Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich famously first caught the football bug while watching Real Madrid play Manchester United in the Champions League at Old Trafford in 2003, deciding then and there that he quite fancied getting involved in this captivating sport.
Later that year, he bought the West London club from Ken Bates and immediately set about transforming their fortunes both on and off the field to such an extent that the Blues are now virtually unrecognisable from the outfit that he purchased 10 years ago.
It has been a roller-coaster decade at Stamford Bridge, of that there can be no doubt. However, despite the myriad of criticisms that have been levelled against the Russian oligarch during this time, he has nonetheless overseen the most successful period in the club’s history by some distance and what’s more, Abramovich has been clever about how he has achieved this.
Immediately, the publicity-shy owner recognised that to get an initially suspicious fanbase on board he needed to hit the ground running early and show the supporters that he meant business and was here to win things.
As, let’s face it, that is what competing in professional sport is all about—winning. Every fan wants to see their team victorious and claim some piece of silverware at some point in their history, if only for the one time, and while Chelsea had been undergoing a gradual renaissance in the years leading up to Abramovich’s arrival on the scene, you doubt very much indeed whether the subsequent success that was about envelop the club would ever have happened without the Russian’s intervention.
Abramovich was decisive and ruthless, right from the get-go, removing popular head coach Claudio Ranieri, a man who had just steered the club to a second-place finish in the 2003/04 Premier League campaign, as well as to the semifinals of that season’s Champions League.
That could have been a disastrous early intervention on his part, and yet it proved a masterstroke as the coach he brought in to replace the Italian was none other than the self-styled "Special One" himself, Porto manager Jose Mourinho.
Now, as smart decisions go, that has to be right up there with the very best. Abramovich, less than a year into football club ownership, had managed to identify and then more importantly had the confidence to hand over the running of his team to a young, brash, but at that stage still relatively unknown, Portuguese.
It was the clever choice of Mourinho as head coach in the summer of 2004 that ultimately set Chelsea off on a course of English domination, starting with their first top-flight league title for 50 years the following summer, and only the second ever in their history, with a third to follow immediately in 2006.
To achieve that success, the Russian had to finance a level of spending on player recruitment that had not been seen before in the English game (via the Sun). Initially, in came marquee signings of the calibre and class of Petr Cech, Paolo Ferreira, Glen Johnson, Claude Makelele, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Essien, Joe Cole, Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Didier Drogba.
Cleverly, Abramovich had given Chelsea’s long-suffering supporters exactly what they had been wanting and craving, both a team that they could be proud of and with it a league crown to savour, and what is more, it had taken just two years to achieve this.
And so with the crucial and absolute support of the fans on board, the Russian then set about transforming the club in other key areas too, especially off the field of play where he soon announced plans to build a much-needed and long-awaited new state-of-the-art training complex in Cobham (via WorldSoccer) that would finally drag the club into the modern era.
Clearly, Roman was not just here on a whim, looking to make a quick buck and then having lost interest, or money, or both, returning eastwards to invest in his next new play thing. No, Abramovich meant business, he wanted to make a success of this new project and he actually seemed to care about the club.
Each and every home match, the bearded, non-smiling Russian would take his seat in his box in the West Stand at the Bridge and endure the same agony and ecstasy as those loyal fans around him. And over the years observing Chelsea’s owner, what has become abundantly clear is that he has a genuine love and passion for the club and his team, he absolutely cares if they win or lose, and it's not for financial reasons, but sporting ones.
This is important as supporters do not take kindly to absentee owners, often using this as a stick with which to beat them with at the first sign of any trouble on the horizon, as we saw with Liverpool’s American landlords, but Abramovich recognised this fact and understood that it was all very well and good bringing the glamour players and the silverware to West London, but he also realised that he needed to be there to share this joy with the fans.
Abramovich has also made a series of other smart off-field decisions that have helped the club progress, such as bringing in the savvy Peter Kenyon from Manchester United as his first chief executive in 2003, a man who subsequently helped secure impressive kit and sponsorship deals with the likes of Adidas and Samsung respectively, both of which still endure today. And while the club are yet to record a trading profit in the 10 years that Abramovich has been at the helm, their year-on-year losses are decreasing with each and every season.
However, perhaps the Russian’s cleverest moves have involved his controversial managerial recruitment policy which has seen nine different coaches sit in the Stamford Bridge dugout since 2003.
Is Abramovich the smartest owner in world football?
This constant revolving-door approach to football management has drawn stinging criticism from outside the club, and yet it has had absolutely no impact whatsoever on Chelsea’s ability to win trophies. In contrast, their fierce London rivals Arsenal have adopted the opposite strategy of sticking with their head coach, a man who in the past eight years has brought precisely no silverware to the Emirates.
And so, which of those two contrasting styles of club ownership would you deem the smarter and more successful?
Last, but not least, perhaps the cleverest thing that Abramovich has done since he arrived in the English capital, unlike a good majority of his fellow Premier League club owners, is somehow managing to avoid opening his mouth and courting negative publicity.
Since 2003, the Russian has given just the one single interview in the English press, and so unlike the Dave Whelans of this world, the Chelsea owner’s innermost thoughts have been kept to himself by and large. And that is exactly how it should be, as, to quote the great Bill Shankly (via the Guardian): "At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Owners and directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques."