.