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. ┬áThe 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?

Violin for John Terry….

There are few professional football players who perform the aggrieved, badly done to, woe-is-me role with as much skill and passion as Chelsea’s John Terry. And the fallout from the former England captain’s inexplicably delayed disciplinary hearing over his alleged racial abuse of QPR’s Anton Ferdinand has seen Terry face the prospect of a ridiculously lenient 4-match EPL suspension with his trademark sulk.

Having been cleared, just, of racially aggravated charges in an English Magistrates Court earlier in the summer – but conveniently late enough for him to participate in England’s Euro 2012 campaign – Terry’s initial stance was to feign incredulity that the English Football Association had the the temerity to pursue their own independent investigation against him. Never mind that the presiding magistrate in his criminal acquittal suggested in his summing-up that “Mr Terry’s explanation is, certainly under the cold light of forensic examination, unlikely”, the fact that the evidence was not sufficient to secure a criminal conviction under the “beyond all reasonable doubt” English legal requirement was, in John Terry’s closetted World, an endorsement of his pure innocence regarding the whole unsavoury incident.

But the FA, and every other right-minded individual outside of London SW6, thought otherwise and Terry duly found himself facing FA charges requiring the somewhat less demanding “balance of probabilities” burden of proof. Terry’s admirable, if mis-guided, defence in court was to roadtest a variety of paper-thin excuses to explain how he had been caught on TV directing offensive words towards Ferdinand, excuses ranging from sarcasm to supposedly repeating what Ferdinand had previously said to him in search of clarification. But the FA merely needed to demonstrate “use of abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour which included a reference to ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race”. The context in which the words or phrases had been used was irrelevant – thus shattering Terry’s implausible defence in court – and his being found guilty was as inevitable as Man Utd being awarded a controversial penalty!

And Terry’s reaction? Showing a staggering, if unsurprising, lack of awareness, John Terry decided to position himself as the victim of a witchhunt; the big bad bullies at the FA pursuing a vendetta against this most homely of souls. By petulantly retiring from international football on the eve of his hearing, in a vain attempt to evoke sympathy from the general public, Terry succeeded instead in merely reaffirming the widespread perception that he is a spoilt, untouchable brat; pandered to his every whim within the corridors of his Stamford Bridge kingdom.

His childish petulance and self-centred agenda reminds me of another ‘untouchable’ in EPL history, namely former England striker Alan Shearer. Readers may recall Shearer’s reaction to the close attentions of then-Leicester City midfielder and current Celtic manager Neil Lennon; essentially Shearer clearly and deliberately repeatedly kicked the fallen Lennon in the face while the two jostled on the touchline during a match. Shearer, at the time the undisputed leader of the England attack, threatened very publically to refuse to participate in the upcoming FIFA World Cup 1998 should the English FA dare to pursue disciplinary proceedings against him. Needless to say the spineless FA buckled and Shearer was free to continue on his merry way….

John Terry has had plenty of practice to hone his wounded puppy act, whether it was drunkenly insulting American tourists over the 9/11 atrocity, being caught selling private tours of Stamford Bridge or fighting lurid accusations of affairs. Even as recently as last season Terry sought to take the badly-done-to stance when dismissed for his crude knee into the back of FC Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez during their European Champions League semi-final encounter. Despite facing suspension for one of the most blatant and crass off-the-ball fouls you will ever see, Terry’s immediate response was to claim the whole incident had been a horrid accident. Why? Because his pampered life at Chelsea had him believing he would simply get away with it. Even when confronted with irrefutable TV evidence suggesting a slightly greater level of culprability on his part, Terry’s subsequent apology for risking a place in the Champions League Final by forcing his teammates to fend off Messi & Co. with a man down for an hour was said with all the genuine remorse of a Trade Union Leader announcing another holiday airport baggage strike! Laughable!

While repolishing his halo as he contemplates an ill-judged appeal against the FA’s verdict, John Terry needs to carefully consider his actual standing in the game rather than the fluffy, warm and cosy treatment he enjoys at Stamford Bridge. Terry remains one of the most unpopular characters in the EPL and any frivolous appeal would just add to the long list of reasons to despise him. Rather he should consider his good fortune in facing a ban of just four games when compared with the precedent set in Luis Suarez’s eight-match suspension….



John Terry Not Guilty… the moment.

One of the most embarrassing and distasteful sagas of the absent English summer has finally drawn to a close with the utterly unsurprising news that Chelsea captain John Terry has been cleared of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand during an English Premier League match last November.

Despite some fairly damning TV pictures seeming to show John Terry uttering the alleged racist language, his defence team successfully argued that he had done so in a challenge to Ferdinand’s accusation rather than as an abusive and aggravated attack. By establishing that element of doubt, however tenuous it may be, the prosecution case was never going to be deemed sufficiently conclusive as to satisfy the English legal requirement in criminal proceedings that guilt must be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”. And so Terry skipped gleefully into the sunset, his angelic reputation salvaged and ready to fight another day.

There are few players who polarise opinion within the English game more passionately than John Terry. Within the bowels of Stamford Bridge and among the Chelsea faithful he is their talismanic captain, the warrior, the heart-on-his-sleeve symbol of their club and the innocent victim of a sustained campaign of media witch hunts. Outside of West-London and Terry is perceived as a thug both on and off the pitch, a spiteful character who virtually owns Stamford Bridge and who can get away with just about anything he likes. But if their are any rivals for the honour of most disliked EPL footballer then Luis Suarez, the spiky, confrontational and thoroughly unpopular Liverpool striker, must be very high up on that list.

Coincidentally Suarez also found himself facing allegations of racial abuse earlier in the 2011/12 EPL season, with serial accuser Patrice Evra alleging that he had been racially abused by Suarez during a typically hostile Liverpool vs Man Utd encounter. There was no substantial or credible third party evidence to support either Suarez or Evra but, after a somewhat brief inquiry, the English FA, spurred on by a bloodthirsty media hell-bent on making an example of Suarez, found the Uruguayan guilty of using inappropriate language towards Evra and duly hit him with a substantial fine and an eight-match domestic suspension. In what was essentially a “he said I said” situation, the FA were satisfied that the available evidence was sufficient to arrive at a guilty verdict under their less stringent “balance of probabilities” requirement.

Which brings me back to John Terry. The FA rightly postponed their own inquiry into the Terry/Ferdinand incident so as not to unduly affect or influence the ongoing criminal proceedings, but surely they are now duty bound to reopen that inquiry? In passing judgement earlier today the presiding Magistrate stressed that while the use of the offending language was not in doubt – either by the court or the attending parties – he could not eliminate the doubt that Terry’s legal team had introduced to the case. While he expressed his own misgivings as to the validity of Terry’s argument he did concede that sufficient doubt had been raised and thus the “beyond reasonable doubt” criteria could not be satisfied.

However, as proved in the FA’s handling of the Luis Suarez incident, the FA’s determining requirement is a good deal below that required in a criminal court. In fact the FA’s criteria seems to be little more than a 50-50 stab in the dark! And bearing in mind that Terry’s own defence did not at any stage attempt to deny his using the most offensive of racial slurs – although they did question the context in which they were used – then it would seem from the outside that the FA’s inquiry ought to reach a similarly speedy and decisive verdict as was reached in the Suarez case. Unless of course the FA decide that being an England international and a former England captain somehow entitles a person to preferential treatment over a Uruguayan import?

It will be interesting to see how the FA wriggle and squirm their way through the coming days and weeks with the reminder of the precedent set in their hasty dealing of Luis Suarez surely casting a very relevant shadow over their inquiry into John Terry…