The monumental £20m transfer blunder Chelsea fans will always be haunted by
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New Year’s Day, 1962; four young men from Liverpool stand in a cramped studio in West Hampstead, waiting on a hungover record label executive to arrive so that they may audition for him. When he does, they play 15 songs, pack up their equipment, and head back to Merseyside. A month afterwards, they receive a letter of rejection, alongside murmured claims that they have ‘no future in show business’.
Spring 1976, in a garage in Los Altos, California, three associates embark on an aspirational venture to found a computer company. A fortnight later, one of the trio, Ronald Wayne, sells his 10% stake in the enterprise for $800. Today, those same stocks would be worth upwards of $55 billion.
Almost half a century into the future, and Frank Lampard knocks on an office door deep in the concrete bowels of Stamford Bridge, imploring a man in an expensive suit to give him £20 million so that he can lure a prodigious young talent to his beloved Chelsea before the rest of the world sniffs out his looming precociousness. The man refuses, and the player signs instead for a club in Germany.
That band was The Beatles, that technological start-up was Apple, and that promising midfielder who Lampard identified so early was, of course, Jude Bellingham.
It is hard to quantify regret; that awful thing that writhes and slithers like a plume of bitter smoke, ebbing and flowing as circumstance dictates. Sometimes it plunges down into forgotten recesses of irrelevancy, sometimes it surges ever upwards, and simmers just beneath the surface of every waking thought. But for Chelsea, there must not be a day that goes by in which they do not pound their heavy head against a brick wall for being foolish enough to turn their back on a player like Bellingham.
If Lampard is to be believed - and honestly, why would he lie about something so daft? - then it was during his first stint in the Stamford Bridge dugout that he raised the prospect of bidding for the preternatural England international. Speaking to former teammate John Obi Mikel this week on his Obi One Podcast, the out of work coach said: “When I was managing at Chelsea I was desperate to bring Jude Bellingham in. But I couldn’t get it through upstairs - the idea of paying £20 million for someone his age.”
Evidently, hindsight is a wonderful, treacherous thing. On the one hand, given all that we have seen from Bellingham in the time since - his undeniable rise to the forefront of English optimisms, his omnipotent start to life at Real Madrid - it is easy to mock Chelsea for not taking such a relatively cheap gamble when they had the chance. You would be fortunate sign the midfielder for £200 million nowadays, let alone a tenth of that fee. On the other, it is understandable that those in control of the purse strings were reluctant to write out an eight-figure cheque for a player who, at the time, wasn’t even old enough to buy a scratch card.
Perhaps the saddest realisation of all, however, is that this, more than anything, was a matter of luckless timing. Hypothetically speaking, had Todd ‘The Hammer’ Boehly been in the boardroom at Stamford Bridge when Lampard lobbied his plea, you can all but guarantee that Chelsea would have fronted up the money without a moment’s hesitation. Hell, they’ve done exactly that for comparable wunderkinder like Carney Chukwuemeka, Andrey Santos, and Lesley Ugochukwu in recent transfer windows. There is, at the risk of rubbing salt into the gaping wound, a parallel universe in which Bellingham is not only a Chelsea player right now, but he is also tied down to a contract that runs until 2029.
But alas, one cannot cry too much over spilt milk. Or in this case, spilt creme de la creme. Bellingham is gone, Chelsea have spent an incomprehensible amount of money on various other underwhelming frivolities, and Lampard, while soundly vindicated, is also soundly jobless.
How I wish that there was a happy ending to this article, a silver lining with a pleasingly neat resolution embroidered into its very fabric, but I’m sorry to say that there is not. You see, sometimes in life you make the right decisions and are justly rewarded for them. And sometimes, in a fit of hellish dopiness, you snub The Beatles and you offer a recording contract to Brian Poole and The Tremeloes instead. Heard of them? Me neither.