CHELSEA’S decision to buy out the fans’ co-operative that owns the freehold to its Stamford Bridge stadium, the turnstiles and the pitch, must mean only one thing: the club is serious about moving from the home it has occupied for more than 100 years.
The club has toyed with the idea of moving for years. It has looked at a site near Earls Court but withdrew its interest as the asking price went towards £1bn. It has contemplated an area around Battersea power station and no doubt other possible alternatives.
Owner Roman Abramovich, who is not known for living in the shadow of his rivals, clearly feels that a 42,000-capacity stadium is insufficient to meet the needs of a growing football force, especially when European Financial Fair Play rules stipulate that clubs are only allowed to spend in accordance with their income (essentially, stadium receipts, broadcasting rights and merchandise).
There will be much debate within the next few months among fans as to whether a move is in the best interests of the club. How will it affect the atmosphere, for example? Will the club retain its identity if it moves outside its immediate environment?
Certainly there are those at Arsenal, for example, who bemoan the loss of the closely hemmed-in stadium at Highbury even though the new stadium is but a stone’s throw down the road. But most see the new stadiums in football, such as at Sunderland or Derby, as a sign of progress.
The Chelsea hierarchy would do well to focus on one thing, though. The move to a 60-70,000 capacity stadium only makes sense if there is sufficient demand to fill it and on this the jury is still out.
Despite years of success, Chelsea’s hardcore support still remains much less than that of fellow London teams, such as Arsenal, Spurs and perhaps even West Ham.
The club has always been able to sell out for the glamorous fixtures but the visits of lesser lights can occasionally produce a turn-out that betrays the claim to be a really major club.
Hence last month’s visit of Bayer Leverkusen to Stamford Bridge attracted a crowd of less than 34,000 – around 8,000 short of capacity. It is unlikely that any more than this will turn up to see Genk this month.
If the Blues decide to go ahead with a move, management, including chief executive Ron Gourlay, will need to come up with a pricing and marketing strategy to keep the new turnstiles clicking.