The Burden Of Expectation
It was simultaneously the most and least surprising decision of the summer. Avram Grant, who has had the gaunt, tired look of the dead man walking since his appointment last year, has been sacked by Chelsea, in a decision that adds further weight to the increasingly widespread belief that Premier League is living the last days of Rome. Let’s take a brief look at his record – he lost three matches in the Premier League as Chelsea’s manager, pushed an outstanding Manchester United team to the last day of the season in the league and got to within one kick of winning the European Cup. One can only speculate as to the reasoning behind the decision. The back corridors at Stamford Bridge, when the general public are allowed a brief glimpse into them, seem to resemble the set of “The West Wing”, with various Machiavellian figures machinating to their own, selfish ends whilst trying to find new and inventive ways of bending the ear of The Man In Charge. Perhaps this was a world to which Grant was ill-suited. His appointment and subsequent removal does, however, ask valid questions about the expectations of everyone at Chelsea Football Club (supporters included) and about the competence of the people actually managing the club.
Recent converts to the Premier League may not even understand how far Chelsea FC have come over the last fifteen years or so. I haven’t been to Stamford Bridge since about 1993 (when I pitched up there with my brother-in-law for a match against Wimbledon), and it has changed more than any other still-standing Premier League stadium. We stood for that match on broken bench seats at a stadium with vast, crumbling open terraces and a greyhound track. Chelsea were, at the time, an average, mid-table side, without a major trophy in over twenty years, but the sequence of events that followed (Matthew Harding’s prototype fan-turned-millionaire, and Ken Bates’ sale of a debt-ridden club to Roman Abramovich) would be better told elsewhere, but there can be no doubt that they inhabit a different universe to anything that they could have imagined 1993. One suspects, from the reaction to Avram Grant’s appointment and to his sacking, that Chelsea’s supporters have swallowed the hubris lock, stock and barrel. Since more or less the day that Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge, a level of charmlessness has descended like a blue fog over the place, and levels of expectation there now are so high that nothing short of being the Premier League champions or the European champions now seems to be good enough for them.
Grant is well known to be a friend of Roman Abramovich – indeed, it was widely reported at the time that it was this kinship that was the primary factor in his appointment into the manager’s chair. This is that point at which one becomes entitled to ask questions over the competence of those running Chelsea FC. Grant was not an unknown entity to them – his behaviour hasn’t changed since he assumed the position so, if his character was integral to him being offered the role in the first place, it shouldn’t be a reason for his dismissal eight months later. Chelsea had, considering the difficult start to the season that they had, a very successful season. Arsenal or Liverpool would more than happily swap their seasons for the season that Chelsea had, yet there is no talk of Arsene Wenger getting the sack and even talk of Rafael Benitez leaving Anfield has died down over the last couple of months or so. Whenever one starts to think about Chelsea, the only conclusion that one can arrive at is that money has proved to be the lead in the water to these particular Romans. Their levels of expectation are now so distorted that they cannot even tolerate levels of success that aren’t high enough, never mind failure. One can only wonder what exactly it is that they do want, and contemplate the sobering fact that winning is never likely to make them happy.
Roman probably wants what they call a “return” on the £600m that he has ploughed into the club, but he has already had two Premier League titles (double the number that they managed in the 98 years before he arrived there in 2003), and the insistence on constant success seems to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the game, especially when (this season at least) success has been so very, very close. He may well want Chelsea to play more attractive football than they have been playing, but the fact that they didn’t last season cannot be completely lain at the door of Avram Grant. The players were players that he inherited from Jose Mourinho (only Nicolas Anelka was a major signing during his spell in charge, and it would be highly debatable whether he had any say in Anelka’s arrival at Stamford Bridge anyway), and the only options available to Grant would have been to make them play an unfamiliar system, take risks and lose matches or stick to the system that was already in place, which would at least give them a chance of hanging onto Manchester United’s coat tails. Because of the way in which Chelsea suddenly entered into football’s oligarchy (and I’m not making a comment on the rights or wrongs of it, though regular readers can probably take a guess at my opinion), they are never going to be “popular” (even Arsenal, the least tainted of the Big Four, aren’t particularly “popular” – that’s the price of success in football), but I would be surprised if Abramovich, as one of the world’s richest men, gave a tu’penny damn about “popularity”.
The two most successful club sides of the last twenty years are the two clubs that have stuck by their managers the longest. One would expect that someone within the game might have noticed this at some point, but apparently not. As ever, football has it the wrong way around. Clubs hire managers too quickly, and then sack them straight away when they (as they inevitably will, if they are hired in haste) fail. Perhaps it would be better for clubs to treat such an important position as the manager with a little more respect, take their time over who they appoint and then actually show them a little respect and actually let them manage. I can think of no other business in which the manager’s position is so quickly undermined. It’s a small wonder that so many football clubs fail. Going right back into the history of the game, the instant successes have been the exception rather than the rule, and even those that have been successful immediately (such as, for example, Herbert Chapman at Arsenal) did so on their own terms, with directors who had the confidence to let them create a club in their own image. Chelsea are already being linked with big names such as Frank Rijkaard and Guus Hiddinck, but the question that remains is this: which manager, that understands the need for continuation, wishes to build a legacy and isn’t there primarily for the cash, would want to manage Chelsea at the moment, given what is known about what goes on at Stamford Bridge? This, after all, is a club that allows its chief executive, Peter Kenyon, to lead the players up to collect their medals after the European Cup final and then sacks its manager five days afterwards, even though they only lost on penalties to the team that only a lunatic would suggest aren’t the best in Europe at the moment. If Grant can secure himself a more stable job elsewhere (and I’m not including Manchester City, where a similar sort of madness is going on), he might find that being sacked by the basket case that is Chelsea Football Club will turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to him.