A violent thunderstorm rages while we talk in Singapore, but Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck is a man used to dealing with turbulence. Including the furore over the club’s ruthless attitude to sacking managers.
” I know we have fired what most people would say are a lot of managers – terminated their relationship is a better way to describe it – but we’ve always thought long and hard when we’ve done it,” said Buck.
I’m wondering if anyone’s demeanour could be better to deal with the whims of Roman Abramovich, the fury of Chelsea fans, the misdemeanours of the players…the pure theatre of European champions Chelsea, than Bruce Buck, the American lawyer who started watching the club while in London in the 1980s.
Buck isn’t being flippant when he responds to the grumbles of Chelsea fans by reminding them they’ve never had it so good. Ten trophies in 10 years. Yes he understand what he calls the ‘cherished’ times – ‘Kings of the Kings Road’ – a few decades back, but he has this in context.
Buck joined me on stage to talk at the Business of Sport Summit in Singapore, and the big business hitters of Asia who were present were hugely impressed.
More than a few told me of their surprise and delight at his frank talking and dry humour in our exchange on stage. Why don’t we see more of it in public while his boss Mr A. shuns the spotlight? Well despite my pressing I suppose we better ask ourselves – would you want to spend most of your time defending Chelsea to the media?
For those that have had their fill of Chelsea manager talk – for the record he claims they won’t start searching for a new manager until summer and that there should be no sympathy for those fired in this high-risk job – the Singapore trip gave an insight into Chelsea’s ambitions far and wide. Yes I’m going to say it, the bigger picture (sorry). Pushing the global brand.
“It’s very important to Chelsea. We come from a relatively small country of 70 million people and run a very expensive sport. We have to look elsewhere for our revenues and it’s a very delicate balance between satisfying our fans at home and giving them the best possible experience at home but also trying to bring in fans from abroad,” says Buck as we try to ignore the thunderclaps outside in Singapore.
“Fans don’t like it when we call Chelsea a brand. I understand that they prefer Chelsea to be viewed as a club and it IS a club but that’s why we have to do everything at home to make sure our local fan base is satisfied.”
There are those who are unaware of Chelsea’s potential, or prefer it not to exist. While Liverpool fans have had a point when they sing ‘you ain’t got no history’, largely true in comparison, the fact is there are young fans across Asia who have only followed Chelsea. Watching the London club on the small screen, and becoming accustomed to success. Many will be fans for life.
And there will be opportunities in south east Asia to see the Chelsea squad in the flesh this summer. A tour that takes in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Often these tours are derided or sniffed at. It’s increasingly difficult to see why.
Chelsea will also be heading to the USA straight after the season finishes. Two games against Manchester City, one in St Louis and one at Yankees Stadium in new York. Buck is happy to admit he admires the Yankees’ iconic brand. He might find his club competing against them for attention across the increasingly lucrative and competitive Asian markets.
Innovation was a key word at the Singapore conference and Chelsea are not frightened to try things out. The ‘It’s blue, what else?’ Adidas kit campaign received extensive coverage due to pictures of players with buckets of paint thrown over them. Despite their detractors wishing they were buckets of something else. And as for the deft tie-in with Formula One team Sauber, there are definitely people in and around this club who know what they’re doing.
Ultimately nothing catches the eye like success. And this season has had more than its fair share of failure. But could the club – and Benitez of course – end the season with one or even two more trophies than Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool? Stranger things have happened. Remember Munich?
In Singapore I was told more than once that the price paid for EPL rights is one of the highest, an out of proportion contribution to the eight billion of global TV money. But the importance of the English game here leads to inflated prices and there’s no sign of the interesting dying down.
Chelsea are jostling and hustling for their place like a basketball player. And they have their tall American in a key position. Perhaps better to remind ourselves he is a highly regarded lawyer used to dealing with many matters even heavier than who is managing a football club
The storms that rage around this club often feel like they’ve left a trail of destruction. But if they’ve caused any damage to Bruce Buck it’s never noticeable.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Al Jazeera broadcasts into 300 million homes across the globe, in 130 countries and millions more online at www.aljazeera.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter: LeeW_Sport