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Chelsea: the state of permanent transition

By Hyder Jawad

It was the summer of 2008. I was in a hotel in Kensington, London, having a drink with Avram Grant, who, only a few weeks before, had lost his job as manager of Chelsea. Our conversation, punctuated relentlessly as he took a number of telephone calls, was off the record. There were no criticisms of Chelsea and none of Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, but I could see it in his eyes that Grant felt let down – let down by transitory nature of a game that has changed the definition of failure.

Grant had led Chelsea to the Uefa Champions League final against Manchester United in Moscow that year and, but for John Terry slipping at the crucial moment during the penalty shootout, would have won the trophy. My thoughts, as I spoke to Grant, were that even if Chelsea had won, it might only have bought him a few more months in the job.

Abramovich is too petulant, too capricious, for that kind of the professional intransience that Grant required.

When Abramovich sacked Roberto Di Matteo on Wednesday, a few hours after the 3-0 defeat to Juventus, I thought back to my meeting with Grant and realised that these men are not involved in a fair game. The rules – if, indeed, there are rules – are stacked firmly against them.

It seems clear that just as Abramovich probably never wanted to appoint Grant permanently, so he never wanted to appoint Di Matteo permanently. But, by winning the Champions League and FA Cup last May, Di Matteo put his employer in the strangest position. The time it took Abramovich to make Di Matteo’s appointment permanent – nearly a month – told its own story. Although Di Matteo signed a two-year contract, the appointment always had a short-term feel.

Abramovich wanted the Champions League above all else, but as the trophy sits in the boardroom at Stamford Bridge, the man who did most to secure the success is now out of work and probably feeling as perplexed as Avram Grant did in 2008. Securing the Holy Grail, it seems, was not enough. Di Matteo’s departure begs the question: what is good enough?

The Chelsea statement confirming Di Matteo’s departure was typically patronising; a document of meaningless words, of hollow compliments, and of laughable self-justification:

“Chelsea football club has parted company this morning with manager Roberto Di Matteo. The team's recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season. The club faces a difficult task ahead in qualifying for the knockout stages of the Uefa Champions League as well as maintaining a strong challenge for the top of the Premier League while competing in three other cup competitions. Our aim is to remain as competitive as possible and challenge strongly on all fronts.

“The owner and the board would like to thank Roberto for all he has done for the club since taking over in March. Roberto helped guide us to an historic Champions League victory and a seventh FA Cup. We will never forget the huge contribution he has made to this club's history and he will always be welcome at Stamford Bridge. The club will be making an announcement shortly regarding a new first team manager.”

As recently as October 20, Chelsea produced a superlative performance to defeat Tottenham Hotspur 4-2, to remain on top of the Premier League table, and it seemed likely that Di Matteo would at least survive 2012. A month on and, apparently, “the team's recent performances and results have not been good enough”.

Chelsea are now looking for their ninth manager since Abramovich purchased the club in 2003. Di Matteo’s consolations include a decent compensation package and membership of a growing club of managers who have fallen foul of the Abramovich whims. The other managers are: Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, and Andre Villas-Boas. The eight men have one thing in common: they know far more about football than Abramovich ever will.

How ridiculous it seems that a few bad results can cost you your job. How ridiculous that Abramovich should not consider the mitigating circumstances (the absences, at various times, of John Terry, Ashley Cole, and Frank Lampard). It did not help Di Matteo that Fernando Torres remains out of form and, in the context of the £50million transfer fee, arguably the biggest misfit in the club’s history. The man who acquired Torres was no less than Abramovich himself, and Liverpool could scarcely believe their luck at such a bad football decision.

Abramovich does not talk, so it is impossible to know exactly what constitutes the right Chelsea manager. Rumours are rife that Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona manager, received an offer a month ago to take over from Di Matteo. Whatever, it seems clear that Guardiola is Chelsea’s first choice and probably has been since last May. Di Matteo was just as stopgap, à la Avram Grant.

Guardiola, who led Barcelona to Uefa Champions League success in 2009 and in 2011, and did so with style and panache, is enjoying a sabbatical with his family in the United States. For all the money that Abramovich could offer him, Guardiola would be mad to put himself at the mercy of a club that shows neither loyalty nor nuance. For now, among the list of favourites are Rafael Benitez, the former Liverpool manager, who is eyeing the job as a short-term venture (presumably because he knows that Chelsea can never be a long-term venture).

Whatever happens, Chelsea will soon be looking for their tenth manager, and their 11th, and so forth, because the club under Abramovich characterises the transient nature of modern-day football. Everything is disposable. Even successful managers.

As for Di Matteo, he will do well to realise that the pain he suffers today is as temporary as the job from which he was sacked.