The news that emerged last weekend revealing Chelsea’s request to use Twickenham Stadium for at least a year to allow Stamford Bridge to be redeveloped will have been music to the ears of the club’s supporters. The revelation has confirmed that the long-term ambition of the club hierarchy is to remain at their spiritual home in SW6, something that will chime with all Blues fans.
As a sports venue, Stamford Bridge actually pre-dates the football club but has been synonymous with the Blues ever since their creation in 1905. With football being such a tribal force in England, a club’s home really is its castle and the fact that Chelsea will remain at the only ground they have ever called home will fill the hearts of the faithful. Some might point to the existence of the Chelsea Pitch Owners — an entity separate from the club that owns the pitch at Stamford Bridge as well as the name of Chelsea Football Club — and claim that there was never any chance of leaving their current location given the legalities involved. However, the new economic realities would surely have seen some sort of compromise reached between the two parties.
Despite the desire to stay put, the prospect of moving to a new permanent site had seemed almost inevitable given the imperative to increase matchday revenue in an attempt to comply with Financial Fair Play rules on a regular basis. Having seen the vast sums reaped from match-going fans by Manchester United and Arsenal with their stadium capacities of 75,000 and 60,000 respectively, the need to follow suit and play in front of a similar amount of regular supporters has been evident for some time, something that looked difficult to execute in the constricted environment of Stamford Bridge.
The brief had initially been to find a suitable site within three miles of Stamford Bridge but anyone who knows London will be aware of the pitfalls that such requirements represent, namely the paucity of available options and some of the highest real estate prices in the world. With the two main options of Earls Court Exhibition Centre and Battersea Power Station being sold to property developers, the remaining alternatives were either to move much further away from Fulham Road than was initially planned or to seek a solution to the constraints presented by Stamford Bridge where they are hemmed in by housing on two sides and railway tracks everywhere else. It now seems that a solution has been found and hopefully it will be one that incorporates four separate stands rather than being merely another reproduction of the ubiquitous bowl arenas that have leached some of the tradition from English football in recent years.
The new challenge is to find somewhere to house the team while the new ground is being constructed and Twickenham appears to be top of that list. But before anybody starts planning their matchday travels to Richmond and beyond, it is worth bearing in mind that the proposal has a limited chance of success. Being the home of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the iconic centre of English rugby, there is no real desire to welcome football into the fold. The RFU resisted overtures from the Football Association to host England games when Wembley was being redeveloped and turned down the chance to be included in the doomed bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. A football match has never been staged at Twickenham so it is hard to see why that would suddenly change.
The only possibility would be money. The RFU is largely bankrolled by the endeavours of the England national rugby team who command huge support and for whom there are high hopes of success in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Beyond that, however, significant revenue streams are thin on the ground. Knowing that billionaire Roman Abramovich will be the man signing the cheques will mean that the RFU blazers will surely charge a premium should they decide to rent out their stadium. Another consideration is also the boost to the local economy that regular Chelsea matches would bring so the Blues executives could do worse than lobby local councillors to put pressure on their most famous resident to share their lodgings.
But even if Chelsea succeed in striking a deal with the RFU, the move would throw up some challenges. Twickenham is notorious for being a difficult venue for supporters to access with no tube lines servicing the area and the stadium mainly being served by an overworked overground train line and supplemented by some local buses. There is also the issue of capacity. Twickenham holds 82,000 spectators though it is questionable as to how often, if ever, Chelsea would fill it. Playing in an arena that is only two-thirds full could create a sparse echoing atmosphere that might not prove especially inspirational for the players.
The alternatives, however, are less appealing. Wembley might seem attractive on the surface however not only would it suffer from the same problems of playing in an over-sized venue but also because their local council has imposed a maximum amount of public events that can be staged there each year. Chelsea could potentially play their Premier League games at the home of football though they would have to move again for cup competitions.
Ground-sharing is also a virtual non-starter given the previously mentioned tribal nature of English football. The other three stadiums in London of relevant size would belong to Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham and it can be guaranteed that there would be no appetite from any of those parties and, indeed, Chelsea to strike any kind of deal. The homes of QPR, Brentford, Watford and Crystal Palace are probably too small to consider when taking into account the amount of season ticket holders at Chelsea, a situation that probably also rules out nearest neighbours, Fulham. Abramovich’s advisors might then have to start thinking outside of the box with perhaps Reading’s relatively recently built Madejski Stadium coming under consideration but with that option being more than 30 miles from London the backlash from fans would be sizeable.
For now Twickenham might not be an ideal solution though it is probably the best choice available. Should that deal fall flat however, then Chelsea will have to go back to the drawing board. The positive factor, though, is that it looks like the Blues look will be calling Stamford Bridge home for the foreseeable and for that we can all be grateful.
Follow me on Twitter @PhilLythell