Managerial Divorce for Abramovich….Again?!?

There have been few ‘marriages’ in the EPL more absurd than the disastrous union between Rafa Benitez and Chelsea. In recent EPL history I can only point to the staggeringly inept – but thankfully short-lived – reigns of Alex McLeish at Aston Villa (parachuted into Villa Park from bitter local rivals Birmingham City having just relegated the Blues), the inexplicable promotion of assistant coach Terry Connor following the departure of Mick McCarthy at Wolves (a shrewd move that saw Connor – hindered by the minor snag that he had never previously managed anyone anywhere – win not a single one of his thirteen matches at the helm as Wolves crashed through the EPL trapdoor; a slide that shows no sign of slowing down) and Steve Kean’s hapless tenure in skilfully relegating Blackburn Rovers.

You may wonder why this piece is written in the past tense, but with the British media’s blanket coverage of Rafa’s timely rant against Chelsea, the squad, their fans and, in a move that draws worthy comparison to assembling your own guillotine and proceeding to willingly lay beneath the shimmering blade, direct criticism of Roman Abramovich himself, Rafa’s interim period at Stamford Bridge has suddenly become even more temporary.

Rafa was on a hiding to nothing on his arrival at Stamford Bridge. Despised by the fans because of his Liverpool connections, hated because of his battles with the cerebral Jose Mourinho – particularly in the European Champions League during his time at Anfield – and facing the impossible task of following in the footsteps of the ever-popular Roberto di Matteo. Whatever your opinion of RDM – and I personally believe him to be an extremely limited coach – the dramatic chain of events towards the end of last season allow him to be somehow credited as a European Champions League Winner! Okay, Chelsea’s unlikely triumph was more due to a seismic shift in attitude and application within the core of the team, namely John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba – having emerged from their petulant sulks under Andre Villas Boas – than RDM’s tactical acumen, but nonetheless he had snatched Roman Abramovich’s Holy Grail from the clutches of FC Bayern! The fact – as Rafa is so keen to highlight – that Chelsea also finished a distant 6th in the EPL was merely glossed over by their European victory – 6th in the EPL was entirely AVB’s fault whilst scratching their way to Munich was entirely RDM’s impact in the eyes of the Chelsea faithful.

Rather than bask in the glory of the Champions League triumph Abramovich chose to broadcast his complete and total lack of faith in RDM by indiscreetly spending the entire summer flirting outrageously with outgoing Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, only to be predictably snubbed by a man who prioritises stability and steady development over the trigger-happy hire ‘em, fire ‘em style at the Bridge. It was with a heavy heart, crushed by Guardiola’s deafening rejection ringing in his ears like church bells, that Abramovich dejectedly appointed RDM as his permanent manager. RDM was patently not wanted by Abramovich! Although all football coaches are technically appointed on an interim basis, RDM’s time was numbered before the ink had even begun to dry on his contract.

A humiliating 4-1 hammering by Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup coupled with the embarrassment of setting a new record for ineptitude in their European Champions League defence – becoming the first holders to exit at the group stage – and their EPL challenge extinguished before it had even ignited saw RDM’s managerial limitations brutally exposed despite huge squad investment in the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar. But few would’ve predicted the identity of Abramovich’s knight in shining armour to be Rafa Benitez!

Rafa had found himself out of management since breaking-up and demoralising Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter side during his ill-fated six-month spell at the San Siro back in 2010. His appointment at Stamford Bridge smacked of desperation, but on both sides of the table! Rafa desperately needed a window of exposure to showcase his skills after 2yrs on the sidelines whilst Abramovich had realised that no credible coach would dare risk his reputation as the ringmaster of the Stamford Bridge circus. A marriage made of convenience and mutual dependence!

The fans were immediately offside with the former Liverpool boss’ arrival in west-London; that they were ‘underwhelmed’ by his appointment would be stating it kindly. ‘Rafa Out’ banners greeted his debut appearance at the Bridge while the 16th minute (RDM’s shirt number during his playing career at Chelsea) triggered – and continues to inspire – a rousing rendition of the RDM songbook from the Chelsea choir! Rafa chose to bury his head in the sand; if he started winning matches then the crowd would support him and get behind the team. But that never happened, either his winning a succession of matches or the fans diluting their loathing of his presence. Everything was wrong with this curious arrangement. The signings of Oscar and Hazard to complement the established Juan Mata and the veteran Frank Lampard in the hope of reinvigorating the increasingly lost Fernando Torres had the fans licking their lips in anticipation of free-flowing attacking flair, oozing style and panache.  The weak RDM had attempted to appease their demands by naively deploying all his attacking options at the same time, thus leaving his defence woefully exposed in a hideously unbalanced tactical formation. A 3-2 defeat to Man City in the Community Shield hinted at the season ahead, results including a 4-2 victory at Spurs, 4-2 against Reading, 2-2 against Juventus and successive high-scoring contests against Man Utd – a 3-2 defeat and 5-4 League Cup victory – demonstrating that, if nothing else, the Chelsea fans were being treated to open and exciting games. The dour, defence-orientated default mantra of Rafa was never ever going to provide an appeasing alternative.

But has Rafa helped himself? He has reopened the debate over his ‘interim’ job title, suggesting that it has undermined his authority within a notoriously ill-disciplined club. Perhaps he has a point? But equally that situation was made very clear to him on his acceptance of the substantial salary that accompanied the job offer. And he can hardly focus too heavily on the uncertainty surrounding the ‘interim’ title while at the same time openly touting himself as a potential successor to Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid?! He has directly criticised the fans for their lack of support; pointing out their continued vocal tributes to RDM are negatively-affecting the team. It is perhaps unusual for a club’s support to be so vocal of a past manager without inputting a similar enthusiasm towards their current manager – Roy Hodgson had to tolerate chants in support of Kenny Dalglish (who was to become his successor) during his short reign at Anfield – but RDM did secure both the European Champions League and the FA Cup under his watch! His time at Stamford Bridge cannot simply be ignored because the current incumbent is feeling a little insecure?!

So what next for the soon-to-be-divorced couple? Benitez would’ve hoped to re-establish himself as a credible name at the forefront of European club management during his time at Chelsea. Perhaps he even deluded himself enough to think he would actually be awarded a contract extension despite the hideousness of the situation? But he finds himself lying 4th in the EPL – albeit an improvement on last years 6th – with the EPL title long-gone over the horizon and facing a difficult battle with Spurs, Arsenal and Everton to secure Champions League qualification for next season. His tactical approach seems dated, inflexible, lacking cohesion and understanding from his players and reminiscent of the dark days towards the end of his time at Liverpool. It must be seriously doubtful that he has done enough to elevate his name into the minds of top European clubs come the summer merry-go-round.

And for Abramovich and Chelsea, having alienated just about every possible managerial target in Europe? The question has to be asked that, barring the huge pay cheque that accompanies the Chelsea hot-seat, who the hell would commit career suicide by attempting to appease the many demands at Stamford Bridge?!? Guardiola has already chosen FC Bayern, there is no way Jurgen Klopp would leave the vibrant Borussia Dortmund for Chelsea while other candidates would have to think hard before signing up to the football equivalent of Mission Impossible. Maybe a return for Jose Mourinho, himself certain to depart the Bernabeu in the summer? Mourinho’s mercenary attitude and dictatorial approach proved a huge success during his first spell at the Bridge, but Abramovich grew increasingly tired of the Portuguese’s power-trips, ultimatums and hostility towards the media. Would either man concede enough ground to reunite the most successful partnership in Chelsea’s history? It is unlikely….especially with the mega-bucks of Man City and PSG to potentially tempt Mourinho’s eye. But, if not Mourinho, where does Abramovich turn next?

Team GB Right to Pearce Beckham’s Olympic Dream

Unprecedented storms have battered the UK over the last week or so, and the weather has been a tad unpredictable too! Of course the raging furore to which I refer is the nation’s outrage at the exclusion of Sir David Beckham from the forthcoming announcement of  Team GB’s Olympic Football Squad. Again I say “forthcoming” because whilst Team GB coach Stuart Pearce has yet to formally announce his final 23-man line-up – the official media briefing is scheduled for Monday morning – he has afforded Beckham the courtesy of informing him that his services will not be required this summer. Never one to pass over an opportunity to promote himself in the World’s media, Beckham subsequently failed to contain his eagerness to grasp at this latest opportunity for front-page self-publicity and scrambled his ‘people’ to release a merticulously prepared ‘woe is me’ statement ahead of that official announcement. Team Beckham hasn’t quite lost its ability to frustrate with its questionable professionalism – at least from a sporting perspective if not from the hard-nosed PR angle – and confused priorities in ruthlessly gazumping Pearce’s announcement….

There can be few footballers in the modern era more adept at dividing public opinion than David Beckham. Some would tag him The Marmite Kid – you either love him or hate him – but I think that is too simplistic an analysis. It is certainly grossly unfair to tag anyone who dares to whisper the slightest criticism of Beckham as a ‘hater’! In my case I believe Beckham was an outstanding servant to the England national team with his passion, desire and enthusiasm to represent his country and no little technical skill and stamina in his role on the right-side of midfield. Many observers have remarked that had England benefited from eleven David Beckhams during his peak years then the national team would probably have performed a good deal better than they did. Few England fans will forget his epic contribution and heroics in virtually single-handedly dragging the Three Lions to the FIFA World Cup 2002 with a last-gasp free-kick against Greece in a crucial qualifier! But, unfortunately for Beckham there is the media circus that he and his wife cultivated and nurtured during his early career and fully complied in its rapid development into the modern-day frenzy that accompanies his every movement. This relentless machine of PR and self-publicity has long since gobbled up and overtaken his distant achievements on the football pitch and has many commentators debating whether he can even be considered a professional sportsman these days?

Technically 37yr old David Beckham is still a professional footballer, albeit one that plods around the dubious merits of the American MLS. Beckham surprised many by swapping the footballing citadel of Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles back in 2007; turning his back on European football – and some, myself included, would argue also turning his back on his England career – by signing for the Los Angeles Galaxy for a reputed salary of $6.5M per year. There was little hiding the MLS’s hopes that the high-profile arrival of Beckham would spark a renewed public interest and a boost in commercial activities in a sport that languished far behind the popular indigenous American sports of NFL, basketball and baseball. It was hardly the first time suggestions of commercial benefits rather than sporting prowess accompanied the acquisition of Beckham; on his arrival at Real Madrid it was strongly hinted that, whilst he was arguably enjoying his physical prime, the primary motive for his transfer was to increase Real’s presence in the fanatical Beckham markets in the Far East. It is certainly an accusation that continues to rile him. But Beckham made all the right noises surrounding his US ambitions, his quest to develop the game and to establish a signature chain of David Beckham Soccer School’s to encourage youth participation in the sport. And there can be little doubt that he has largely succeeded in those objectives; the MLS is slowly developing and attracting a greater audience both in attendance and on TV, commercial interests have followed that trend and soccer no longer automatically attracts the sporting leper tag within schools.

On the field Beckham has inspired sporadic success for the Galaxy, but he has nonetheless won trophies for his current franchise as recently as this season! But there can also be no arguing that the MLS lags behind almost every European domestic league as a credible football competition. It remains the case that the MLS is seen as a cushy retirement ground for former stars looking for that one last bumper pay-day as they drift well into, and beyond, the twilight of their careers. Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane are just two examples of players cashing in on the MLS riches despite being well past their best and, whilst a big-name presence can be a huge benefit to a developing club, until that perception changes among football fans across the globe, the MLS will always struggle with credibility. The desperately poor performances of Keane during the current Euro 2012 tournament did little to enhance the status of the MLS as being anything more than its long-held retirement home image.

And that argument, for me, is the crucial factor in Stuart Pearce’s decision to omit Beckham from his Great Britain Olympic Squad. Is the Olympic football tournament a credible sporting competition or simply an exhibition event? London 2012 will be the first and, in all likelihood, the last occasion we see a combined Great Britain football team participate at an Olympic Games and Pearce will have been wrestling with the dilemma of how to approach the event. After all, having been predictably and rightly overlooked for the England national football team job, Pearce’s own reputation will come under scrutiny during England’s performance at these Games. We’ve already seen that despite the UK media’s shared belief that England had no hope at Euro 2012 and the common consensus that Roy Hodgson’s role was to stabilise Team England in readiness for the FIFA World Cup 2014 rather than challenge for Euro 2012, England’s meek exit at the hands of Italy was greeted with the usual batch of media criticism. Whilst the Olympic competition does not carry the same weight as the Euro’s or a World Cup Pearce can guarantee himself a hostile media reaction and critique should Team GB underperform.

Some commentators have argued that David Beckham warranted inclusion as some kind of reward for his services to England and his dutiful work in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for London. Beckham’s profile was unquestionably a valuable asset in London’s bid process and, should the authorities deem him worthy, perhaps an MBE or OBE ought to be awarded in recognition of his efforts? With regard to recognising his England international career, I would argue that 20+ of his 115 England caps were awarded to him more out of a sense of sentimentality than professional merit and thus he has been more than amply rewarded in that respect. Personally I felt his England career ought to have drawn to a close when he moved to the MLS; it is simply unfathomable to expect to remain competitive for a suppose top-10 international team when you ply your daily trade in such a sub-standard domestic competition. Beckham’s decision to retire from competitive club football ought to have heralded his retirement from international football too!

Apparently 1.2M tickets remain unsold for the London Olympic football event, hence speculation that the clamour for Beckham’s inclusion was once again motivated by commercial gain rather than sporting credibility. The reason for the lack of interest in Olympic football is very simple in my opinion; excessive pricing! Why would you pay top dollar for a third-rate competition – the football is essentially an under-23 event with three designated over-age players – when you have Euro 2012 and the English Premier League on your doorstep?

I think Stuart Pearce made a brave but correct decision to exclude David Beckham from his thoughts. Leaving aside the inevitable storm of publicity that would accompany his every movement and which could overshadow the Games and the achievements of ‘lesser known’ athletes, Pearce has refused to bow to commercial pressure and has, at least on the surface, insisted on a squad chosen for sporting merits. Some would argue that Ryan Giggs’ inclusion at 38yrs old is no less sentimental than the inclusion of Beckham, but Giggs continues to ply his trade in the competitive arena of the EPL for Man Utd while Beckham saunters around the MLS. In a way I think Pearce may also have done Beckham a favour in protecting him from potential humiliation too! As Brazil prepare to send Neymar and Argentina potentially look toward Lionel Messi, together with the traditionally strong performances from the African nations, would David Beckham truly be able to compete at that level without seeing his decline brutally exposed in front of a worldwide audience? One thing is for sure, David Beckham does not deserve that indignity….