Roman Abramovich will not forget the greeting he was given by his Premier League rivals when he arrived in English football in 2003, and he will never forget the way he has been embraced by the Chelsea supporters who protested outside Stamford Bridge last night.
From the day when David Dein, then vice-chairman of Arsenal, accused him of parking “his Russian tank in our front garden and firing £50 notes at us”, Abramovich has been an outlier, a man who successfully smashed the Premier League cartel, rather than joined it.
That is why Chelsea were the last club to reluctantly sign up to the European Super League and the first to turn their back on it. Becoming bedfellows with the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur was never a comfortable position for Abramovich.
Dein and Arsenal were not worried about Russian politics when they turned their noses up at Abramovich’s money. They were afraid of the competition and rightly so, as Chelsea have become the most successful club in English football since his arrival.
Pre-Abramovich, and bar one season when Blackburn Rovers briefly toppled them off, Manchester United and Arsenal had shared the Premier League title between them.
It could certainly be argued that Abu Dhabi would not have bothered pumping their vast sums of money into Manchester City five years later if Abramovich had not demonstrated that United and Arsenal could be beaten.
Which is why it was so disappointing and shocking to the Chelsea fans who have worshipped him that Abramovich, however belatedly, got on the ESL train with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy and Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke.
Levy, remember, is the man who, along with others, lobbied support from Premier League clubs to make sure Newcastle United’s proposed Saudi Arabia-backed takeover did not go ahead.
Piracy and human rights issues were quoted as the reasons for the failed bid, but one can speculate that Levy did not fancy the extra competition a rejuvenated Newcastle could have posed – just as Dein and Co did not want Abramovich invading their cartel. Arsenal put all their eggs in the Financial Fair Play basket, hoping it would help to kill off the competition created by Abramovich and followed up by Manchester City and, in Europe, Paris St-Germain.
Again, Chelsea’s millions were not welcomed by the elite, who wanted to close the gates, but by then it was too late.
Tottenham are a club who have not won a trophy for 13 years or a League title since 1961, and Arsenal’s expectations have fallen off a cliff so dramatically that Mikel Arteta’s future has not come under scrutiny in a season in which they could finish in the bottom half of the table.
Under Abramovich, Chelsea are a club who do not hand out bonuses for Champions League qualification or finishing second, as employees of the Russian only get rewarded for winning. Club legend Frank Lampard lost his job, despite finishing fourth and reaching the FA Cup final last season, and qualifying for the Champions League last 16 this term.
Abramovich does not recognise “success” in the same way Levy and Kroenke do. And yet everybody, including Tottenham and Arsenal, would be rewarded for mediocrity in a European Super League in which nobody could be relegated. By agreeing to go along with the Super League plan, Abramovich had become part of a group denying others the same opportunity he grasped with both hands and, ultimately, he could not accept that.
Just as he recognised he could not stand against the values of competition, Abramovich also recognised that his promotion of community and offers of refuge during the coronavirus pandemic were undermined by the reaction to the ESL by Chelsea fans. A spokesperson for Abramovich said: “Having spoken extensively to fans and stakeholders, we have always worked with the community and we’re not going to do anything that goes against them. We listened and we heard.”
The fact he was the first to recognise his miscalculation in allowing Chelsea to be swept away with the notion that the club must sign up to the ESL or be left behind has probably ensured Abramovich’s reputation and legacy will not be tainted among the club’s fans. And that is what matters to him most. (© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited