No-one would have predicted this twenty years ago, but there is a possibility that in ten years time – or maybe less – Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Chelsea will all be playing at different grounds to those that they inhabited for the overwhelming majority of the twentieth century. Arsenal are already settling into the Emirates Stadium (although a couple of results this season might suggest that even now they might not necessarily have unpacked all of their metaphorical boxes), whilst Spurs and West Ham are involved in something of a tussle over the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, which is all the more odd when we consider that Spurs are still pursuing the exotically-named Naming Rights Stadium, on the site of their current White Hart Lane home.
The latest London name to be talked of in terms of moving ground in London is Chelsea. In some respects, it has been surprising that the club hasn’t seriously linked with leaving Stamford Bridge before. The redevelopment of the ground began in the early 1990s, while Chelsea’s domestic stock was a good deal lower than it is now. The arrival of Roman Abramovich changed that, but Stamford Bridge has changed little over the last few years. Its capacity is still just shy of 42,000 (which compares unfavourably with The Emirates Stadium, as well as with the projected capacities for the Olympic Stadium and The Naming Rights Stadium) and, as anyone that has been there on a Saturday afternoon will attest, access to it can be fraught at times.
So, there are sound reasons why Chelsea might be looking to move away from Stamford Bridge, especially when we consider that Abramovich has long sought financial self-sufficiency for his club. Ticket prices in London are higher than anywhere else in the country, and increasing match-day revenues would help this process. The site that the club is said to be looking at Earls Court would have a capacity of 60,000, which would bridge a gap in terms of revenue that would help them to meet the criteria that UEFA have set out in their Financial Fair Play rules. It seems unlikely that Chelsea would have a great deal of difficulty in selling a new stadium out (their support, as with other London clubs, stretches well out into the Home Counties), so what potential difficulties could they have with it?
The biggest likely problem with a new ground (as it always is in London) would be planning permission. The new ground would have to get the permission of the local council, Kensington & Chelsea Council. Would the well-to-do residents of the area be happy with a massive football ground being built in their back yards? It’s difficult to say with any degree of certain, but it’s far from impossible to imagine a degree of nimbyism should a plan be submitted. Public transport access be better at Earls Court than it currently is on Fulham Broadway (although it would still require some amount of refurbishment), but Kensington & Chelsea Council may well prefer to keep Chelsea Football Club within the boundaries of neighbouring Hammersmith & Fulham Council, where they currently reside.
One intriguing aspect of any proposed move from Stamford Bridge would be the involvement of the Chelsea Pitch Owners, who own not only freehold to Stamford Bridge but also the Chelsea Football Club name itself. Formed in 1997, four years after Cabra Estates, who had purchased the freehold to Stamford Bridge in 1984, went into liquidation, CPO purchased, with the aid of a loan from Chelsea Village the 199 year freehold on Stamford Bridge with the intention of ensuring that the ground must never fall into the hands of property developers. Stamford Bridge cannot be used for non-footballing purposes and the name Chelsea Football Club cannot be used away from Stamford Bridge without their blessing.
This is a potentially critical safeguard for the soul of Chelsea Football Club, and it is to be hoped that they use their power wisely to ensure that any move away from Stamford Bridge is to benefit supporters as much as the club itself. There is still a possibility that their existing site could be expanced to hold 55,000 people, but there are concerns that, with only one road’s worth of access (it is effectively landlocked on all other sides), this would make getting to and from it even more difficult than it can be now. In addition to this, Stamford Bridge is not the ground that it was fifteen or twenty years ago and sentimental attachments to the place may not be as great as they might otherwise have been. Still, the opportunity is there for this non-profit organisation to broker some leverage over any move that the club may plan for the future.
That Chelsea are preparing for the possibility of leaving Stamford Bridge is, perhaps, tacit acknowledgement of the fact that the UEFA Financial Fair Play rules could prove to be critical if the club is to continue the success that it has enjoyed over the last few seasons or so. The circumstances surrounding Abramovich remains murky but Chelsea have, in some ways, been fortunate with their ownership. The vast debt that was run up has been converted into shares, leaving them in a stronger financial position than many predicted they would find themselves in, but the value of the land at Stamford Bridge (assuming that CPO assent to the move) is nowhere near what the cost of building a new stadium would be. Balancing out these apparently contradictory could prove to be a challenge for a club that has had a couple of close shaves with financial difficulty in the past, but Chelsea do at least seem to be putting a little thought about how they may continue to thrive in a future that is less dependent upon the sugar daddy model of ownership.