'Abramovich wanted Chelsea training ground in Regent’s Park – until he learned the Queen owned it'
Ken Bates has shed new light on the sale of Chelsea to Roman Abramovich in the build-up to the 20th anniversary of the deal that changed English football forever, claiming the Russian bought the club in less than 24 hours having never had a tour of Stamford Bridge.
Telegraph Sport has been granted exclusive first access to The Blueprint podcast, in which, over almost three hours, Bates discusses some of his biggest and most controversial decisions during 21 years in charge of Chelsea after buying the club for £1 in 1982.
This July will mark 20 years since Abramovich bought Chelsea from Bates for £140 million and the 91-year-old had given his most detailed interview to date in which he makes fresh claims on:
The night he sold Chelsea to Abramovich at The Dorchester hotel in front of two of the billionaire’s security guards
How Abramovich identified Regent’s Park as the perfect site for Chelsea’s training ground before being told it was owned by the Queen
Abramovich’s trip to Manchester to try to buy United before sealing his deal to buy Chelsea inside 24 hours
Bates also spoke at length about the managers he employed at Chelsea and accused the Football Association of breaking their own rules to give Glenn Hoddle the England job.
Chelsea won every domestic and European club trophy during Abramovich’s 19 years in charge and on the subject of whether or not he was proud of his role in the transformation of the club, Bates said: “The record speaks for itself. I rest my case.”
Abramovich sold Chelsea to current owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital in a deal worth £4.25 billion last year, but asked if he regretted not holding out for more than the £140 million he banked in 2003, Bates said “No, that’s Daniel Levy’s problem” presumably in reference to Abramovich’s well documented interest in Tottenham Hotspur.
Bates also detailed how Abramovich had first tried to buy Manchester United, when describing the night he sold Chelsea to the then 36-year-old, who he described as wearing “a billionaire’s uniform” of jeans and a shirt.
Having been told by Trevor Birch, who was Chelsea’s chief executive at the time, that he had “got somebody who will pay £140 million for the club”, Bates attended a meeting with Abramovich at The Dorchester on Park Lane in London.
“We met in The Dorchester at the bar,” explained Bates. “You would come through and turn right for the Dorchester Grill, but we had a table on the left at the Italian bar.
“I remember the people who were sat there on the sofa, opposite the bar observing. Then there was the activity at the door when two other people entered. That’s when Trevor said to me ‘This is them’.
“I noticed at the same time, those two people got up from the far right on the sofas and approached us with Abramovich. Of course, it was security. So we all met, shook hands and then discussed Chelsea for a couple of hours.
“He was just wearing jeans and a shirt, that’s his billionaire’s uniform, though I didn’t know he was a billionaire at the time. We had a light meal together, discussed Chelsea and shook hands on the deal – and agreed the sale that evening.
“Then we met at Stamford Bridge at 8.30am in the morning and everything was agreed by 2pm, and we had the documents signed. That’s how I do business. We did it, then we announced it.”
Bates claimed that Abramovich wanted a quick deal after failing with a bid to buy Manchester United and that he identified the site of what he thought would be the perfect training ground for Chelsea from a helicopter.
“I didn’t give Abramovich a tour or anything of the stadium, he didn’t ask,” said Bates. “He had been in Manchester and wanted to buy Manchester United, so when Chelsea came up in conversation, he bought the club.”
Referring back to their meeting, Bates said: “Abramovich just sat there, nodding his head and listening. They said – and I can’t remember it word for word now – but basically ‘We don’t want a big song and dance, we want a quick deal’, because he had tried to buy Man United, but it wasn’t for sale.
“The guy that spoke for him – well there two of them who spoke for him – were very cultured. What’s the word? Very cultured, very knowledgeable, very quiet, very modest, not bombastic.”
Bates admitted that he had no idea about the scale of Abramovich’s plans for Chelsea, but did reveal one of his early plans that no amount of money could buy.
“Abramovich hired a helicopter for a trip around London,” said Bates. “He saw a park and said: ‘That looks like a good park. Let’s buy that for the training ground.' But he got told ‘I don’t think you will get that. That’s Regent’s Park and it’s owned by the Queen.'”
Asked if he knew how much Abramovich would spend on Chelsea after buying the club, Bates said: “Well of course I didn’t. I didn’t know how much he was worth.”
Other than offering an intimate insight into the night he sold Chelsea to Abramovich, Bates also detailed his conversations around Glenn Hoddle leaving the club to become England manager, claiming he accused the FA, whose chief executive was Graham Kelly, of breaking its own rules.
Bates hired Hoddle as player-manager in 1993 and during his three years in charge Chelsea lost in the final of the FA Cup, qualifying for the European Cup Winners’ Cup, before the FA identified him to succeed Terry Venables after Euro 96.
“The FA were looking for a new England manager,” said Bates. “So we arranged to have a meeting with his agent. We had a working breakfast at the Chelsea Harbour Hotel to thrash out Glenn’s new contract. So we agreed, shook hands.
“Two o’clock that afternoon, I got a phone call from Glenn Hoddle saying, ‘Chairman, I’ve decided to take the England job, so I’m resigning.' Five o’clock that afternoon, I got a phone call from Graham Kelly. ‘Can I have permission to approach Glenn Hoddle and interview him for the England job?’ he said.
“I said: ‘Graham, you’ve been doing that for six months, haven’t you? I’ve known about it all the time.' I said: ‘Anyway, you’re a little late asking for permission to approach him because he’s agreed [to take the job]. He rang me at two o’clock to tell me he had already agreed to take the job.
“‘Graham, there’s one question. Can I ask you?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said: ‘Can I refer you to rule so and so and so and so?’ He said: 'Yeah, Ken, what is it?’ I said: ‘Do you know what it says?’ He said: ‘No, not off hand.’
“I said: ‘It says that if anybody makes an illegal approach to another club’s manager or player without the club’s approval, they shall be reported to the FA for suitable punishment. Who do I ring up in the FA to report that you have just confirmed you’ve been making illegal approaches to my manager?’
“Dead silence. Graham used to stutter a lot. I said: ‘Think about it, Graham, and give me your answer later please.'”
Asked what Kelly’s answer was, Bates added: “I didn’t get one.”
The Blueprint: How Chelsea FC Changed Football is streaming now from podcast providers. You can stream the series by clicking this link: https://podfollow.com/the-blueprint-how-chelsea-fc-changed-football