Evening Standard

Trevor Birch was the man who welcomed Roman Abramovich into Stamford Bridge but he did not last long under the billionaire.

In fact, it was little over a month after the £140million takeover at Chelsea in 2003 that the Russian decided to replace Birch with Peter Kenyon as chief executive.

But then Birch sensed early on that he was not on same wavelength as the oligarch.

The 55-year-old recalls: “I said to him, ‘Look, you’re living every supporter’s dream. Why not allow them to share in that dream and therefore, at one fell swoop, just reduce the season-ticket prices. So it announces your arrival with a bang and supporters from every other club would wish they had an owner like you’.

“What I thought Chelsea should try was to become everybody’s favourite second team. There are certain ways that you need to act to gain that kind of affection from people. I was voted down. They said, ‘We’re going to run it as a business, break even and be the biggest club’. How ironic given the hundreds of millions in losses. The stance he took rubbed the neutrals up the wrong way.”

Eleven of the Premier League’s 20 clubs are now in foreign ownership and although Abramovich wasn’t the first foreigner to take over an English side his deal started the trend seen today.

Even now Birch can recall how surreal it felt when he met the tycoon for the first time in a box at Stamford Bridge.

“Abramovich didn’t speak English. There was an interpreter. I wasn’t totally convinced he was the real thing. I had googled him but he just didn’t appear anywhere. Nobody knew anything about him. So I wasn’t sure whether it was a scene from Candid Camera and that suddenly Jeremy Beadle was going to jump out at me.

“But we did the deal in 10 minutes, nothing like that had ever happened. I don’t think people appreciated what a game changer it was. I suggested he spent £20m on players. He spent £140m in six weeks, the biggest change I’ve seen in English football.”

Following Kenyon’s appointment, Birch was offered another executive role at Chelsea but decided to leave. As he walked around the ground on his last day in charge, he was applauded by the fans. “It was one of the most humbling experiences in my life. My heart is still at Chelsea. I go back to watch.”

Chelsea had debts of £80m prior to Abramovich’s arrival and after leaving the club, Birch went to Leeds, another club heavily in the red. The insolvency specialist’s latest work has been at Portsmouth where as the administrator he did the deal that makes Pompey the country’s biggest fan-owned club.

Portsmouth fans have every reason to celebrate that, by rescuing their club, they demonstrated that the game has not completely sold its soul to Mammon. But Birch warns that other clubs face liquidation unless the Football League changes the rules.

Speaking for the first time since Pompey were saved from extinction two weeks ago, Birch says: “There needs to be an urgent rule change from the Football League to say that, without their permission, no club can mortgage the property to any lender. At Portsmouth, a lender was able to take a mortgage on Fratton Park which could have prevented the club from being sold.”

The £20m mortgage on Fratton Park was with Portpin, a company run by former Portsmouth owner, Hong Kong-based businessman Balram Chainrai. “Even as late as April 10 I felt the club might have to be liquidated. But then, on the steps of the court, Chainrai agreed to negotiate with us.

“If we had liquidated, nothing would have stopped Chainrai building houses or whatever at Fratton Park. There’s no other land to build a stadium on and 20,000 people would have lost a football club, the life blood of a community. There was no certainty that, after liquidation, Portsmouth would have reappeared.”

Birch wrestled with this problem from the moment he took over as administrator in February 2012.

“The club could have gone into liquidation from day one. We didn’t have enough money to pay the players and we couldn’t get them to agree to defer their wages. Portpin were not getting Football League approval to buy and the Supporters’ Trust weren’t up to speed. Right up to the court case [in April], if we’d have failed, there was a chance of liquidation.”

In this macabre dance with extinction, the darkest moment came last Christmas. By then, Birch had negotiated a deal which had seen 18 players such as defender Tal Ben Haim, on £2m a year, leave.

It was still a precarious existence with the League allowing the club to sign players only on a month’s contract and relegation to League Two looming with 10 points deducted for going into administration.

However, Birch says: “Just before Christmas, the fans got their act together and we were going to court. Then, one of the funders of the Trust, the property developer [Stuart Robinson], said, ‘I want to change the goalposts’. He was buying the land and also buying the stadium but he wanted longer to complete the deal. So it wasn’t appropriate for us to go into court and I didn’t think there was any way back.”

The club did find a way back with both Robinson and the council each investing £1.5m and ordinary fans pledging a £1,000. It meant that, after five foreign owners in four years, Portsmouth were again locally owned. So why had a club, who had won the FA Cup in 2008, not attracted local businessmen?

“The problem is that fewer and fewer local people want to be involved in football because of the attention it attracts,” he says. “When I was chief executive at Leeds, there was a property developer who was quite keen. But he said, ‘Trevor, I couldn’t put the family through it. I couldn’t walk down the street with somebody attacking me saying, ‘You’re not investing enough money. Or my kids being abused on Facebook or Twitter.’ Social media is so invasive, it frightens away an awful lot of domestic buyers.”

But a lot of things have changed in football since Birch used to play. The striker was one of the last players Bill Shankly signed before he left Liverpool in 1974. Top scorer in the reserves for two years, Birch never made the first team, although he was competing against Kevin Keegan, John Toshack, Steve Heighway and Kenny Dalglish.

Birch recognises the Shankly era will never return. “Shankly would have turned in his grave to know that Gerard Houllier, a former teacher who never played the game, was managing Liverpool. Shankly’s view was that, unless you’d played and were steeped in the game, you had nothing to offer. What he and the other coaches made you feel was that you were in the army. I always likened my Liverpool upbringing to National Service in terms of the discipline that it instilled in you.”


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