Rafa is in for a rough ride says Simon Poulter of What Would David Bowie Do?
With his scruffy little beard and penchant for cheap-looking nylon leisurewear, the multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich doesn’t exactly cut the image of a prototypical James Bond villain.
He may not (to my knowledge) possess a white Persian cat, which he strokes for camp and menacing effect, but like 007’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Abramovich is clearly capable of dispatching underlings whenever the whim takes him.
So here we are again. Another November, another dip in form, and another Chelsea manager looking for work. Roberto Di Matteo took a decent and dignified stride in his brief managerial tenure at Stamford Bridge. But from the moment he was euphemistically installed as “interim first team coach” he knew he wasn’t exactly the anointed one. He may even have been another ‘dead man walking’, as Victim No.1, Claudio Ranieri, referred to himself.
Go back two managers, which in Chelsea years means to last March, and Abramovich had grown impatient with his bizarre gamble – football’s very own Charlie Buckett, Andreas Villas-Boas – and in looking for a replacement was desperate for Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola. But with the 41-year-old Catalan making clear he was, at season’s end, taking a year’s sabbatical in New York with his family, the unemployed Rafa Benitez was being fitted up for a temporary spell in the manager’s chair.
But when Benitez threw one of his customary hissy fits at the prospect of being a mere seat warmer, Abramovich had no option but to install, quickly, the popular old boy, Di Matteo. The club’s history of appointing from within has not always gone well: Ruud Gullitt and Gianluca Vialli both fell foul of Ken Bates over money, while Ray Wilkins felt the sharp end of Abramovich’s sword for, it would appear, looking at the Russian the wrong way.
Di Matteo – a club hero still for scoring the fastest FA Cup Final goal after 47 seconds of the 1997 final – had been AVB’s assistant, fulfilling a role similar to that Wilkins had been employed for at Carlo Ancelotti’s side – a link to the club’s history for both fans and players.
But in being condescendingly titled Interim First Team Coach, it was clear that Di Matteo was only installed by default.
How embarrassing, then, that he should go on and end Chelsea’s desperate hunt for the European Cup, land yet another FA Cup trophy at the same time, and galvanise a fractured dressing room.
Perhaps Chelsea had to accept a moral obligation to give Di Matteo the job full-time after all that. Drop him then and Chelsea’s reputation for lousy manager management would have made the club toxic for anyone else to become interested – least of all, Pep Guardiola.
Abramovich had been making overtures to Guardiola again in the run up to Di Matteo’s sacking. But this obsession with landing him is turning the Russian into the greatest stalker since Max Cady came after Sam Bowden and his family. And he’s done it before: so the story goes, Abramovich fell in love with football by watching AC Milan, and set about buying the club. With that not possible, he set about recreating the club by buying Chelsea and installing Andrei Schevchenko, the rossoneri’s star striker, while trying to lure Carlo Ancelotti as coach,
He didn’t, but then he got Jose Mourinho, and that didn’t work out too badly. Or, at least, until Chelsea’s results started to go “in the wrong direction”, the self-same excuse given for firing Di Matteo. Like Mourinho, Di Matteo delivered silverware and good times for the club. But as soon as things started to cool off – i.e. results went against them – they were summarily fired by the itchiest trigger finger since Dirty Harry.
Abramovich, then, has a totally unrealistic level of expectation. But he also appears to lack strong leadership and footballing advice around him. There’s a reason why Manchester United are the most successful football club in history – it’s because they’ve had the same manager for 25 years, who has built, invested and reinvested in consistency and excellence. Personally I loathe the old Scottish git, Alex Ferguson, but you could never knock his record, or indeed his club’s ongoing support for him.
For Chelsea, eight managers in as many years is not only inconsistent, it’s an embarassment. We want success and we’ve had success. We want our club to be led by a dynamic manager whom we can get behind. We had that in Mourinho, we had that in Guus Hiddink, we had that in Ancelotti and we could have had that in Di Matteo.
But, from now until the end of this season (and, it is claimed, with an extension to next season if “mutually acceptable”), Chelsea will be managed by the most divisive managerial appointment it would have been possible to appoint: Benitez.
You may, already, sense some antagonism towards Benitez. That’s because many Chelsea fans consider him a tactical fool, more interested in defensive formations and squad rotation than anywhere near the attractive, free-flowing attacking football Abramovich himself is said to desire.
It’s also because he spent an inordinate amount of time as Liverpool manager winding up Chelsea fans and, especially, Mourinho, and then behaving like an emotionally challenged teenager whenever things went wrong. He’s been out of work for two years, with only a short spell at Internazionale since leaving Liverpool. That speaks volumes.
Abramovich has, at times, treated Chelsea like a plaything. When he’s pumped more than £1 billion into the club since 2004, that’s his prerogative. But you wonder whether he has always had the best advice. Did the club really need a physically crocked Andrei Schevchenko, or a mentally and physically crocked Fernando Torres, each for vastly inflated transfer fees and equally inflated wages?
The problem is impulsiveness and impatience. If Roman wants a bigger yacht, he orders it. Bigger mansion? He knocks through the rest of the street. This has been the ‘see it, want it’ nature of his ownership of Chelsea (which isn’t that dissimilar to the way many Premier League players splash the cash around). More than just an oligarch, like some emperor acquiring lands at will, he has made some ridiculously rash decisions at Chelsea.
Benitez is going to have to endure six months of indifference and hostility from Chelsea fans. Even after Di Matteo had been appointed in March, Chelsea fans still let it be known at Di Matteo’s first home game in charge that Benitez wasn’t and would never be welcome. And so here he is, like the frog in Peter Gabriel’s song Kiss That Frog “all puffed up, wanna be your king”.
At any other club, the sort of success Di Matteo brought in just 167 days in charge would have had his name emblazoned above a new stand at the stadium. But not at Chelsea. This is a club which, for all you or I know, may have fired Benitez before he’s even begun, and hired – and fired – his replacement.
Benitez has a rough ride ahead of him. Even if he does well, he’ll be out on his ear as soon as you know it. Pep Guardiola knows it too. Just as Ancelotti was the coveted one, once, there is no life expectancy at Chelsea. And if he has any sense, Guardiola would give Chelsea one almighty swerve.