Chelsea Chief Executive Officer Ron Gourlay said the past 12 months have delivered some of his best memories in soccer. They’ve also been among the most turbulent in the English Premier League team’s recent history.
Chelsea last week announced its first profit under owner Roman Abramovich, whose $1 billion outlay on the club achieved his aim of winning Europe’s elite Champions League in May, nine years after he bought the London team. Captain John Terry’s racism case and the club’s allegations that a referee used inappropriate language against Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel have since threatened to overshadow the feat.
“Twelve months ago we could’ve sat here and I could never have dreamt that we were going to enter into the kind of year that we had,” Gourlay, 49, said in an interview at the International Football Arena conference in Zurich. “There was some real ups and there was some real downs.”
Although Chelsea finished last season as European champion and F.A. Cup winner, the journey was far from smooth. Andre Villas-Boas, for whom it paid 15 million euros ($19 million) to hire as coach, lasted six months in the job before being fired following a poor start to the season. Chelsea ended up in sixth place, its worst Premier League finish under Abramovich.
“The Champions League turned the season,” said Gourlay, a former executive with Nike Inc. (NKE:US)’s Umbro unit who was promoted to the top job at Chelsea in 2009. “Since Roman came on board, I think we’ve been outside first or second only once and here we are, Chelsea with all his investment, we’re looking at sixth. We were in a place that none of us had been used to.”
Terry, 31, returned to Premier League action two days ago after a four-game ban for racially abusing Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand in a match last year. The case polarized English soccer, and hung over the club for almost a year as a criminal hearing into the incident was delayed.
After a judge in July ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Terry, a three-man body convened by England’s Football Association in September described his defense as “improbable, implausible and contrived.” Terry’s teammate Ashley Cole was then fined 90,000 pounds ($142,875) for making a derogatory reference to the F.A. on Twitter after his supporting evidence was criticized by the governing body’s panel.
In an Oct. 20 interview with U.K. radio station TalkSport, Gourlay was told by presenter Mark Saggers that “further misdemeanors from any of your 64-member squad will be perhaps enough for everybody to vilify Chelsea for a very long time.”
Gourlay said the club is still on notice.
“It’s not one of these you can draw a line under and say we move on,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to move that on.”
While retaining him as captain, Chelsea said it levied the biggest fine in the club’s 107-year history on Terry, without disclosing the amount. Terry also was asked to contribute more time to the team’s corporate social responsibility efforts, on which Chelsea says it spends 7 million pounds annually.
With the Terry case still fresh, Chelsea’s complaint that referee Mark Clattenburg used “inappropriate language” toward Mikel on Oct. 28 brought the club back into the spotlight.
Gourlay said it was the club’s duty to Mikel as an employee to investigate his complaint and take the allegation to the authorities.
Can’t ‘Walk Away’
“We cannot walk away from that,” said Gourlay. “It’s not right for Chelsea Football Club or anyone to walk away from that and whether it be a football player, whether it be the lady that makes the tea, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Clattenburg hasn’t officiated since and has denied using inappropriate language. Gourlay said he wants the F.A. to “act pretty quickly” once investigations are complete.
London’s Metropolitan Police said today in a statement they were dropping an investigation into the incident because of a lack of evidence.
The negative headlines were followed by last week’s announcement of a 1.4 million-pound profit that ended seven straight years of losses totaling about 550 million pounds, or 75 million pounds annually, since Abramovich’s takeover. The Champions League victory helped generate record sales of 255.7 million pounds for the year ended June 30.
The club banked about 20 million pounds more from the Champions League last season than it did by reaching the 2011 quarterfinals. Even if Chelsea fails to defend its title, Gourlay said the team’s balance sheet will be “significantly” boosted following new partnerships with companies including Delta Airlines and Gazprom. Long-term partner Samsung Electronics Co. (005930) in May extended its jersey sponsorship through the 2014-15 season.
Samsung has never commented on the Terry case.
“It’s dented some of the armor but it’s not dented the image of the football club,” said Gourlay. “Our partners are completely behind us 200 percent and I think we’ve always been very straight with them.”
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