“We’re all middle class now,” quipped John Prescott in 1997, arguing that the masses had politically shifted towards New Labour’s socio-capitalist school of thought. Claiming ‘We’re all Roman Abramovichs now’ might veer upon the extreme – for starters, we don’t all have yachts with the same net worth as Namibia – but it’s certainly true that we have all become children of the Abramovich ideology in one way or another over the past 14 years.
Indeed, while figures like Greg Dyke and David Dein are often seen as the architects of the Premier League, championing its breakaway in the early 1990s, no person has made a greater impact on the English top flight as we know it today than the Russian billionaire who purchased Chelsea in 2003.
In many ways, the quarter-century of Premier League history can be divided into two eras; pre-Abramovich, when English football still centred around English talent and localised followings, and post-Abramovich, when it became a truly global phenomena with greater revenues, demands, audiences and pressure than ever before.
To suggest the Premier League hadn’t already shown signs of vastly escalated globalisation before Abramovich acquired Chelsea would untrue. Back in 2000, Johan Cruyff pejoratively dubbed Chelsea ‘the foreign legion’ after Gianluca Vialli had named English football’s first ever all-foreign starting XI on Boxing Day 1999 and less than two years on from Abramovich’s emergence, hardly enough time for him to make a historic impact single-handed, Arsenal named the first ever all-foreign matchday squad. Manchester United, meanwhile, were already using their on-pitch success to become commercial juggernauts of unprecedented proportions.
And yet, Abramovich’s decision to buy the London club was clearly a watershed moment that ushered in the second act of the Premier League. Before he purchased a majority share in Chelsea, every Premier League club was owned by British and Irish businessmen. Fast forward to present day and that number has reduced to just five exclusively owned by Brits, only one of which finished in last season’s top six. Even if the financial riches of the Premier League would have lured in a foreign businessman of Abramovich’s wealth at some point anyway, Abramovich was at the very least the first of his kind – a pioneer who laid down the path for others to follow.
Accordingly, that allowed Abramovich to exert his mentality over the rest of the league and the fact his new methods transformed into success almost instantaneously only further validated them, chiefly – employing and disposing of managers with short-termist ruthlessness. Second-place to the Invincibles in 2003/04 marked Chelsea’s best finish to a season since 1962/63, but the Russian still felt compelled to part with Claudio Ranieri and bring in Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese delivered two Premier League titles, but was sacked just a few months after failing to provide a consecutive third.
At the time, that approach was a talking point in itself, one that only generated negative attention from the media – a club with no history, financially-doped by a billionaire backer sacking some of the best managers in Europe at will. Once again though, fast forward to present day; three managers have already been sacked this season and the last three managers to win the Premier League title were all sacked by the end of the following campaign – all by foreign owners.
It’s evidence of how the Abramovich ideology has become infectious. It’s brought likeminded thinkers to these shores and even changed the mindsets of those already here. In fact, it’s changed expectations so drastically that its seeped into the minds of the supporters too – can you imagine Everton fans calling for Ronald Koeman to be sacked after just nine games of the new season back in 2002, back when the Premier League table wasn’t even looked at until good ten games in? Some managers didn’t last long even back then, but such ruthlessness from the board was practically unheard of. Nowadays, that pressure for instant results is commonplace at all twenty clubs.
Of course, that’s as much a consequence of how competitive the top flight now is and the financial gravities of falling out of the top division. But once again, that’s very much something we owe Abramovich for; he turned the Premier League title from a two-horse race into a three-horse race, before leading the way for the Sheik takeover at Manchester City that made it a four-horse race – not to mention the countless foreign owners who’ve invested gigantic sums in even the Premier League’s more ordinary clubs, and the clubs whose wealth instantly improved as the Blues prised away their top stars for substantial sums.
That’s an example of the trickle-down effect, not only in economic terms but also psychological. Every owner is different, every club is different and yet pretty much all of them have slowly gravitated towards the Abramovich model – vast financial backing, short-term thinking and the relentless pressure for continuous success or improvement. As the money has increased, the expectations have raised and the Premier League has become more and more globalised, we as fans have inevitably adopted that viciously clinical mindset as well. The last 14 years have put a little Abramovich in all of us.