The Ides of March came early for the latest governor of Roman’s empire, then. Don Luís André de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas leaves Chelsea Football Club today after eight and a half months in the job, having apparently failed to rein in the player-power of the club’s dressing room. The tipping point came with a single goal defeat away to West Bromwich Albion yesterday afternoon, but this has been a sacking that has been coming for a while, as the team has stumbled from result to result in recent weeks, including a humbling home draw against Birmingham City in the FA Cup and a comprehensive defeat against Napoli in the Champions League.
Few people with any prior knowledge of the modus operandum when it comes to the hiring and firing of managers at Stamford Bridge will have been particularly surprised by the fact that another manager has been unable to hold onto their job at the club for less than a year. After all, Villa-Boas was himself the seventh manager – the eighth, if we include one game wonder Ray Wilkins – to take charge of the club in the nine years since Roman Abramovich arrived at the club. Roberto di Matteo will now remain in charge of the team until the end of this season, which will at least give the media time to fit in several months worth of feverish speculation about who will succeed him.
His appointment at the club last summer was met with furrowed eye-brows by some. This, it could reasonably be ascertained, was not a typical Chelsea managerial appointment. Villa-Boas had deeply impressed in his prior appointment at Porto, but he was just thirty-four years old at the time of his arrival at the club, and with just a couple of years experience under his belt. It was, therefore, likely that he might make mistakes and that his period in charge of the club might come to be regarded as a transitional period, as the club sought to move the final vestiges of the Jose Mourinho era out to pasture. The perception that certain senior players at Chelsea have considerably too much power vested in them has come to be one of the more endearing tropes of recent years, but this would need to change if Viila-Boas was to stand must chance of moving the club forward this season.
The likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba, however, continue to exert their influence over the club and the one other thing that Boas needed to be able to have much of a chance to impose his will upon the club, time, was never likely to be in anything other than short supply at Chelsea. With this sort of division and little room for manoeuvre in terms of being able to buy himself more time at the club – the entire culture of modern football is about results at any cost, and this has been no more evident than at Stamford Bridge – he gave the impression of being little more than a dead man walking as soon as results started to go against him.
The question of where the responsibility for the position in which the club finds itself today is an interesting one, not least because there are so many individuals at which the finger of blame could be pointed. Perhaps the only way to answer it would be to say “everyone” – the senior players, for continuing to indulge themselves in a way that has been highly damaging to their club and the senior management of the club for continuing to allow this culture to fester within the club. His appointment at the club might have been regarded as a break with the previous hire ‘em and fire ‘em policy but, even if we are correct in the assumption that the club was full of good intentions with regards to giving him the sort of time that the playing side of the club would need to be reborn, time ended up having to take a back seat in comparison with the altogether more pressing need for results. In this regard, Chelsea Football Club is confirmed today as a leopard that most definitely has not been able to change its spots.
And it is precisely this that is the club’s biggest problem now. Who in their right mind, amongst the calibre of coaches that Chelsea would be looking for in the summer, would leave their existing position to head to Stamford Bridge in the knowledge that the senior players are treated by the club as more important than they will be and that results have to be achieved immediately? The reflex reaction of Chelsea supporters may well be to renew their clamour for Jose Mourinho to return to Stamford Bridge, but there is little to suggest that Mourinho would like to return to the club and there are no more guarantees of success under him either. If there is a consensus that Chelsea Football Club now needs to look forward rather than back if it is to reassert itself as one of the alpha males of the Premier League jungle, then even Mourinho, for all the warm memories that Chelsea supporters hold of him, might not even be the right decision even if he were to declare an interest in the position.
Andre Villa-Boas demonstrated his potential at Porto and, at thirty-five years old, there is plenty of time for him to rebuild his reputation elsewhere. If the supporters react angrily to the decision to relieve him of his duties, then there is a possibility that the culture within Chelsea FC might start to change. Perhaps if Chelsea can go to St Andrews and beat Birmingham City in the FA Cup next week there is a chance that much of this will be forgotten until the end of the season. There was, however, little on display at The Hawthorns yesterday to suggest that this is particularly likely. If Roberto di Matteo can turn the club’s fortunes around by the end of the season, though, he will have managed something significant. This is a club that looks unmanageable at present, and the feeling lingers that the culture behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge has to change if the future is not to amount to little more a perpetual cycle of hiring and firing of managers, while the team continues to mis-fire on the pitch.
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