PL25: The game that changed the course of Premier League history

There is a common debate amongst historians about whether the will of brilliant individuals or the circumstances surrounding their rises to power have driven the story of mankind.

Would Britain have survived World War 2 if Neville Chamberlain wasn’t shafted for Winston Churchill? Would the Cold War have ended without the penetrative rhetoric of Ronald Reagan? Those polarised schools of thought continue to quarrel to this day, but when placed into the context of the last 25 years of Premier League football, there is no debate that one man changed the course of the competition’s history – Roman Abramovich.

Perhaps Abramovich wouldn’t have been drawn to the Premier League without the incredible rise in TV revenue from its incarnation in 1992 to his purchase of Chelsea in 2003. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been in a position to do so, anyway, if the dissolution of the Soviet Union hadn’t created an elite of super-rich capitalists at the top of Russian society. Perhaps, after eleven years of a relentless upward trajectory, the Premier League was crying out for a billionaire to take it that one step further. Perhaps if it wasn’t Abramovich, it would have been someone else of similar fortune at a similar point in time.

Yet, Abramovich’s arrival in English football was unquestionably a watershed moment. Before he bought a majority share in Chelsea, every single Premier League club was owned by British businessmen – in many cases families who had overseen the running of their clubs for years. Now, only five Premier League clubs are owned exclusively by Brits – the remaining 15 are either owned or part-owned by foreign investors. They all hope to imitate what Abramovich has achieved at Chelsea, turning a club that hadn’t won a top flight title in half a century into champions, and some of them already have – the Sheik owners at Manchester City and Leicester City’s owners from Thailand.

In a business sense, Abramovich was ahead of the curve, realising the enormous potential of a well-followed football club on the fringes of the Premier League’s top end situated in one of the most affluent parts of London. But he also set a trend of football clubs becoming fashion accessories for the world’s richest, an opportunity to further exert power and demonstrate wealth. Even if Abramovich was driven to buy Chelsea by subliminal social and economic factors swirling to the point of inevitability, he was at the very least the first of his kind.

Abramovich’s effects on English football span much further than simply Chelsea. He brought the era of the Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry at the top of the Premier League table to an end, elevating the level of competitiveness towards the level its now famed for (no least the season after the Invincibles ripped the division apart in unprecedented fashion), helped usher in the age of metamorphic transfer fees that still shows no signs of relenting and played a pivotal hand in the hire-and-fire culture the Premier League is now seemingly obliged by, sacking the manager he inherited, Claudio Ranieri, after finishing second and the first manager he appointed, Jose Mourinho, exactly one year, seven months and two weeks after he’d claimed back to back Premier League titles.

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At the time, that ruthless approach to club ownership and that kind of spending in the transfer market was completely unheard of, but it’s now the rule of thumb in the Premier League. One year without a trophy is enough to warrant the sack, whilst any top six club who spend less than £100million this summer will soon feel the full wrath of the fan base.

Maybe any other super-rich foreign businessman would have eventually done what Abramovich did in buying a club and making it a Premier League juggernaut, but the means by which he achieved it, which continue to echo around England’s top flight, were unique to his personality and background. He set a multitude of precedents which are followed, rightly or wrongly, to this day. Another businessman of equal wealth would likely have gone about things incredibly differently.

That is the enormous effect Abramovich has had on the Premier League – whether he’s loved or loathed, he has been a crucial influence in shaping the division as it is today. And yet, for all the discussion of inevitability, he may not have ventured into the English game at all had it not been for one match at the end of the 2002/03 season – less than two months prior to the Russian billionaire buying the west London club.

That season saw the Blues reach the highs of second place in December, but by the time it drew to a close a top four finish was the best they could hope for – and even that required a final-day-of-the-season Champions League qualification shootout with Liverpool. With 37 games played, the Blues and the Reds were exactly level on wins, draws, defeats and points with 64 apiece – although Chelsea’s goal difference was eight superior. The curtain call at Stamford Bridge was all or nothing; winning would bring involvement in Europe’s top competition, losing would mean a season wasted.

But the price and the prize for Chelsea would prove to be so much more. At that point, Chelsea were staring into the face of financial ruin, knowing they needed European football to balance the books. Far more than just European football for the following season, however, Champions League participation for just the second time in the club’s history would be what convinced Abramovich to buy the club. Nine years later, Chelsea would win it for the first time ever.

It was also what convinced a certain John Terry to stay with the club he’d joined from West Ham as a 14-year-old; the story goes that after the match, as Chelsea’s players celebrated on the pitch, Terry was approached by Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier about moving to Anfield. The defender told him he was very interested. But then Abramovich arrived, Terry signed a new contract and the Anfield move never came. Instead, he became Chelsea’s official captain a year later, leading them to five Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, a Champions League title and a Europa League title. He left at the end of last season as a true legend, Chelsea’s greatest player of all time.

And yet, the reale hero of this saga is not Terry nor Abramovich; rather, a player who, without intrinsic involvement in this match, would probably not be remembered by Premier League fans at all – or at the very most, in largely pejorative, humorously obscure terms. Jesper Gronkjaer – a Danish winger of inconsistent quality who lasted just four seasons at Stamford Bridge before being sold to Birmingham City for a meagre £2.2million. For all intents and purposes, Gronkjaer is little more than a footnote in the Premier League’s 25-year history, yet unquestionably one of the most significant and definitive.

On May 11th 2003, it was Liverpool who drew blood first in west London, as Sami Hyypia rose the highest to head the visitors ahead. But amid a Chelsea career that saw him produce just nine goals and 13 assists in 112 appearances, it was Gronkjaer who swung arguably the most important Premier League game of all time back in the Blues’ favour.

Just three minutes later, the Dane swung an unspectacular cross into Liverpool’s box from the inside right channel, just ahead of the penalty area. It was a ten-a-penny ball that you might see 15 or 20 times in any given football match, but this one just so happened to expose Salif Diao’s questionable marking as Marcel Desailly leapt beyond him to head past Jerzy Dudek, flapping at the save in typical Dudek fashion. As Alan Smith said on commentary, Chelsea’s equaliser was a carbon copy of Hyypia’s first – just at the other end of the pitch.

By Gronkjaer’s usual standards, such direct impact on the scoreline was uncharacteristic, if not somewhat due at the end of a largely ineffective season in front of goal. But what happened next was something else altogether. 13 minutes later, it was the 80-cap international who popped up with what proved to be the winner, the goal that got Chelsea into the Champions League, that convinced Roman Abramovich to buy the club, that lead John Terry to stay in west London where he’d achieve so much success.

A Mario Melchiot throw-in eventually found its way to Gronkjaer, who managed to step inside Vladimir Smicer and along the 18-yard line, losing his balance as a consequence. Tumbling to the floor, footing slipping away, Gronkjaer instinctively wrapped his foot around the ball – curling it around a defender whilst his buttocks simultaneously made contact with the pitch. Unsighted, Dudek dived late as the ball trickled into the far corner of his net. Knowing what we know about Gronkjaer and watching the idiosyncratic projection of the shot, careering and curling wider at the last second as Gronkjaer fell to the floor, it’s logical to suggest a more deliberate effort at goal from the Dane wouldn’t have resulted in the same outcome.

Later in the same summer as Abramovich became Chelsea’s majority shareholder, Barcelona – one of the greatest, most prestigious clubs the beautiful game has ever seen – announced they were in unprecedented debt as the presidency changed hands. That’s the kind of opportunity a billionaire shopping for a football club would find impossible to turn down but at that point, it was already too late; a shot on the slip from the weakest member of a Chelsea front five also including Emmanuel Petit, Frank Lampard, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had changed the course of Premier League history.

Chelsea, Abramovich and English football haven’t looked back since.