The story goes that when Roman Abramovich, the Russian-born billionaire who was to transform English football, was ready to finalise his purchase of Chelsea just under 20 years ago, he had a late moment of alarm. His plane was coming into London and he glimpsed a stadium beneath the flight path, not far from Heathrow airport.
It looked old and unglamorous. And rather small. He apparently worried for a moment this might be an unflattering aerial view of his prospective new property.
Abramovich was assured that, no, the worn, tired arena was not Stamford Bridge, where he would go on to be serenaded by fans for the next two decades. It remains unclear whether it was Fulham’s Craven Cottage, or Brentford’s Griffin Park that the former Chelsea owner had peered down on, unimpressed with its size and old-fashioned appearance.
That seems a long time ago now. For the new owners of Chelsea, who took over the club last year after UK government sanctions against Russia-linked businesses and individuals obliged the club’s sale, the view from above and indeed within West London is very different.
Brentford, who 20 seasons ago were in the third-tier of English football, are now an ambitious Premier League club enjoying a smart new stadium, a kilometre – and light years in terms of facilities – from Griffin Park.
Fulham, in the top division after three years of back and forth in and out of the Championship, are still at Craven Cottage but its quaint, picturesque charms are now supplemented by a brand new grandstand rising up next to the River Thames.
Viewed from nearby Stamford Bridge, there are aspects of both venues that would provoke envy. Although Chelsea’s stadium is a good deal bigger that Brentford’s or Fulham’s, the club’s owners past and present long for a capacity far greater than the current 40,000-odd, but face a number of practical difficulties in expanding or relocating.
More urgently, Chelsea find themselves in the uncomfortable, unfamiliar position of looking not at Fulham and Brentford from above, but beneath, in the hierarchy of the league table. Chelsea, the 2021 European champions, sit 10th in the Premier League, a spot below Brentford, and three places and three points behind a confident Fulham, who host their next-door rivals on Thursday.
Chelsea are horribly out of form. At the weekend, they tumbled out of the FA Cup, beaten 4-0 by Manchester City, who had also eliminated Chelsea from the League Cup at the earliest point of elite clubs’ entry to that knockout tournament.
Chelsea, who sacked Thomas Tuchel as manager in September and poached Graham Potter from Brighton as his replacement, have won just once in the last six league outings. At 10 points off the top four, they are beginning to regard their best chance of being involved in next season’s Champions League as qualifying as holders. That looks a very long shot. They meet Borussia Dortmund in the last 16 next month for a place in a last eight that will be well stocked with squads in better health than theirs.
In this gathering crisis, would-be saviours are sought. Potter has been assured his position is safe, and that by the end of the transfer window an unbalanced, injury-hit but still expensive squad will be significantly strengthened.
Joao Felix, 23 and not too long ago football’s second-most costly teenager ever, confirmed his arrival as a Chelsea player on Wednesday, the fourth signing of the winter transfer window.
Chelsea have taken the Portuguese on loan from Atletico Madrid until May for a fee of over €10 million, and will cover his salary but without an option to buy. Atletico, keen for Felix to extend his contract with the Spanish club by a year to 2027, want to retain what they see as a highly saleable asset, a player they invested €111 million in when he moved from Benfica in 2019.
But Felix has pushed for this January exit, however temporary, with his relationship with Atletico head coach Diego Simeone - and specifically Simeone’s safety-first tactics - more and more strained.
Whether Potter, an imaginative, progressive coach, can stimulate the creativity in Felix and the player have the quick impact required by Chelsea remains to be seen. “He can make a difference,” said Potter, “a quality player that gives everyone a lift, someone who can impose himself on a game. He’s a nice addition and I’m looking forward to working with him.”
But Potter also warned: “It’s not just one person who solves your problems. You have to fix the team, attack better, create more chances.”
As he looked across West London at tonight’s hosts, on four wins out of four since the break for the World Cup, he saw a Fulham “who play with courage and personality” while his side “are not in a top, top moment, hurting.”