Going up the property ladder, selling your existing home for profit and then moving to a bigger better home, is something we take for granted. But for football clubs finding a new home, or even making the existing one bigger is very often a nightmare and can cause enormous problems. If clubs are not careful they can go into ruinous debt which can threaten their very existence.
So it is no surprise that Chelsea’s plan to rebuild Stamford Bridge has run into problems, although in this case it is not about money. News that the club have held talks with the RFU for a move to Twickenham for a season, while builders work at Stamford Bridge, has not gone down well in the wider community. There was Geoff Acton, the Liberal Democrat councillor for the St Margarets and North Twickenham ward, predicting, “Any move to put a Premier League club here would be resisted very strongly by the local residents. I would imagine that certain people would have the objection that football crowds are generally worse than rugby crowds.”
And Vince Cable, the Business Secretary and Member of Parliament for Twickenham, tweeted that he had written to the RFU to find out more about the nature of the talks Twickenham has held about the potential ground share. Apart from suggesting that this is another area where Liberal Democrat ministers are different to their Conservative counterparts, most of whom are devoted Chelsea fans -the Chancellor George Osborne is and also Michael Gove – it also indicates the size and extent of the problems created by Chelsea’s stadium plans.
Chelsea, of course, are not the only club facing problems. The hurdles in the way of Tottenham getting a larger stadium have been well documented. And a few weeks ago when I interviewed Tony Fernandes, chairman of QPR, who is looking to build a bigger Loftus Road he readily conceded that: “It is easier to build an airline than build a stadium in the middle of central London.” As the man who built Air Asia that is saying something.
Fernandes remains optimistic having spent £5 million in putting a stadium plan together but felt the need to sell the plan saying, “From this development our fans benefit in three ways: a more secure financial footing for the club with a nicer, bigger stadium, the ability for some of them to get jobs in the bigger park area and some of them may even be able to have nicer homes. With the right corporate sponsorship I can also reduce ticket prices. My whole life has been about reducing prices for flight tickets and hotels. My aim is to make match day [£25-£65] and season tickets [£499-£899] even cheaper. I spent a lot of time in the pubs with the fans. I know what kind of jobs they have. It is a lot of money for a family of four to come watch football. My aim is to make it happen. I am under no illusion that it is going to be a walk in the park.”
Now if any club should find building a new stadium a walk in the park it should be Chelsea. It is after all owned by money-no-object Roman Abramovich whose spending on the club since he took over in 2003 revolutionised the face of English football. So as far as money is concerned Chelsea should not face the problems that developing the East stand of Stamford Bridge did back in the 70s. Then it nearly brought the club to its knees and landed it with such debts that in 1982 it was bought by Ken Bates for £1, who also took on the debts of £1.5 million.
But while money for development may not be an issue it must be said Chelsea’s current stadium plans indicate a sea-change in thinking at the Bridge in the last two years. Back in November 2012 when I interviewed Bruce Buck, the chairman, the plan was to move away from Stamford Bridge. He told me: “We’re looking for a site close to Stamford Bridge and there are maybe three or four of those maximum. We could put a fantastic stadium at Battersea making use of the power station, which could be one of the most iconic stadiums in the world. We could put in an excellent stadium at Earls Court. But we don’t have those sites. Expanding Stamford Bridge would be very expensive, wouldn’t be very nice to look at and is not likely to be financially viable. We’ve thought about sharing with Queens Park Rangers or Fulham but we’re not considering it because we know how unhappy our fans would be. Most fans – 99 per cent – accept we might have to leave but they don’t want to move to Wormwood Scrubs or to Croydon. If we proposed something specific that made sense, the Chelsea Pitch Owners would support us. Battersea or Earls Court is likely to satisfy most fans.”
But when the club consulted it found that most fans were very far from satisfied with the Chelsea Pitch Owners rising up in fury. This has meant that now there is no question of leaving Stamford Bridge. A few weeks ago when I met Ron Gourlay, the Chelsea chief executive, he confirmed this change in thinking saying: “I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, we’d love to stay here. This is the home, this is where we want to be, and this is the location that every other club would want to have.”
As for expanding Stamford Bridge he said, “We continue to look at it. We have a process in place at the moment where Mr Abramovich has put us into consultation with the shareholders, the community, just to gauge the feeling. If there was a regeneration of the area, what would they like to see? I’m not saying that we’re going to do it because we don’t know if that’s possible. The pitch owners still have a say. The pitch owners’ argument is they want to protect Stamford Bridge. So if we decide we stay at Stamford Bridge and whether it’s moving up to 41,000 or 60,000 then we’ll have the support of the pitch owners. Hey look, these guys invested in the club long before Ron Gourlay arrived [he arrived in 2004] so I’ve got to respect that and I do respect that.”
As to whether it is feasible Gourlay’s position is: “I think technically it’s a difficult one. I think you’ve got to come up with a plan that unlocks things technically and then we have to have the buy-in from the local community, because we’re part of the community. People forget that. The local community has thrived through this football club being here as well. It’s got to be right for everybody. If it’s right for everybody and we can give back into the community, we will get there.”
It is interesting that Chelsea’s reason for wanting a bigger stadium is the same that all clubs give and the one Arsene Wenger explained succinctly last week, that a bigger stadium, as Arsenal have at the Emirates, gives them a huge financial leverage through increased match day income
Gourlay makes the same point. “The biggest challenge we have is we’re seen as the fifth or sixth biggest turnover club in Europe, in the world and we don’t even come in the bracket of stadiums can seat 40,000. That is a big challenge. I mean when you look at the teams who are ahead of us, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, you’re looking at stadiums that can seat 60,000, 65,000, 75,000, 80,000 and a 100,000. They’re massive, massive stadiums with massive advantages as far as revenue is concerned. Our intention is that we definitely need a bigger stadium.”
It may seem surprising that Chelsea owned by Abramovich should have to worry about match day revenues, but then UEFA’s financial fair play has changed everything. Chelsea, like all clubs in Europe, have had to adjust and Abramovich’ s sporting trophy is very proud that they now meet UEFA’s FFP requirements and might make a small profit when they announce their figures next month.
However what Gourlay was not prepared to do was give me a timescale for the new, bigger, Stamford Bridge, “No it’s impossible”, he told me when I asked. However talks with Twickenham suggest the impossible may not be that far away. But the protests they have generated indicate that while Chelsea’s problems in having a bigger, better, Stamford Bridge are very different to those of Tottenham or QPR face, they are no less real.