Jesper Gronkjaer, now at FC Copenhagen, recounts the inside story of the Russian's Stamford Bridge revolution
Jesper Gronkjaer is well aware of the legend, even if he cannot vouch entirely for its veracity. Just prior to kick-off on the final day of the domestic campaign eight years ago, the then Chelsea chief executive, Trevor Birch, addressed a hushed squad in the changing room at Stamford Bridge and confirmed the club was teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Lose to Liverpool and players would be sold, merciless cutbacks implemented across the board and ambitions radically downsized.
Yet some two hours later, with victory secured and Champions League qualification guaranteed at the visitors' expense, that same club had apparently been transformed into the plaything Roman Abramovich could not resist. Within six weeks, Chelsea would be bought, with money suddenly no object, and the landscape of the modern game would never be the same again. And all, as the myth goes, courtesy of Gronkjaer's first-half winner, daisy-cut into the far corner beyond a sprawling Jerzy Dudek: the billion-pound goal.
The lavish nature of the Abramovich era has served to embellish the mystique associated with that effort. Chelsea had needed only a draw that day so, technically, Gronkjaer's cross for Marcel Desailly's equaliser had been just as significant. The memory plays tricks too, when it comes to the goal itself, with the Dane recalling beating "three or four defenders", rather than just John Arne Riise. But the finish, conjured as he slipped to the turf, knocked the stuffing out of Gérard Houllier's team and made a debt-ridden Chelsea a more enticing proposition. "We all knew what we'd been playing for that afternoon," Gronkjaer says. "I don't know whether Abramovich would have bought Chelsea without my goal but the Champions League certainly made the club far more attractive. That is sure. Even so, no one would have believed he would come along with the amount of money he did, though."
Rumour had it that the oligarch had been weighing up whether to pour his rubles into either Chelsea or Tottenham Hotspur, who ended in mid-table that year. His decision made by a top-four finish, the summer would prompt a wave of spending the like of which had never been seen in the English game. Gronkjaer witnessed the first shots of the revolution from within the Chelsea dressing room but watched Abramovich flex his muscles in the transfer window last month, with £50m splashed out on Fernando Torres in a bid to secure the club's first European Cup, as an opponent in waiting. Now at FC Copenhagen, whom Chelsea confront on Tuesday, the 33-year-old hopes to frustrate his former club's annual pursuit of the Champions League.
The winger's four-year spell in London spanned the end of one era and the beginning of another, though his last season was played out amid upheaval in the immediate aftermath of Abramovich's takeover. The new owner purchased almost a new team in the close season of 2003, with over £113m spent on 10 new recruits – Hernán Crespo to Juan Sebastián Verón, Adrian Mutu to Claude Makelele – while those who had finished fourth the previous year looked on.
"We'd all thought it was just a normal takeover and didn't imagine he would have so much money and that everything would change," Gronkjaer says. "I remember on the second day of pre-season training, Abramovich turned up at the training ground and spoke to us all in Russian, with someone translating for him.
"It was maybe two or three weeks after the takeover and there were rumours flying around about everything: a new coach, new players, a new training ground, even a new stadium. It was a stressful period and the players already at the club had mixed feelings. Most of us were wondering if we would stay or go. He told us all to calm down, that some new players would come in and that he was going to change things a bit. It was good to escape to Malaysia for our pre-season tour but even there you couldn't escape things. New players were arriving all the time: Wayne Bridge suddenly walked in; the next day Damien Duff turned up, then Geremi, Joe Cole, Verón … it was a new team in the space of a few weeks.
"We all knew no one would spend that much for players to have them sitting on the bench but I decided to stay. I was worried about getting games – I wasn't just there for the money – but Claudio Ranieri said he wanted to keep me. We'd see Abramovich occasionally over the course of that year. He'd come into the dressing room, not saying anything – I don't know if he could speak English, or even understand it – but sitting there like one of the boys. But that was a difficult season, particularly for the manager, who was under pressure straight away. There were constant rumours about him leaving and he did very well keeping the pressure off the players. For Chelsea to finish second in the league and reach the semi-finals of the Champions League should have been a fantastic achievement but we didn't win anything."
Expectation levels had shifted. Elimination by Monaco when a first European Cup final was within reach left Ranieri a dead man walking. Sven-Goran Eriksson had been courted all too publicly by then, with attention subsequently turning to Porto's José Mourinho. The final-day victory over Leeds represented a farewell for both Ranieri and the goalscorer, Gronkjaer, with the players aware of the fate that awaited their manager. "We made a guard of honour for him to walk down that afternoon, but he knew," the Dane says. "He'd been up against it the whole season. I'd love to have won things there, too, but I'd decided to leave, back in the spring."
Brief spells at Birmingham City, Atlético Madrid and VfB Stuttgart followed before a return home to Copenhagen. The Danish club's achievement in reaching the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time, emerging from a group that had included Barcelona (who were fortunate to escape the Parken stadium with a point), should not be underestimated. Their prospects have been hampered by the reality that their last competitive action was against Panathinaikos in December, with the Danish domestic season not due to start until next month. A training camps in La Manga, the Copa del Sol and two friendlies, the second won 5-0 against Rosenborg, represents the extent of their preparations. At best, they will be fresh.
"We have a chance," Gronkjaer says. "Chelsea have had a dip but they have missed Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba for part of the season, and they are two crucial players for them. Unfortunately for us they can still reach their top form, and they have brought in Torres. We know we're never going to be favourites but, if we can secure a good result in Copenhagen, we can give ourselves a chance.
"They will win the Champions League one day but to do that you obviously need a good team but also some luck. At the moment, Barcelona are probably a level above everyone else, so it's hard, but the signing of Torres shows Abramovich still has ambition and power. It said something. What has he spent there now? Only he can say whether it's been worth it." Gronkjaer will live with the legend that his goal convinced the billionaire to take the plunge in west London.