Conor Heffernan reflects on the beginning of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea, one that has seen £2 billion spent in ten years.
The Premier League Season will soon be back. We’ll once again experience the highs and lows of England’s top twenty teams battling it out for pride, glory and lots of money.
It promises to be a good year, yet this writer cannot help but feel that something is missing about this upcoming season, something that has provided us all with so much joy in the past: namely a wildly big spending team.
Now before people begin listing Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United’s transfer activities this summer, let me explain. In seasons past we have had the honour and joy of watching teams with newfound wealth go absolutely berserk during the transfer window. Think PSG or Monaco in recent years. Think Manchester City when they bought Robinho in 2008. How much enjoyment do these teams provide us with? In recent years no team has gone wilder in the transfer window than Chelsea in 2003.
Yes Chelsea are still enormously wealthy and splash the cash at a moments notice but this was not always the case. Times have changed dramatically at Stamford Bridge in the past decade and the 2002-2003 Premier League season was the pivotal moment in Chelsea’s recent history.
Chelsea finished fourth in the Premier League, securing the last Champions League spot in England. This caught the eye of a rich Russian oil oligarch named Roman Abramovich, who saw something in the London club that others wouldn’t have dreamed of. Roman saw a chance to display his enormous wealth. Before the 2003-2004 season kicked off Chelsea were Roman’s team, packed to the gills with cash and stars. Chelsea’s summer spending in 2003 will be the focus of our attention today.
Cast your minds back…Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu, Juan Sebastian Verón, Damian Duff, Joe Cole…the list goes on. Chelsea’s manager, Claudio Ranieri went on a veritable spending spree, and effectively bought a whole new team. It was an exciting time and the beginning of a decade of spending.
Since Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea in 2003, the club has spent a cool £2 billion pounds on players, and it all began in 2003 with Glen Johnson for £6 million from West Ham . It wasn’t exactly a marquee signing but Johnson’s career since Chelsea has proven that he worthy of such an honour. If Johnson was one for the future, Ranieri and Abramovich soon set out signing big name players, and lots of them. The London club soon raided real Madrid in what can only be described with hindsight as a smash and grab. First up came Geremi, the dynamic Cameroon right back who went on to play 72 times for Chelsea. Cost? A mere £7 million, pocket change really.
Geremi was undoubtedly an important player for Chelsea but he was not the most important player signed from Real Madrid. Chelsea also signed a player by the name of Claude Makélelé for £16.6 million. Real Madrid thought they’d made a killing, the Real Chairman, Florentino Pérez proclaimed
“We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.”
Ranieri thought differently and claimed that Makélelé would be the engine of his team. Who was right? Makélelé went on to become a Chelsea legend, had a football position named after him and was arguably one of the biggest mistakes Pérez made in his tenure as Real Madrid chairman.
A transfer smash and grab. But such signings were practical. Two right backs and a defensive midfielder, hardly the stuff of Football Manager was it? Chelsea weren’t finished there. What do all teams with money need? Big names! How big? Does the name Hernan Crespo mean anything?
In 2003, Crespo had established himself in Serie A with Parma, Lazio and Inter Milan. Just how big a signing was Crespo? In 2000, Lazio paid £35 million to bring the Argentine to Rome making him one of the most expensive signings in football. In 2002, Inter Milan brought Crespo in to replace Ronaldo (the Brazilian superstar). He was already established as an Argentinean legend and was widely respected for his goal scoring ability.
Crespo was a big fish in a big pond. Yet Crespo wasn’t the only striker to make his way from Italy to Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had also shelled out £15.8 million to take Adrian Mutu, the promising Romanian striker from Parma to London. Now did Chelsea need these strikers? They already had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen. Did it matter for Chelsea fans? Fans were delighted, even if the Chelsea goalies weren’t. Neil Sullivan, also brought in that year, described the difficulty of being a goalkeeper at Chelsea during this time.
“Training was a nightmare for the goalkeepers with the likes of Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu arriving, and of course we already had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen there. The quality was frightening.”
How did the other players respond? Were the existing strikers happy about competition being brought in? Hasselbaink was defiant:
“The manager, Claudio Ranieri, sat me down and said: ‘Jimmy, I’m going to get two more strikers and you’re going to be third or fourth. If you want to go, just let me know.’
“I said, ‘No, you won’t get anybody better than me.”
Hasselbaink was Chelsea’s top goal scorer that season. Money can’t buy you everything.
Chelsea weren’t finished however. We can’t forget about Verón. Signed by Manchester United in 2001 for £28.1 million on a five-year deal, Verón was once the most expensive transfer in English football. Sadly for Verón, his spell at Old Trafford was not a great success.
Verón struggled with the fast pace of the Premiership and was uncomfortable with the rough and tumble of the League. Injury and substandard performances soon turned fans against Verón. Alex Ferguson, United’s manager at the time was highly sensitive of any criticisms of his marquee signing. Questioned by the media about Verón’s ability for the umpteenth time, Ferguson blurted.
“Verón is a ******* great player and you’re all ******* idiots.”
Yet Chelsea spent £15 million to bring Verón to Stamford Bridge. Ranieri was confident he could get the best from the Argentinian, Abramovich was just happy to display his wealth. Verón’s transfer fee this time was about half that of his record-breaking transfer of just two years before, his reputation had diminished.
History has not been kind to Verón’s time at Chelsea. The Times listed Verón’s transfers to Manchester United and Chelsea amongst the 50 worst transfers ever in Premiership history. People still snigger at Chelsea’s decision to bring the man to London. More money then sense is often the explanation. But let’s not forget the excitement and joy so many of us got from the deal.
All in all Chelsea spent £121 million in one transfer window. The shopping list was as follows:
Glen Johnson (from West Ham United): £6 million
Geremi (from Real Madrid): £7 million
Damien Duff (from Blackburn Rovers): £17 million
Wayne Bridge (from Southampton): £7 million
Juan Sebastian Verón (from Manchester United): £15 million
Joe Cole (from West Ham United): £6.6 million
Adrian Mutu (from Parma): £15.8 million
Alexei Smertin (from Bordeaux): £3.5 million
Hernan Crespo (from Inter Milan): £16.8 million
Claude Makelele (from Real Madrid): £16.6 million
Scott Parker (from Charlton Athletic): £10 million
The team was completely transformed. A new team had effectively been brought in. How did Chelsea do with this new team? The 2003-2004 season saw Chelsea make a serious push for the Premier League title, but sadly they fell just short. 2003-2004 was the season that Arsenal went 38 games unbeaten in one of the finest title runs of all time. Chelsea couldn’t compete with that.
So where did the £121 million get Chelsea? Chelsea finished second in the Premier League, reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and reached the latter stages of the English Cups. £121 million and no trophies, Chelsea fans were happy enough, Abramovich less so.
Ranieri was fired and a Portuguese upstart by the name of José Mourinho was brought in as manager. By the end of the next season, Chelsea had won the Premiership and become the powerhouse we now know them to be. Tens years on Chelsea have spent over £2 billion on players and have won several trophies to boot. It all began in 2003 with an Italian manager named Claudio and a transfer war chest.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.