Sometimes in football, you know when a significant event is coming around. The sale of Eden Hazard, for example, seemed inevitable for years,and Chelsea fans had a chance to prepare themselves. A league title is won over many months, and even a major final has days or even weeks of anticipation.
Other massive moments in the history of a club come round suddenly, and often it’s not clear at the time just how significant they are.
May 2018 saw one of those moments for Chelsea fans, as it was announced without warning that work on the Stamford Bridge stadium redevelopment had been halted, “indefinitely”.
At the time it was hard to even comprehend how big a moment that was for the future of the club, who by this point would be two years deeper into the process that actually began long ago, and was finally given the green light by Hammersmith and Fulham council in January 2017.
That planning permission expires at the end of this month, meaning time is running out for the club to do anything – as it stands, all those years of work and untold sums of money on architects and engineers will go to waste.
Roman Abramovich won’t be happy, but then again given he’s one of only 775 billionaires in Europe, it will probably be the delay that frustrates him more than the wasted cash. He’s certainly used to that when it comes to Chelsea, and anyone who has spent £50m on Fernando Torres will be accustomed to not getting his money’s worth.
After ploughing over £1bn. into the club over the years, the Russian will be frustrated to see his attempts to improve their revenue streams thwarted like this. It’s not going to be possible to compete with European football’s giants with a stadium that holds fewer than 45,000 spectators, and all the hard work pushing the club’s profile abroad and growing its social media following is minor in comparison to the potential benefits of a whole new tier of corporate boxes and a sponsored name for the stadium.
Certainly his stated long-term aim of making Chelsea self-sufficient looks almost impossible without major progress on this front.
Initially the idea that he and the club seemed to prefer was moving to an entirely new site, and many were assessed. None was convincing as an option though, and the Chelsea pitch-owners blocked any attempt to sell Stamford Bridge and move elsewhere.
That move was hailed as significant at the time, and as time goes by it becomes increasingly clear why. Now that our options at Stamford Bridge are limited, and as it stands, entirely frozen, the decision to prevent the club moving is effectively shutting down any plans to improve the money we’re getting on a matchday.
Of course, there were many issues with the plan that was proposed – the train tracks on either side of the ground, the potential for disruption of Brompton Cemetary, the “right to light” disputes that were resolved, only to now become moot points anyway.
But despite all that, redeveloping the stadium would be a massive step for the club into the future. The year we’ve now spent in limbo is a year wasted, but beyond that, once the relevant permissions expire on the 31st of this month, we then return to square one in that area too. Any new plans would have to go through the same multi-year process all over again – and who knows what new objections or issues may arise this time.
In fact, while the club desperately need to expand the stadium to compete with other top sides financially, it’s hard to see how it happens at all now. If Abramovich has decided he doesn’t want to pour yet more cash into the club – and indeed the country which doesn’t seem so keen to take it any more, given the visa issues he’s encountering now – it may be that we are left in the Bridge as it is, watching Tottenham, Liverpool and others around us reaping the benefits of their own reconstructions.