Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea of 2003 was the start of great things for the club – but it wasn’t necessarily good news for their youth players at the time.
Abramovich bought the club just after Claudio Ranieri had led them to fourth place and the Champions League, but the Russian oligarch had much bigger ambitions and bankrolled a huge transfer splurge in his first summer in charge.
Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu and Juan Sebastian Veron were among the high-profile arrivals in a hugely exciting time for the club’s supporters – and, at least initially, for the players already at Stamford Bridge.
Indeed, academy prospect Alexis Nicolas was part of the team which beat Newcastle United on penalties in the final of the FA Premier League Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur that summer to claim the first piece of silverware of the Abramovich era.
“It maybe wasn’t the most glamorous of trophies, but it was still the first of many under the new owner,” Nicolas says.
The takeover came shortly after Ranieri had informed Nicolas he would be part of his plans for the 2003-04 season, but with Veron, Claude Makelele, Geremi, Scott Parker and Alexey Smertin signed following Abramovich’s investment, things soon changed.
“Ranieri called me into his office at the end of 2002-2003 and told me the club didn’t have a lot of money to invest and that he didn’t have too many midfielders at his disposal, so I would be in his plans for the following season,” Nicolas says.
“Abramovich bought the club that summer and signed five midfielders.
“I had planned to go out on loan because I had fallen so far down the pecking order, but some of the midfielders, like Makelele and Emmanuel Petit, were picking up injuries, so I stuck around.
“I was pleased for the club when Abramovich took over but also a little bit disappointed for myself.
“Looking back, it was easy to think, ‘He’s signed, so that is why I am not playing,’ but it was really a turning point in Chelsea’s history and it was nice to have been part of it.”
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Still, Nicolas was named on the substitutes’ bench a number of times during the 2003-2004 season and then made his debut in January 2004 as part of the side which travelled to Scarborough in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Chelsea were expected to ease past the non-league side at their McCain Stadium, which was dubbed the Theatre of Chips, but it was the Londoners who received a battering, escaping from the seaside town with a 1-0 win, thanks to a 10th-minute John Terry goal.
“I wasn’t nervous about starting the game because I had already been around the first team set-up,” Nicolas says.
“In theory, we should have dominated them, but the pitch wasn’t brilliant and we found ourselves on the back foot, which meant it was more about just getting the result.”
Nicolas went on to make his Premier League debut the following month in a 1-0 win over Charlton, but apart from a 90th-minute substitute appearance in the final game of the season, a 1-0 win against Leeds United, that was effectively the start and end of his first-team career with the Blues.
That Leeds game also proved to be the final game of Ranieri’s time in charge at Stamford Bridge, and the arrival of Jose Mourinho that summer convinced Nicolas that his time was also up.
“Ranieri’s method of coaching was slightly different to what I had experienced,” he says.
“He had a ruthless side if you let him down or didn’t do what he expected of you, but I liked working under him because he respected you if you worked hard.”
“Jose made me feel important straight away,” Nicolas adds. “He already knew so much about me and everything about him impressed me.
“There were not a lot of first-team players at his first training session because they had been at Euro 2004. Jose, straight away, said that we could win the league.
“He brought confidence and brilliant man management, and his attention to detail in every training session was immense. There was very little running without the ball, which I hadn’t experienced in pre-season before.
“Jose’s methods were so different – I thought he was extraordinary.”
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But with so many midfielders ahead of him in the pecking order, Nicolas went on loan to Brighton and Hove Albion, going on to sign a permanent contract in October.
“I had a year left on my contract at Chelsea and Jose told me he was happy with me sticking around or leaving,” Nicolas says. “He was always approachable if I needed him and always had time for me.
“I was probably too hasty thinking I needed to go and play first-team football. I could have done it in a different way and spent more time learning from Jose and the squad, not rushing to leave.”
Nicolas had arrived at Chelsea as an 18-year-old, having come through the youth system at Arsenal, where his contemporaries included Leon Britton and Steve Sidwell.
Released by the Gunners, the boyhood Tottenham Hotspur fan signed for Aston Villa but became homesick in Birmingham.
Nicolas, whose parents are Greek Cypriot, says: “I was a homely boy and, coming from a Mediterranean background, I was a bit mothered.
“I was hungry and ambitious, though, and I knew being at Villa was the best thing for me, so I gritted my teeth and gave it my best shot.
“The under-17 manager was Gordon Cowans, who was a lovely guy and a great coach.”
But his homesickness only worsened after he broke his leg in three places in a youth game against Arsenal.
Villa agreed to release him, and he was close to joining Charlton Athletic, but then Chelsea swooped.
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At the time, in 2001, Chelsea’s training ground at Harlington, near Heathrow Airport, was dilapidated – and owned by a local university.
“It made for quite a weird environment, but the minute I walked through the door, I felt a family atmosphere,” Nicolas says.
“If players, from the academy up to the first team, feel comfortable and welcome, that club is always going to get the best out of them.”
Nicolas enjoyed two fairly successful seasons at Brighton, making 31 appearances and also appearing for the Cyprus Under-21 side, but he had gradually fallen out of love with football and only had one short spell at St Albans after leaving the Seagulls before hanging up his boots.
“I wasn’t enjoying it towards the end of my time at Brighton,” says the 36-year-old, who now works in real estate investment.
“I didn’t feel I wanted to be there, whereas previously I had looked forward to training and playing.
“There was some interest from Cypriot and Greek teams, but when I went to talk to clubs my heart was not in it, which sort of scared me a little bit.
“I had a friend who was involved in real estate and, thinking I should have some time out from football, I agreed to join a real estate firm.
“I thought I would do it for six or seven months and then slide back into football somewhere, but it never happened.
“I could have continued in and around the lower leagues, but they were physical competitions and I wasn’t tall or athletic, which would have played in the back of my mind.”
Nicolas still retains a love for watching football, though, as well as a soft spot for Chelsea, particularly because of the way the club helped his family in 2015 when his daughter, Gisele, was born.
“Gisele had health issues and had to spend time at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital,” he says. “I spoke to Chelsea and they arranged for me and my wife, Danielle, to stay at the club hotel nearby until my daughter was better, which I thought was very kind.”
The Abramovich takeover might not have been great news for Nicolas’ playing career at Chelsea, but he got his benefit in the end.
By Simon Yaffe