Chelsea withdraw request for match at Boro to be behind close doors

Chelsea have withdrawn a request for Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final at Middlesbrough to be played behind closed doors after causing exasperation and disbelief in the sport and in Downing Street with their desperate push for permission to sell tickets.

There was widespread incredulity after the European champions, blocked from taking up their full allocation of 4,500 tickets at the Riverside Stadium, said they were asking the FA board “to direct that the game be played behind closed doors for matters of sporting integrity”. Middlesbrough said the suggestion was “bizarre and without any merit” and it drew a furious response from the British government, which accused Chelsea of blurring their priorities with the club up for sale and Friday’s deadline for bidders to submit proposals drawing closer.

The move was set to be rejected by the Football Association, which announced: “After constructive talks between the FA and Chelsea, the club has agreed to remove their request for the Emirates FA Cup quarter-final tie against Middlesbrough to be played behind closed doors.

“The FA remains in ongoing discussions with Chelsea, the Premier League and the government to find a solution that would enable both Chelsea fans to attend games and away fans to attend Stamford Bridge, whilst ensuring sanctions are respected.”

Chelsea have been frustrated in their attempts to make further amendments to the operating licence they are under as a result of the sanctions imposed on Roman Abramovich. The club have sold 500 tickets for Saturday’s game but the licence prohibits further sales and is intended to stop Abramovich from profiting from any income.

Chelsea’s view is that the ban on ticket sales will lead to financial difficulties and they are upset that the government have not responded to their pleas. The club have issued assurances that the money from tickets would not go to Abramovich, who has been accused of having links to Vladimir Putin and the Russian state. They are also annoyed that their request to give away tickets for the Middlesbrough game for free did not receive a response from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI).

Whitehall officials said they had seen Chelsea’s statement with “disbelief” after making concessions to the club by changing parts of the licence last weekend. It was pointed out that Abramovich is linked to a “barbaric regime” and one senior government source said Chelsea’s behaviour was “like a drowning person in shark-infested waters, complaining they aren’t on an oligarch’s yacht and threatening the people throwing them a life ring”.

The official said the statement was indicative that Chelsea had not fully appreciated the seriousness of their situation and the complex nature of the licence that is allowing the club to continue to play, and said the government was willing to listen further on spending limits and ensuring some away fans were able to attend.

They described it as “galling” to see Chelsea say they were prepared to damage other supporters at Middlesbrough when several hundred of their fans were able to attend. The source said: “We are not opposed to Chelsea having fans at games in the long run, but we will not allow money from ticket sales to flow to a sanctioned entity. Chelsea should spend less time worrying about having a few thousand fans at one game, and focus on moving their club into the hands of someone who isn’t linked to a warmonger.”

The Chelsea Supporters’ Trust had urged the club to withdraw their request, and Middlesbrough’s chairman, Steve Gibson, told the Telegraph the Premier League team’s move was “abhorrent” and described Chelsea as “rotten football club”. A Boro statement said: “Given the reasons for these sanctions, for Chelsea to seek to invoke sporting ‘integrity’ as a reason for the game being played behind closed doors is ironic in the extreme.”

“We are aware of Chelsea’s request to have Saturday’s Emirates FA Cup sixth round tie played behind closed doors and find their suggestion both bizarre and without any merit whatsoever.

“All concerned are well aware of the reasons Chelsea have been sanctioned and that this has nothing to do with Middlesbrough Football Club. To suggest as a result that MFC and our fans should be penalised is not only grossly unfair but without any foundation.

In outlining their position Chelsea had said: “It is with extreme reluctance that we are asking the FA board to direct that the game be played behind closed doors for matters of sporting integrity. Chelsea FC recognises that such an outcome would have a huge impact on Middlesbrough and its supporters, as well as our own fans who have already bought the limited number of tickets that were sold before the licence was imposed, but we believe this is the fairest way of proceeding in the current circumstances.

“We will continue to discuss the issue of ticket sales with OFSI as there are a number of fixtures still to be played this season and we hope to reach a resolution.”

Chelsea are still lobbying the government to lift the £20,000 cap on travel to away games. They argue it would normally cost three times as much to travel to Middlesbrough and it remains to be seen how Thomas Tuchel and his players will get to the match.

Chelsea’s travel to France for Wednesday’s second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie against Lille is unaffected because it was paid for before sanctions were imposed. Chelsea are 2-0 up.

Nigel Huddleston, the sports minister, said the government did not want to drive Chelsea out of business. “Can the government allow an entity to fail? Yes, it can, whether it’s sport or football or anything else, … but what we want to do is make sure the impact of sanctions hits those we want them to hit,” he said. “It’s not intended to harm other entities or the overall sports ecosystem.”

Chelsea’s licence is designed to keep them in operation until May 31st and the Premier League’s director of policy and corporate affairs, Helen MacNamara, admitted: “We haven’t worked through the consequences should the club not be sold by May 31st.” – Guardian

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