The bookies make Chelsea favourites for the title and the fans may already be dreaming but chief executive Ron Gourlay says: “I do not want to be disrespectful to other clubs. There are five who could win the League: ourselves, Liverpool, Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs. You can never write off Manchester United.”
These sentiments reflect the taciturn nature of the 51-year-old who worked for United before coming to Chelsea. Since succeeding Peter Kenyon five years ago this month, he has kept a very low profile. However, as we meet at Chelsea’s health club – with Jose Mourinho talking to his coaches just around the corner – Gourlay could not be more forthcoming.
“When I took over, we were under a little bit of pressure about our image. Do they love Chelsea FC? Do they hate Chelsea FC? Now Chelsea FC are massively respected around the world. Internationally, we are a more loved team.”
“Nationally is very tribal, isn’t it?” he says with a laugh. “You’re never going to change a fan in England from a Man United fan to a Chelsea fan. In Asia, you might. Our fan base has grown dramatically worldwide, from 26million to just under 400m, second to Manchester United. If you go to a Chelsea game in Asia, you’ll see a lot of families, a lot between the ages of 19 and 32.
“We’ve worked extremely hard in communities in Asia where the kids didn’t have anywhere to play. We now have 13 blue pitches in Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, all operated and run by Chelsea coaches and all non-profitable. It’s important we make sport available in these communities. Chelsea providing these communities with something is vitally important. We want to make a positive difference, and we are, to huge numbers of kids on a daily basis.”
Gourlay partly credits these Asian fans for the transformation in Mourinho. From the arrogant sounding Special One during his first spell in 2004 when UEFA branded him ‘the enemy of football’ he is, says Gourlay, “certainly the Happy One now”.
“When Jose came back to the club, we went to Asia and it was an eye-opener for him. He hadn’t realised how much the fan base had changed. In Indonesia, we had to cancel open training the day before the match because the police couldn’t contain the numbers who had come to the 100,000-seater stadium. On match night, when Jose walked out, there were 85,000 screaming Chelsea fans and Jose realised that Chelsea had changed dramatically.”
Mourinho was the club’s third manager in seven months with Roberto Di Matteo sacked in November 2012 to be replaced by Rafael Benitez, a move which angered the fans.
“We had to make the change,” says Gourlay. “We have to make decisions that are in the best long-term interests of the club. Around that period there weren’t many alternatives. But we knew what our plan was six months down the line. We had to look to the future. You’ve got to look at how to get over the next hurdle.”
So, even as Benitez was appointed, did Chelsea think Mourinho could be tempted back from Real Madrid?
“You’re talking about a manager who was in another job,” says Gourlay. “You have your plan A, plan B, plan C. I don’t like talking about other clubs, about other managers, because it’s disrespectful.”
What Gourlay is happier to talk about is his hope that Mourinho, on a four-year contract, will “stay 10 years. Having the security of Jose is great for me — he knows the club, knows me. Last time he was here, I was chief operating officer and we worked well together.
“Jose can deal with the media in a different way from some of the other managers we’ve had. He takes the pressure not only away from the players but also from the club. He’s very good at that and allows us to manage and me in particular to drive the club forward.”
This chemistry between chief executive and manager was most evident during the transfer window. “Everybody’s talking about how Chelsea did their business this summer, better than anyone else.”
By the end of July, Chelsea had already bought in nearly £80million of talent with Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Filipe Luis arriving but offset that by selling David Luiz, Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba.
Mourinho fully understands, says Gourlay, that the club must be self-sustaining. “This transfer window we have financed purchases from sales. This is definitely the first time. Now Chelsea have to chase the penny and work much harder across the business as a result of Financial Fair Play.
“We’ve shocked a few people in football because the first team they thought would fail FFP was Chelsea. We’re completely in a good shape.”
In such good shape Chelsea are likely to announce a small profit for last season. And what makes Gourlay proud is that, without the injection of Roman Abramovich’s cash, the squad have been transformed. “Now you’ve got a team whose age averages 24 years and is built for the next 10 years.”
But what about having 26 players out on loan: a case of hoarding talent and then farming it out to other clubs?
“What people don’t see is that it’s a massive development piece,” responds Gourlay. “We did that in this way because we like to invest earlier in younger players. These are players we believe in. I’ll give you two examples: [Kevin] De Bruyne and Lukaku. They were both bought as strong potential future players. We knew they had enough pedigree. Both players were very much in our plans. It didn’t work out and the opportunity arose to sell them. Best for the club and best for the players.
“But both wanted to play for us every week. There’s no guarantees for anybody and they wanted to continue their development [elsewhere] as international players. I would take criticism if we hadn’t been successful in these three years. But we have been very successful on the field.
“The loan system is not just a matter of saying, ‘Okay, we’ll see you in 12 months.’ We’ve only loaned players out to teams that allow day-to-day communication by our management team. Within 30 minutes of a game finishing, every player reports into someone at the club. They’re our assets. That means we even have a whole medical team in place around these guys: keeping in touch if they get a knock and deciding whether we bring them back. That’s the reason that these players develop. But the players on loan can’t all come back and play in the first team in one go. So, if you have five or six coming back, three may go in the team and three may be transferred.”
But would Chelsea not have preferred to sell rather than loan out Fernando Torres to AC Milan?
“At the end of the day, we had a situation that worked for the club, worked for the player. We’ll see where we go this season.”
Gourlay has a similarly robust defence for those who argue that Chelsea have lost their English core: with Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole gone, and only captain John Terry remaining.
“We’ve also got a core of superb young English boys coming through. I think I know who, in time, could be the next John Terry but I will not name him.
“We have a great academy process. But the academy started nine years ago and you don’t start delivering players immediately. We’re now seeing three academy players in the first-team squad [Nathan Ake, Andreas Christensen and Lewis Baker] which is fantastic. Now let’s see them break into the first team and play regularly. Jose has said if Izzy Brown, Dominic Solanke and Lewis Baker are not in the Chelsea first team in a couple of years, he will have failed. He takes great pride in the academy.
“Early investment in playing staff paid dividends in creating a team admired around the world but to keep Chelsea among the elite we have always known we must produce our own world-class talent. We are beginning to see the benefits of our academy. Our aim is to continue creating sustainable and enduring success on and off the pitch through this dedicated academy programme, while striking a balance with continued investment in world class players and personnel. This, in turn, will also help us meet our long-term objectives for Financial Fair Play.”