Save The Bridge, by John King
Everything about the build-up to the Chelsea Pitch Owners’ meeting in October, 2011, felt rotten – the rushed response to the club’s attempt to buy the shares and remove the influence of the CPO; the out-of-date list of shareholders; the sales of block-votes in the lead up to the meeting (people with money were buying 100 votes each in one hit); a national newspaper’s article that club chairman Bruce Buck had allegedly phoned a long-term Chelsea supporter several times, asking that an opponent of the buy-up be ‘sidelined’; and then there was the time of the meeting set by the CPO board – 11.30 on a Thursday morning, when most people would be at work. It wasn’t looking good. I thought back to the Save The Bridge days in the late 1970s, when we used to drop our coppers into buckets at the bottom of The Shed stairs, the early 1990s when the ground was saved for a second time. Now this was happening. It all seemed very sad.
The block-votes issue was the biggest worry. Twenty individuals had apparently bought 2,000 votes in the previous two weeks. Most would be Yes voters. It meant that one person was buying the voting power of 100. It didn’t matter if they had never been to a game in their lives – they would be worth 100 people who had followed the club across the country for twenty years. Those No voters who managed to get to the meeting – or put in a proxy – clearly stood little chance. With the end of the CPO would come the demolition of Stamford Bridge and the end of Chelsea FC. Whatever happened to democracy? That was the way we were thinking as we approached the ground.
Turning into the forecourt, a long line of people stretched towards the ground, faces from The Shed, North Stand, Gate 13, West Stand, the Benches, T-Bar, Matthew Harding and all the other corners and sections of the stadium. Everyone knew the score, that the odds were stacked against them, but this was a good turn-out, those present eager to have their say. Many had travelled for hours, some even flying in from abroad. This was the most important day in the club’s history.
The first time I went to Stamford Bridge was in 1970, when the greatest team of them all was playing the beautiful football that only really returned with Ruud, Zola and Vialli in the 1990s, a style that we are still looking to recapture today. Chelsea have had some fine sides since the era of Osgood, Cooke and Hudson – Eddie McCreadie’s Blue And White Army; the John Neal team of Kerry Dixon and Pat Nevin; the first year of Jose’s rule when he was using Arjen Robben – but none have matched the magic of that side, who were roared on by a crowd famed for its passion. Before them there were Docherty’s Diamonds, Ted Drake’s league-winners – there’s always a link. The ground connects all these memories, carries the history on. Without it we would probably end up as one more shirt-selling franchise stuck in a sterile stadium named after a multinational. History is important. It can’t be bought and sold, only erased.
As one 70-years-plus supporter said later in the day, the difference between those representing the club and the supporters at the meeting was one of emotion. We had it, they didn’t. Bruce Buck and Ron Gourlay were cold and professional, the rank-and-file hot and very bothered. Bruce loves a one-liner, knows how to play a home crowd, but today the smile quickly faded and he came across as patronising, defensive, finally irritated. He said everyone wanted Chelsea to stay at Stamford Bridge, but... And was soon challenged. It has long been said the council won’t allow the expansion of the ground, but when asked how many planning applications had been submitted in the last year he had to admit that, apart from one for a minor alteration, there had been none. The supporters showed their anger and frustration. He didn’t look comfortable at all.
Ron grinned. You could imagine him thinking ‘what am I doing sitting here with all these scruffy herberts when I could be in Malaysia sipping a nice mango milkshake, surrounded by some proper new fans in fresh club shirts.’ Later Bruce called the club ‘the firm’, in one of those slips where someone shows off the language they use away from the public, but knew enough to try and correct himself, while Ron mentioned the ‘brand’. The crowd jeered and his grin widened.
The best thing about the meeting was how the Chelsea supporters did themselves proud. A large number spoke and put their points across with passion, self-control and an eloquence those representing the club lacked. They demolished the arguments put forward, which were often lazy and contradictory. One of the weakest was the Trust Roman approach, which was meant to play on the supporters’ loyalty, but few were falling for this and it was pointed out that this had nothing to do with the Russian – what would happen if his priorities changed, if he lost his fortune, or – god-forbid – if he died like poor Matthew Harding?
The work of those who came together in the short period before the meeting had clearly done a brilliant job in mobilising opposition, and in the end the CPO shareholders stood tall and pulled off a remarkable result against a much wealthier and stronger opponent. It made me proud to be a Chelsea fan. And yet the battle to save Stamford Bridge has probably only just started.
In the aftermath, the club were quick to point out that they had gained 61% of the vote – they needed 75% to have their offer accepted. While that is technically true, the more important figures show that, once the block-votes are discounted, 60% VOTED NO. In terms of individuals, the percentage is, I believe, higher – OVER 60% OF INDIVIDUALS VOTED NO. It was a walkover for the Boys In Blue. A clear victory. And that was just the CPO members able to vote, as many weren’t registered, while some proxy forms were said to have not arrived. It should also be remembered that the No figure across the wider Chelsea support generally is likely to be at least as high, and probably more so, once the realities are understood. Most people don’t have shares, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t as loyal as those who do.
CPO chairman Richard King resigned soon after and there are apparently legal challenges being considered in light of what occurred in the build-up to the meeting, but the problem hasn’t gone away. The unfairness of the last-minute block-shares/votes has to be addressed. Morally certainly, and probably legally as well. The CPO now finds itself in an interesting position.
It is clear the CPO’s relationship with the club has to change and that it needs to operate in a more professional manner. Nobody paid by the club or benefiting from a close link should be involved in such important decisions – whether that is a wealthy member knocking about with the stars, or current or ex-players who will suffer from unfair pressures. It should be run by people who stood in the rain as we were hammered 6-0 in the 1970s, or were on the end of a kicking in the 1980s, or watched Glenn Hoddle’s sweeper system emerging on an iced-up empty terrace in the 1990s, or a teenager who has to listen to all that ‘You’ve got no history’ rubbish today. The CPO has a real chance to grow and expand and connect everyone together. That’s not anti-club, just independent. If anything it is pro-Chelsea. The CPO membership are flying the flag for the bulk of the Chelsea fans who want to stay at Stamford Bridge.
The much-quoted Fair Play rules said to have lead to this mess are meant to encourage clubs to think differently, to make them realise that football isn’t just be about the depth of their pockets, that a team can be developed in other ways. To respond to this by destroying your biggest asset – the ground, which represents the club’s history – is surely missing the point. Chelsea have always been at Stamford Bridge. Unlike most other clubs, we have stayed true to our roots. Our success and history didn’t start with the arrival of Roman, much as he is loved by the masses. There is no Year Zero, Blue Revolution, New Chelsea. The club needs to take a look at itself and show a bit more respect, forge a real connection with its traditions. The supporters don’t want that destroyed. We don’t want Stamford Bridge demolished and replaced with more yuppie flats.
The club said at the meeting that they were looking to add 10,000 new seats – maybe 15,000. At £50 each that is £500,000 (or £750,000) a match – which is a modest sum in today’s game. To fit the Fair Play rules why not start by addressing our transfer policy? Since Claudio Ranieri, the big money paid out has had ‘mixed’ results. Put Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres’ fees and wages together and you are probably talking over £100 million. That is nearly ten years’ worth of extra seats. Why not buy more wisely? Why not introduce a youth system that brings in local players? This doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and the talent is out there in the suburbs, in areas where so many kids are Chelsea mad. We are always hearing about how great Barcelona are, their local talent, so why not learn a lesson? That is what the club should be doing to deal with the Fair Play rules. That is why they were introduced, surely?
The reality of the CPO is that – unique to the rest of the Premiership – it has the chance to move into the modern age and develop itself, really help shape the future of the club, maybe even English football itself. The fans of Liverpool, Man United, Newcastle and all those other clubs who have been under the cosh would kill to own their pitch and – in effect – the name of the club itself. Those with power need to realise that the promotion of money above history and culture is outdated. Look at German football – ultra-cheap tickets, packed stadiums, fans running clubs. We could have that here. Make no mistake, the supporters are what matter most. Without the passion of the fans a professional football club is nothing. Twenty-two grown men kicking a ball around a patch of grass in silence – who would pay to watch that? The TV money the Premiership craves isn’t going to go to a league of sparkling-new, no-atmosphere stadiums.
Despite our success, profile and location, Chelsea aren’t filling a 42,000-seater stadium for every game as things stand. That is what the club should be addressing – the lack of atmosphere and the real reasons why they have missed out on generations of young supporters. One of the oddest notions at the CPO meeting was the club chairman pointing out that Chelsea have some of the oldest fans in the Premiership. First, so what? Second, whose fault is that? It’s not like there are never any empty seats available. Supporters have been saying for years that the club needs to decrease prices for younger fans, encourage locals rather than tourists. Instead of talking this way about their most loyal followers, the club should be thanking the ‘old’ fans (we are mainly talking 40 and 50 year olds here I think) for keeping the atmosphere alive – not causing more resentment.
The CPO meeting reminded me of the People’s Pledge conference a couple of weeks earlier, when a cross-section of ordinary, seemingly powerless people attended a series of talks on Britain’s membership of the EU and the need for a referendum. The biggest cheer of the day came when a woman spoke into one of the microphones offered to the audience. She said to forget all the endless arguments about money, that really what it boiled down to was a question of identity – that she would rather be poor and living in a free England than rich and stuck in a United States Of Europe. Maybe that’s what a lot of people feel about staying at Stamford Bridge. Not that we would be poor, but that our identity is essential. What is the point of endless trophies if the club is playing in another location, with none of its core support left? Yet all of this is unnecessary – as most of us are sure Stamford Bridge could be expanded and, since the meeting, the council have responded to the idea that they won’t allow development by stating they want the club to stay in the borough.
We are constantly hearing that Roman is so rich he is running Chelsea for the love of the club alone, that he is a loyal supporter with the best interests of CFC at heart, that it isn’t about the loans he has made being turned into a long-term profit. Bruce Buck, meanwhile, said everyone wants Chelsea to stay at Stamford Bridge. Fair enough. So instead of the CPO giving its influence away for no real reason, the club needs to back off and let the CPO sort itself out and, once that has happened, they both need to work together, on an equal footing, to make sure Chelsea stay at Stamford Bridge.