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Is Roman Abramovich the most influential figure in Premier League history?

The Russian oligarch announced he was selling Chelsea earlier this week.

Roman Abramovich (file pic).
Roman Abramovich (file pic).
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IT DOES not seem far fetched to separate the Premier League into two distinct eras — pre and post-Roman Abramovich.

His arrival into the English game, after buying Chelsea in June 2003, changed the dynamic of the league irrevocably.

The London club went from being a decent Premier League team ill-equipped to genuinely challenge the likes of Man United and Arsenal for the title, to being a superclub almost instantaneously.

Some people estimate it will take newly rich Newcastle 5-10 years to challenge for the title — Chelsea won it less than two years after the Russian billionaire came on the scene.

These are their league finishes in the years before Abramovich: 11th, 14th, 11th, 11th, 6th, 4th, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 6th, 4th.

Now here is their trajectory afterwards: 2nd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd, 6th, 3rd, 3rd, 1st, 10th, 1st, 5th, 3rd, 4th, 4th.

Note that there are only two times post-Abramovich that the club finished outside the top five — one of those was the first year they won the Champions League and the other was immediately followed by a title-winning campaign.

Standards rarely slipped at the club, and on the few occasions they did, there was a swift reaction.

Their five Premier League titles means they are level with Man City as the most successful club in the modern incarnation of the top flight apart from Man United (13 titles).

Chelsea under Abramovich also defied conventional footballing wisdom.

Before his arrival, the two most successful managers in the Premier League era were Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

Those two figures arguably rival Abramovich’s claim to being the most influential individuals since the Premier League’s formation.

Yet these coach’s success led some critics at the time to surmise that long-term stability was essential to a club consistently winning trophies.

Abramovich, however, made managers seem expendable by comparison.

There were no fewer than 15 men in charge during the Russian oligarch’s 19 years at the club, albeit two of those — Rafa Benitez and Guus Hiddink — were appointed on an interim basis.

Still, it is remarkable how Chelsea managed to stay relatively consistent throughout.

Often criticised as a ‘short-term’ manager, Jose Mourinho has ironically been the longest-serving manager of the Abramovich era, with his first spell lasting just over three years.

Yet it is a measure of the owner’s ruthlessness that after three seasons that included two Premier League title wins, two League Cups and one FA Cup, an indifferent start to the 2007-08 campaign saw the Portuguese coach out of a job.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the average footballing lifespan of a Premier League manager has increasingly declined in the post-Abramovich era.

This season has been no exception, with as many as five managers dismissed after just 11 games.

The idea that the people behind the scenes are as integral, if not more so, to a team’s success as the coach is another notion that has gained greater credence since 2003.

The Premier League had never seen anything like Chelsea’s spending power, most notably in the first few years of Abramovich’s arrival.

While they already had a decent spine with John Terry and Frank Lampard — two players that would become key figures of this unprecedented era of success at the club — they otherwise effectively bought a new team.

Damien Duff, Juan Sebastien Veron and Hernán Crespo were among the big-money signings in the first season, with 14 players arriving in total.

A further nine came in along with Jose Mourinho in the second campaign, including Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba and Petr Čech.

Yet perhaps the most significant aspect of Abramovich’s legacy is not the countless trophy wins he oversaw or players his money recruited, but the effect his arrival had on other teams.

Rivals were either forced to spend to a greater degree to keep up (Man United) or risk becoming less relevant (Arsenal).

Gary Neville has spoken of how Chelsea under Mourinho and Abramovich redefined the title race, as they picked up a record-breaking 95 points in the former’s first season in charge.

“[Mourinho] redefined how Sir Alex and maybe us as a team thought of a title in the sense that we always started pretty slowly, knowing full well even if we were 7-8 points behind come Christmas, we could always catch up.

“We’d get stronger as the season went on.

“But in those two Jose Mourinho years they went hard from the start and they never came back.

“It just meant that everyone had to refocus how you thought about a title — losing hardly any games, conceding very few goals, difficult to beat.”

The idea of securing 90-plus points was almost unthinkable pre-Abramovich, but it has increasingly become the norm, with four of the last five title winners (including Chelsea once) having done so.

Abramovich is also the first example of a foreign owner coming into the Premier League and investing to the extent that he could turn a team almost instantly into title contenders.

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Sheikh Mansour had a similar impact after taking over Man City five years after Abramovich’s Chelsea reign got underway.

Would it have happened were it not for the success of the Abramovich project?

Would Newcastle’s Saudi Arabian owners have taken the leap of buying a Premier League club had they not the benefit of evidence illustrating how well similar scenarios had worked previously?

Even further afield at PSG, the Qatar Investment Authority who became the club’s majority shareholder in 2011 surely had the Abramovich model in mind when making this game-changing move.

So while Abrahomovich has unquestionably been good for Chelsea, he has surely been bad for football.

Even if you ignore the ethical questions that have been raised in recent days, such as his reasons for buying the club in the first place, how he acquired his fortune and the extent of his links with Vladimir Putin (Abramovich disputes reports of his closeness to the Russian President), inspiring a number of similarly wealthy imitators has made football less competitive than ever, with a few elite teams having an increasing monopoly on the best players.

That is why Abramovich is, for better or worse, arguably the most influential figure since the onset of the Premier League and one of the most important individuals in the history of the sport.

And his departure could have as dramatic an effect as his arrival.

With the expectation that their resources will be diminished, it’s conceivable that Chelsea will no longer be the force they once were, and that even fewer teams will be genuinely capable of winning the Premier League.

The war waged by Russia and the subsequent ramifications for Abramovich and others has also had a palpable effect on the way the sport is perceived — it’s not often that a football owner is discussed in detail under parliamentary privilege

Whether the game starts to view mega-rich owners with more scrutiny and scepticism remains to be seen, but the precariousness of the current situation in Ukraine has meant these issues are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, the way they effectively were in 2003 and have largely been until now.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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