Shortly before Christmas, off the back of a poor run but following qualification for the last 16 of the CL, this column wondered if the season could turn out to be something special (see Special Ones Too). And it certainly has, but not in a good way. A slew of defeats, players who don’t seem to be bothered about putting in a shift but are only too happy to collect their 000s of Ks every week, and continued reports in the media of problems in the dressing room culminated in yesterday’s abject performance at West Bromwich Albion, resulting in the dismissal today of Andreas Villas Boas, less than 9 months after his appointment as Chelsea manager.
As someone who has never received football coaching in their life, it is difficult for me to comment on the mechanics of a performance. All I see is players passing the ball. Whilst I’m au fait with systems and styles, like a typical woman, I prefer incidents to statistics. In spite of being there, I couldn’t tell you who scored our goals in the 3-2 defeat at Man Utd in September, but I remember Ian Marshall of Leicester pulling a hammy whilst trying to nutmeg Albert Ferrer in front of the still unroofed West Stand and getting celery chucked at him in about 1999. So I’m not really the one to say whether AVB didn’t know what he was doing on the tactics front. All I know that he failed to pull on a shirt in any of our games recently. Whilst the buck stops with the manager, our players have to look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves how much they have contributed to letting the fans down.
It is not the first time player power has hastened the demise of a manager at Chelsea. As long ago as 2000, Gianluca Vialli lost the dressing room, and at the time when a revised Bosman ruling was being threatened resulting in contracts no longer being worth the paper they were written on, Ken Bates and Colin Hutchinson were presented with a “him or us” ultimatum by a number of players (this was confirmed to me by the respected Italian journalist Giancarlo Galivotti several years ago). Whilst Franck Leboeuf attracted most of the opprobrium directed at the players on this occasion, he was certainly not the only one involved and even tried to offload the blame on Gianfranco Zola – in a radio interview on the day of his last game at Chelsea, he commented “Gianfranco has much more power at Chelsea than me”. Indeed, Vialli’s own comments on Twitter today hint at a frosty relationship with the club’s new caretaker manager, Roberto di Matteo.
Stories about player unrest have abounded in the press recently, usually attributed to a “senior player”. I hope whoever he is, he will now expend his energies for the rest of the season in galvanising his team-mates to get their fingers out. The decision to appoint di Matteo as caretaker manager until the end of the season is an indication that Chelsea have a clear target in mind but need to wait until the end of the season. Were that not the case, either Benitez or Capello, both free agents, would have been appointed today. Given Jose Mourinho’s very public visit to London last week, combined with news of a further alleged visit on Monday, and information provided by a source to this column that Mourinho and Abramovich had dinner at a top London hotel last week, last week’s article “Return of the Special One” may yet prove to have been barking up the right tree.
As usual, the ones suffering most at this time are the fans. I know people who set off for Albion at 6am and reckoned they weren’t going to get home till midnight. Approximately 1600 hardy souls travelled to Napoli two weeks ago. As I write, Chelsea lie fifth in the premiership and no doubt there are those amongst the inter-continental support (and possibly one or two in the UK) who have decided that the club are so last decade, and transferred their support elsewhere. These are the very people that our CEO is keen on cultivating at the expense of those who invest their time and emotion, not to mention maxing out their credit cards, on supporting CFC in the flesh and not through the medium of their television.
I think the last time I felt so low about a manager was, surprisingly, the day Ruudi was sacked (when Jose left I was in an emotional maelstrom, and when Luca was sacked I was so ill that if Ken Bates had turned up to announce the news in person I probably wouldn’t have turned a hair). However, we Chels are a resillient lot. Whilst I’d be surprised if we sell out Birmingham away, the faithful will be out in force and giving 100% of their passion to the cause. Let’s hope the players can do the same.