Chelsea FC rocked by worries, complaints and a suicide


Chelsea FC rocked by worries, complaints and a suicide

LONDON – Month after busy month, problems mounted at Chelsea FC

Nearly a dozen employees at the club’s marketing department said they expected to be verbally abused by their boss in front of colleagues. Others said they faced his wrath in a more humiliating way, ordering them to stand up and leave staff meetings on the word of one man.

The pressure took its toll. Up until last year, several Chelsea employees had been absent for weeks, sometimes months, on sick leave. At least 10 employees – from a department that employs about 50 people – have left the club altogether, an employee said. Then, in early January, a popular former employee killed himself.

Although it is not known if workplace pressures were to blame, his death stunned Chelsea staff, who viewed him as a friend and sounding board. During conversations at a memorial service for him earlier this year, her feelings of shock and sadness gave way to anger.

“It should never have happened,” said one employee.

Faced with mounting internal pressure to address the issues, this spring Chelsea hired a consulting firm to conduct what it called a “cultural review” of its marketing department. But few employees had confidence in the process: the review of their workplace, they were told, would be overseen by the manager they believed to be responsible for the worst issues.

It’s hard to imagine a professional sports team whose staff have had to endure the kind of uncertainty that Chelsea staff have faced this year.

The club’s world was turned upside down in March when the team’s longtime owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, was sanctioned by the UK government for announcing plans to sell the Premier League club. Until that process was complete, those who worked for Chelsea – from players and coaches to executives and lower-level staff – had to contemplate how to do their jobs. whether they would still be paid for it; and whether their jobs would still exist once a new owner was found.

Some of that uncertainty disappeared in May when a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly paid a record price to take over Chelsea and the most severe restrictions placed on the team’s business were lifted. But while all of this was playing out in the headlines, an even more troubling situation simmered behind the scenes.

The New York Times interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees for coverage of this article. Independently, each painted a picture of a dysfunctional work environment at Chelsea, one of dissatisfaction, intimidation and fear. But it was the suicide of Richard Bignell, the former head of Chelsea TV, in January that brought to light longstanding concerns about the environment in the team’s marketing department – a group of around 50 employees – and the behavior of its head, Gary Twelvetree.

In a statement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the staff allegations, Chelsea said its new board had “appointed an external review team to investigate allegations made among previous owners”.

“The club’s new board of directors strongly believes in a work environment and culture that empowers its employees and ensures they feel safe, included, valued and trusted,” the statement said.

While the club said “the new owners have taken first steps to create an environment consistent with our values,” it’s unclear if the new board took action to respond to staff allegations against Twelvetree. The club said it could not be reached for comment.

While Bignell’s family chose not to speak to The Times when contacted, nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees spoke of a toxic work culture at Twelvetree, which they said many employees felt belittled, bullied and at times even downtrodden felt anxious just to attend meetings.

The staff spoke on condition of anonymity because some still work at Chelsea or in football and feared retaliation or damage to their professional reputation for publicly describing their experiences. But a coroner’s report, prepared after Bignell’s death in January and reviewed by The Times, linked his suicide to “desperation after losing his job”.

In March, under pressure after Bignell’s death and amid growing frustration among the colleagues and friends he had left behind, Chelsea hired an outside firm to investigate the culture within the department and allegations of bullying against Twelvetree by several employees. But to the frustration of some staff, the club did not admit the review was linked to his death or any specific grievance.

One employee who left Chelsea’s marketing department said the experience of working for Twelvetree had simply become too much; Fearing for her mental health, the employee left the club despite not having found other employment. But the experience was so harrowing that the former staffer wrote about it to Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck. Others said they raised similar concerns when communicating with other top executives or in exit interviews with the club’s human resources department. But little seemed to be changing, save for a churn that had become so common that it was an open secret among recruiters, who sometimes referred candidates to open positions at Chelsea.

Few staff had confidence in the department’s review when they heard it was to be overseen jointly by Twelvetree, the department head, and outside consultants hired by Chelsea.

“It wouldn’t address the concerns, would it?” said one person asked to take part in the review. “How could it be if he examines his own culture?”

Staff said they have not yet received any conclusions from the review, which has now been completed, and that there have been no changes to working practices.

“I consider myself a pretty strong person and before working with Chelsea I never felt like I was worried about my mental health,” said a former member of the marketing department. “But pretty quickly after joining, I wasn’t getting any proper sleep and it got progressively worse.”

That fear became apparent at Bignell, according to several of his former colleagues. Bignell was a popular member of the club and ran the Chelsea TV operations. The channel was originally run by the club’s communications department before moving into marketing as part of a new digital strategy implemented by the club hierarchy.

The move meant profound changes for Bignell, who had run a television network for a decade and was now forced to focus on producing digital content for social media, accounts that were under the direction of the team’s marketing staff. Associates recalled that Bignell’s relationship with Twelvetree was strained; Bignell, like others, struggled to deal with the marketing director’s leadership style, which could include scathing, vocal criticism of her work that some employees said sometimes brought coworkers to tears.

As a married father of two young daughters, Bignell largely hid the anguish he was feeling from his co-workers, co-workers said. They described him as a sunny, positive character, a colleague who is always ready to share a joke or listen to him. But little by little, acquaintances told him, his physical condition deteriorated noticeably.

“Last time I saw him he was walking around Stamford Bridge and was a mess,” said a colleague who met Bignell in the summer of 2021, around the time he was leaving due to illness. “He looked sick. He had lost so much weight.”

Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly fired the next day. In early January he took his own life. Announcing his death on its website, the team said the “much loved” Bignell was “a very well loved and hugely respected member of the broader football and sports broadcasting family”. The coroner’s report later linked his mental state at the time of his death to his dismissal by Chelsea. “Richard was deeply troubled by anxiety, depression and despair following the loss of his job,” the report said.

Even after Bignell’s death and following the club’s culture review, Chelsea’s marketing staff have continued to lose staff.

Those who left say they’ve gotten used to providing emotional support to colleagues who stay. For example, after recently attending a party marking the departure of several employees, a former Chelsea employee said she spoke to so many people struggling with life at work that she felt the The event was also a therapy session.

Chelsea’s new ownership group, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that they had reached out to Bignell’s relatives through the family’s lawyer. “Our hearts go out to Richard’s entire family,” the team said in a statement. “His passing was deeply felt by his colleagues at the club and throughout the football community.”

Senior Chelsea officials had already spoken to the family, who had raised concerns about the circumstances of his death, and staff said they continued to push for changes internally. But the sale of the club in May has only brought new uncertainty.

As the new owners take control of the team, the most powerful leaders of Chelsea’s old regime are being replaced. Managing Director Guy Laurence, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the club, and Buck, the outgoing chairman, were the senior executives who contacted employees with concerns about working conditions.

Now both are among those who will leave.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, the following organizations can help.

In the UK, call Papyrus on +44 800 068 4141 (9am to midnight) or send a message to Young Minds: SMS YM to 85258. You can also find a list of additional resources at

In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). For a list of additional resources, see

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