Ever since Roman Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge to rejuvenate the fortunes of Chelsea Football Club, so much of the power-brokering at boardroom level has been conducted behind closed doors. Figures have come forward to front up the regime and then disappeared. First, it was Peter Kenyon who was ushered into the opening phase of the Russian oligarch’s plans, vowing to paint the world blue, before he was moved on. Ron Gourlay was much more understated and served his time without much fanfare, and trusted aides Bruce Buck and Eugene Tenenbaum have been a consistent presence, if not perhaps ever aspiring to be the power behind the throne. Of late, however, that role has fallen to, perhaps Abramovich’s most trusted lieutenant, Marina Granovskaia.
Very much in the mode of her boss, Granovskaia is almost reclusive of public attention, shunning the limelight, and often content to leave such presences to the outwardly affable buck. If shy of media contact, however, this is no shrinking flower in the corridors of power in West London. The Russian-born executive has grown through the ranks with Abramovich and now sits indisputably as the Russian’s presence in his absence at Chelsea.
She joined the Abramovich empire at Sibneft, some twenty-odd years ago, and progressed to become a trusted advisor, as someone with an eye for both opportunity and details, plus an ability to turn such attributes into a long-term plan that she would then deliver on successfully. Such talent inevitably blossomed and when the takeover at Chelsea came about, she was part of the team Abramovich took with him to London. Ostensibly labelled as a PA at the time, her unofficial role was much more extensive than that, and within the club, it quickly became clear that access to the top man could only be gained through the approval of Granovskaia.
As her influence grew at the club, inevitably so did recognition of the way things were shaping up. In 2010, she became an official representative of Abramovich and was added to the board as a full director in 2013. By that time though, the official recognition of the bestowing of a title had long been preceded by the award of an increasing amount of power and autonomy. Many have concluded that the club’s link with Eredivisie club Vitesse Arnhem was the result of the sort of strategic planning upon which the Granovskaia business reputation had been built, and the securing of a 15-year deal with Nike in 2017 that would bring the club £60 million per year in sponsorship echoed her financial acumen. The construction and development of Chelsea’s state of the art training facility at Cobham is also recognised as being driven by the farsighted executive.
Although such things are often shielded from the public gaze, other aspects of her authority are more public. The arrival of players and managers has become more and more a major area of her responsibility. The first deal to apparently fall under the auspices of Granovskaia was the arrival of Fernando Torres and, despite that not fully panning out as so many Chelsea fans had hoped, the final approval of transfers since then have inevitably passed through her in-tray. Juan Mata’s sale to Manchester United for some £37 million was an indisputably shrewd piece of business for Chelsea, as was the fee collected for David Luiz when the Brazilian moved to PSG, before his return. It brought in a reported £50 million. Maximising the perceived value of the club’s assets through hard-nosed bargaining was a key element of her success.
She was also recognised as the peacemaker between the parties when Mourinho returned to Stamford Bridge after he had been removed from his duties under acrimonious circumstances, and has been the key element in both the arrival and removal of managers since. The appointments and subsequent removal of Antonio Conte was another issue where the Granovskaia input was key. The Italian’s vocal complaints that “the club” were not following his recommendations to target incoming players was a less than well-veiled shot at the most powerful person at the club, and broadly synonymous with a resignation letter posted on the front gate of Stamford Bridge. There would only be one winner in that particular battle, despite Conte delivering a title in his debut season. For much of his second term with the club, the writing on the wall was clear for all to see. It’s questionable if even a repeat of the success of the previous season could have saved him, but it became increasingly clear to the players that, metaphorically, he was a ‘dead man walking’ with the consequence that deteriorating results on the pitch merely confirmed his status.
Observers of the current manager’s plight at the club will be aware that his safety or removal may well hinge on the way he is viewed by Granovskaia, and the consequences she considers as likely from either outcome. When questioned by the press ahead of, and during, the January transfer window, the oblique references by Sarri that transfer matters were not really of concern to him may have been viewed as disingenuous at the time. Equally, however, they could also be construed as being politically astute. His main target, Higuain, duly arrived and when the fall-out from the humiliating six-goal defeat against Manchester City looked like washing the new man away in a flood of the traditional knee-jerk reaction, the very won’t of Chelsea’s employment practises, the amount of animosity, or otherwise, present between manager and employer, may well have served to grant a moratorium.
Some contend that, with the owner spending less time at the club due to political issues, the inevitable consequence will be a parting of the ways as Abramovich moves his base from London to more welcoming locations. If that happens, the person described in the Evening Standard as “basically the power at Chelsea” may well depart with him. That said, rumours that the owner has already rebuffed approaches from potential buyers may gainsay such a development. If that turns out to be true and Chelsea Football Club continues to operate as Roman Abramovich’s pied-à-terre in England, there’s every reason to assume that Marina Granovskaia will also be a continuing presence there.
Should, however, the owner’s interest in football matters begin to wane, a first indication of such a move may well be the removal of his most trusted executive to another part of his business empire. Chelsea fans will, therefore, be keen to see Marina Granovskaia’s reputation as the most powerful woman in European football be maintained, and even enhanced, at Stamford Bridge.