Whether or not there is any truth in the weekend reports of frosty meetings between Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich and Andre Villas-Boas yesterday’s 2-1 defeat against Liverpool can only add to the pressure mounting on the former Porto manager. With fans voicing their concerns and Abramovich not known for his patience it’s perhaps not surprising that rumours of the return of former manager Guus Hiddink have begun to circulate since the Dutchman was sacked by Turkey last week.
Chelsea’s on-field problems are also mirrored off the pitch as uncertainty persists regarding the club’s plans to move to a new 60,000 seat stadium leaving the way clear to sell Stamford Bridge for residential and commercial property development. The club insists that this is necessary in order to remain competitive in the Premier League and in Europe but the idea isn’t popular among fans and is the cause of as much unrest as the team’s recent poor performances.
Many clubs have moved to new grounds since legislation insisting on all-seater stadiums came into force in the 1990s and the benefits, not only to the clubs involved but to their communities, are well documented. In most cases these developments have involved bringing derelict or deprived areas back to life with commercial property in the form of shops, hotels and bars following. Then there are the sites left behind which in many cases have undergone similar transformations creating jobs and stimulating the local economy.
These moves have rarely proved popular to begin with. Football fans are fiercely proud of their heritage, but there are not many, given time, who’d want to return to their old grounds. The situation at Chelsea, however, is complicated by the fact that the freehold on the land is owned not by Abramovich but by 12,000 supporter shareholders who rejected the proposals at a stormy meeting in October.
The Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) was founded in 1993 to prevent the club falling into the hands of residential or commercial property developers at a time when the club was financially vulnerable. Chelsea’s failure to persuade CPO shareholders to sell back to the club is a major blow to their plans and is seen by observers as a personal humiliation for Abramovich.
The preferred option of the CPO and Chelsea supporters groups is to remain at Stamford Bridge but, failing this, they want assurances from the board that any new stadium would not be outside a three mile radius of the current ground. This has led to a stalemate between club and fans with Hammersmith and Fulham Council now intervening in an attempt to resolve the situation. In a statement last week the council promised to work with the club to explore the possibility of increasing the capacity of Stamford Bridge so that the club could remain in the Borough.
The CPO has welcomed this, but a subsequent Sky Sports report suggests that a resolution remains in doubt. The bulletin stated that the club is still determined to move and may try to force the issue again at the CPO AGM next month where they would require only 50% support to trigger another ballot on the share sale.
There is no doubt that if Abramovich succeeds with his plans the 13 acre Stamford Bridge site would prove to be a highly desirable investment for residential or commercial property developers. There are already whispers of interest from an unnamed party planning a complex of offices despite the restrictions of the land being hemmed in on two sides by railway tracks.
Whatever the eventual outcome yesterday’s reversal, following hot on the heels of the 5-3 home defeat by Arsenal, guarantees that the gloom surrounding Stamford Bridge will linger for a while longer. The question is will Andre Villas-Boas?
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