40 years since Ken Bates bought Chelsea for just £1

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Chelsea in financial uncertainty and in need of a new owner? We’ve been here before.

It was April 2, 1982, and notorious businessman and football executive Ken Bates had just bought the Blues for £1. Chelsea were in disarray, faced with huge debts and tarnished with hooliganism.

They were struggling in the old second division and that season finished 12th, their joint-lowest position at the time since being founded in 1905.

Ken Bates pulled off a massive coup by buying Chelsea 40 years ago for just £1

Ken Bates pulled off a massive coup by buying Chelsea 40 years ago for just £1

Over the next 21 years Bates was never far from the news as he clashed with fans and fellow board members, once threatening to even electric shock Chelsea supporters. 

But when he sold to Roman Abramovich in 2003 for £140million he left a club that had developed into one of the top sides in England and regularly competed in Europe. He had also protected and developed Stamford Bridge and splashed the cash to bring in international superstars.

Forty years on, what is Bates’s legacy?

Chelsea’s current predicament looking for new owners after the sanctioning of Roman Abramovich has parallels with his tenure. With future ground development and funding to compete for trophies key issues, it is poignant to reflect on Bates’s achievements.

Bates was equally as antagonistic at Chelsea. A well-known episode was the installation of a 12-foot barbed wire 12-volt electric fence around the Stamford Bridge pitch in 1985. This was to deal with the rising problem of pitch invasions and fan violence.

Bates sold to Roman Abramovich in 2003 for a huge £140m and left the club transformed

Bates sold to Roman Abramovich in 2003 for a huge £140m and left the club transformed

Bates was never afraid to speak his mind and wanted to emphasise his hard-line credentials. He received support from some clubs but was overwhelmingly condemned. 

On announcing his plan Bates said: ‘People may howl at it being dangerous but it’s been used in farming for a long time. Any fan touching the fence will immediately have to let go and fall 15ft.’

BATES’S MAJOR CONTROVESIES AT CHELSEA OWNER

1985 – Bates attempts to switch on a 12-volt 12-foot-high electric fence to deal with increased levels of crowd trouble at Stamford Bridge. Greater London Council refuse permission and threaten legal action – the fence is never turned on

1993 – Bates sacks Chelsea manager Ian Porterfield – the first manager sacked in Premier League history

1995 – After disagreements over the club’s direction Bates bans vice-chairman and benefactor Matthew Harding from the Chelsea boardroom

1996 – Following Harding’s death in a helicopter crash Bates labels him an ‘evil man’

2002 – Bates is sued for libel after calling the Chelsea Independent Supporters Association ‘parasites’

Opponents included Sports Minister Neil Macfarlane, who labelled the fence ‘one step too far’. Bates rebuffed Macfarlane and called on him to resign and ‘get stuffed’. 

The fence was to be switched on for a home fixture against Tottenham on April 27, 1985, but Greater London Council stepped in and threatened legal action, refusing to grant permission. Bates continued his case but eventually removed the electric fencing in October 1985 and it was never turned on.

The toxic nature of Bates’s ownership didn’t stop there with his well-publicised fallout with Matthew Harding. Harding, a major Chelsea benefactor and vice-chairman, clashed with Bates over the direction of the club and was banned from the boardroom in 1995.

The feud only ended with Harding’s sudden death in a helicopter crash in 1996 but Bates continued the dispute. Bates said: ‘I don’t believe evil should triumph and he was an evil man.’

This created another battle with the Chelsea Independent Supporters Association (CISA). In 2002, Bates described members of CISA as ‘parasites’. Bates was sued for libel – a claim he settled out of court without accepting liability and his combative nature meant he was never far from the spotlight.

Bates’s efforts to protect and develop Stamford Bridge cannot be underestimated. Chelsea’s ground, the ninth-largest capacity in the 2021-22 season, continues to be an ongoing challenge for the club.

However Bates’s ability to secure the ground’s future was a crucial moment in Chelsea’s history. Stamford Bridge was under threat from property developers, Marler Estates, who owned a substantial portion of the freehold of the ground and wanted to develop it into luxury flats.

This was perhaps Bates’s finest hour and, after a long-running battle with the developers, Marler went bankrupt following a market crash. Bates did a deal with the banks and brought the freehold back under the club’s control.

Bates wanted a 12-foot barbed wire 12-volt electric fence around the Stamford Bridge pitch

Bates wanted a 12-foot barbed wire 12-volt electric fence around the Stamford Bridge pitch

It was never turned on though and Bates eventually had to remove the electric fencing in 1985

It was never turned on though and Bates eventually had to remove the electric fencing in 1985

To ensure something like this never happened again, Bates set-up Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) in 1993 where shares were sold to ordinary fans. The club lent them money to buy the freehold from the club so that CPO owns both the freehold of Stamford Bridge and the club’s naming rights. This was a selfless act from Bates as it meant that the future of the club’s home ground was in the hands of fans.

The CPO then leased the freehold back to the club on a 199-year term from 1997. CPO is independent of the club and if Chelsea want to relocate without its permission they would have to surrender the club’s name.

This was the case in 2011 when, within Roman Abramovich’s expansive new stadium plans, the club offered to buy the freehold back. CPO rejected this.

CPO is still active and fans can buy shares from £110 with over 13,000 shareholders owning 23,000 shares. With calls for increased fan involvement and the fan-led review chaired by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch in recent months, Bates was ahead of his time.

A spokeswoman from CPO said: ‘The playing surface at Stamford Bridge looks a lot like every other pitch in the country but for Chelsea fans it has a more powerful resonance as it is the only pitch in English football owned by fans. 

‘The fact that this happened at all is due to Ken Bates when he decided to protect the legacy and set up CPO. This has particular relevance this year during the current situation at the club and every Chelsea fan has Ken to thank for that.’

Bates's ability to secure the ground's future was a crucial moment in Chelsea's history

Bates’s ability to secure the ground’s future was a crucial moment in Chelsea’s history 

During this period Bates also developed Stamford Bridge into an all-seater stadium. By 2001 the ground was refurbished and modernised to a capacity of over 42,000 with the old running track that surrounded the ground removed.

Bates also tried to improve the fan experience at Stamford Bridge as he diversified the club’s income with an expansion into hotels, a travel agency and a sports club. While these were not as successful as he had hoped, Abramovich built on this and expanded the Chelsea brand.

When Bates took over Chelsea were averaging crowds of 13,000 and languishing in the second division. His lavish spending on superstars ensured on-pitch success was regular throughout his tenure.

The 1990s was a particularly productive era with European stars such as Ruud Gullit, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo, Gianluca Vialli and World-Cup-winner Marcel Desailly amongst those joining the club.

Their high watermark under Bates came in 1998-99 when Chelsea finished third and qualified for the Champions League for the first time, finishing just four points off champions Manchester United. This demonstrated progression throughout the previous ten years and set the building blocks in place for the elite club Chelsea are today.

When Bates sold to Abramovich Chelsea had secured six successive top-six finishes and without this success, the oligarch may never have bought the club.

The 1990s was a particularly productive era with European stars like Gianluca Vialli arriving

The 1990s was a particularly productive era with European stars like Gianluca Vialli arriving

Gianfranco Zola also joined under Ruud Gullit as Chelsea started to improve on the pitch

Gianfranco Zola also joined under Ruud Gullit as Chelsea started to improve on the pitch

We are used to the churn of Chelsea trophies but this began under Bates. They won two FA Cups (1997 and 2000), one League Cup (1998), a UEFA Super Cup (1998), one Community Shield (2000) and two Full Members’ Cups (1986 and 1990).

Forty years on, Bates’s abrasive nature means he is unpopular within certain football quarters, particularly Leeds fans.

To understand Bates and his contentious nature, his other spells within football are important. He purchased Chelsea after spells as an Oldham director and co-owner at Wigan. In 2005 he bought a 50 per cent stake in Leeds. However he was extremely unpopular at Elland Road as the club went into administration in 2007 and were relegated for the first time to League One.

He bought the club back after administration but the rest of his ownership was marred by conflict and fan protests. This included Bates being forced to pay £10,000 in damages to an ex-director Melvyn Levi, who sued him for harassment after Bates’ comments on the club radio station ‘allegedly likening Mr Levi to a criminal on the run’.

He left the club in 2013 when new owners GFH capital announced his departure as club president one month into a planned three-year tenure.

World-Cup-winner Marcel Desailly was amongst the high-profile players joining the club

World-Cup-winner Marcel Desailly was amongst the high-profile players joining the club

A divisive figure for Chelsea – his controversies often created a spiky atmosphere with the fanbase. When he sold the club to Abramovich Chelsea were on their knees financially with debts of almost £100 million – a blot on his record.

But Bates saved the club from dying in 1982 and, with Harding’s help, transformed them in the 1990s with heavy spending on superstars. Stamford Bridge was turned from a rusty old stadium into a modern and vibrant arena.

The development into one of England’s top clubs meant they were an attractive proposition and a springboard for the subsequent trophy-laden Abramovich era.

His most lasting legacy was the formation of CPO and securing the future of Stamford Bridge having staved off threats from property developers. Despite the flaws Bates was perhaps the right man at the right time and the roots of Chelsea today can be traced back to his tenure.

As four contenders remain in the running to take over Chelsea from Abramovich after 40 years of building, a new era is again on the horizon. No one is sure what the future holds but continued funding and stadium development will be key issues.

The new owners must ensure Chelsea do not revert to the financial troubles and threats to the ground faced in 1982 – the impact of Bates and Abramovich cannot wear off.

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