Chelsea’s plan impossible to understand after Todd Boehly’s transfer splurge
As ever, you have to admire football’s inexhaustible dramatic energy. This week there was an element of perfect comic timing in the coincidence of two events. First the news that the proposals on football governance and ownership are set to be published, with the usual hedged and cautious talk about regulation and fitness and non-monetary values.
And secondly the simultaneous end-of-window spasms of Todd Boehly, stumbling out of his chinchilla fur-lined helicopter gunship, torso caked in vintage crusted parmesan cheese dust, solid gold bowler hat askew, calling for more dancing horses, more music, ever-larger clouds of captive butterflies. Except, hang on. You, uh, want to stop me doing what? You want to regulate which industry? Resaddle Pegasus. Fire up the money cannon. We ride for Lisbon.
Related: Premier League’s spending bubble offers only cheap thrills in winter of disconnect | Jonathan Liew
So far the reaction to Chelsea’s six months of black-swan spending has been based around deciphering whether it’s a good or a bad thing. That megadeath transfer window has certainly made it easier for the rest of football to despise the Premier League, which is probably overdue, and a rational response to the fact all European talent, expertise, coaching skills and basic human interest are now relentlessly drawn into its orbit.
On the other hand Chelsea’s splurge has undoubtedly been good for the transfer speculation industry. Overpaying for young players has provided draughts of ready cash for the same clubs the Premier League is simultaneously throttling. Apologists and free-market ultras will say, hey, this is a sign of punkish and sassy good health.
This is just how they do business in the US of friggin’ A, we have been told by people who don’t know how they do business in the US, where successful investors tend at least to try to understand their markets, to be smarter, not demonstrably less smart, then everyone else in the room.
But hey, just keep staring at the Boehly who is without doubt a hugely entertaining character and frontman, with the look of the last surviving minor member of some 60s supergroup who made millions by playing the bass and not dying, and is free now to sit around in a Californian beach studio fiddling with a mixing desk in BBC Four documentaries and talking about his collection of priceless Etruscan agricultural gourds.
What is perhaps most startling is the total lack of doubt, the instant boomer-style conviction that only he, Todd Boehly, knows how to fix this European football industry thing that he’s never looked at before. Remember when Romelu Lukaku was “the final piece” in the Chelsea jigsaw? Boehly has snatched up that jigsaw and thrown it out of a hot air balloon laughing gaily in a stovepipe hat and tailcoat, then constructed another jigsaw entirely. Except when you try to piece it together it’s not a jigsaw at all, it’s a pair of shoes made of diamonds and Todd Boehly is breathing on your neck, prodding you with the ferrule of his riding stick and gloating about tired old corporate structures and the ossified European mindset.
Could this actually work? The idea is out there that what we’re witnessing is masterplan stuff. Never mind wage bills, team building and huge liabilities. Chelsea are in fact shifting the paradigm. The multi-club model is being talked up. As is an unparalleled transfer committee, made up of the Brighton guys, a Southampton guy, a Monaco guy and new director of football, Christopher Vivell, who has been hugely enthused to discover Chelsea’s “clear and sustainable philosophy”, presumably midway through a 12-hour peyote trance.
The most obvious problem with this philosophy – buy young talent and hope it gets more valuable – is that Chelsea have already tried and are now selling off the last crop at a discount. Another flaw is that there is no obvious market to sell this product on to. Nobody is paying Chelsea prices except Chelsea, who are top, not bottom, of the money tree, who basically need another Chelsea, Dumb Chelsea, to pay this new Smart Chelsea market rate.
For now none of this becomes any clearer the more you look at it, to the extent speculating on whether this thing is good or bad misses the main point. Which is that there is no logic here. What Chelsea have done is not a gamble, or a bold new approach. It is simply incomprehensible. Even a bad plan is still a plan. But this thing has no maths to it, no model that works in the abstract on what we know now.
And this is strange. Boehly has a background in hedge funding where the single most important quality is to make sure you have inside knowledge, that you’re ahead of the punters. Yet here he is wandering around football’s shark-infested casino halls with a big sack of money asking how you play blackjack. It isn’t rational. If this was your fund manager you’d fire him.
There are only two real possibilities here. Either Boehly is an old-fashioned hyper-incompetent chairman, convinced football really is about to explode under his hand, just as the really smart Americans seem to be leaving the building. Or there is some element that is out of sight.
There are probably two things worth saying about this. The first is the total destruction of trust in football governance. If recent hallucinatory events in the Chelsea boardroom tell us anything it is that things which seem unbelievable or impossible are probably unbelievable and impossible. What are we not seeing here? On a point of principle it is always worth asking who would actually spend their own money like this, and why.
All that is really certain is that watching Chelsea will be fun and thrilling, in the way an explosion in a firework factory is fun and thrilling. And that as English football talks belatedly of ownership tests and transparency this is already the global wild west. Accountability, regulation, values beyond profit and loss – these things have long since left the table. It is instead Boehly-ism that has a grip on football’s future; something that could, if we read this show correctly, look profoundly different before long.