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Saturday, Feb. 14, 2009
Abramovich a constant reminder of the golden rule
LONDON — The decision had been made by the man who has changed the face of English football — some might say world football.
Roman Abramovich, Russian oligarch and billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, called an urgent meeting of his right-hand man Eugene Tenebaum and chairman Bruce Buck. A conference call was made to chief executive Peter Kenyon, who was on holiday in the West Indies.
There was little discussion, because what Abramovich says, always goes. One of the perks of being super-rich.
Chelsea's manager of nine months Luiz Felipe Scolari "was not working" and as you would expect when your billionaire boss makes such a statement, Tenebaum and Buck nodded.
Kenyon may have been shaking his head on the other end of the phone, but questioned the timing of such a decision, which may affect his future when he returns from his vacation.
Those who disagree with Abramovich do not always survive.
Abramovich had previously decided that Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant were also "not working" and the combined cost of compensation to the four ex-Chelsea managers will total around £35 million.
Even in the credit crunch such a figure will make minimal impact on Roman's financial empire.
Abramovich's biggest mistake was getting rid of Mourinho. This columnist did not like much of what the Portuguese said and did, but he delivered. Not always gift-wrapped and pretty but Mourinho won titles.
Al Davis, legendary owner of the NFL's Oakland Raiders, has a catchphrase, "Just win, baby."
But at Chelsea just winning is not enough. You must win while playing stunning football, thrashing the opposition with total football.
Mourinho's main problem was that he rubbed Abramovich the wrong way, and when you are a billionaire (I do not speak from experience, sadly) you are used to being the main man and people doing what you say. So rich Roman did what Roman does and showed Mourinho the door.
The most successful clubs are the ones where the manager is the driving force . . . Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool . . . Abramovich wants to assume that role, and while money can buy you many things, it cannot make you into a Sir Alex Ferguson, an Arsene Wenger or a Rafa Benitez.
Or even a Jose Mourinho.
Scolari arrived with a resume which included winning the World Cup with Brazil in 2002 and taking Portugal close to the winning post at Euro 2004 and Euro 2008, plus the 2006 World Cup. At these two jobs he worked only with Portuguese speakers, with each squad the same nationality. Handling a multinational, ego-driven Chelsea dressing room was something Scolari had never experienced.
The most damning comment came from captain John Terry who said: "Myself and two or three of the players were right behind the manager." Which means about 20 were not.
Scolari's failings were the lack of team fitness, underlined by late goals it had conceded. His substitutions were often baffling, while tactically Scolari seemed to have no Plan B. But too many Chelsea players have been underachieving this season and need to look in the mirror.
"We've not been performing well individually or collectively as a squad," said Terry. "That falls on the manager's head which is unfair because a few of us feel we could have done better with our time with the manager."
So in comes Guus Hiddink, this scribe's choice to succeed Sven-Goran Eriksson as England manager three years ago. Abramovich has been subsidizing Hiddink's salary as coach of Russia, and the Dutchman will combine both jobs until the end of the season.
Despite pledging his future to Russia, if he is the success I think he will be and Abramovich wants to keep Hiddink on a permanent contract, I have absolute confidence the billionaire will, as usual, get his way.
Hiddink has been a winner wherever he has worked. I am staggered he has not been given a top job in English football before, and four months of Hiddink will show us what we have been missing.
As he prepares to take over, Hiddink will phone Scolari to ask him the good, bad and ugly of the dressing room. If the bad and the ugly try to mess with the Dutchman, they are unlikely to forget his response.
The average life span of a Premier League is 15 months. In the Championship it is a year.
Richard Bevan, chief executive of the League Managers' Association, believes clubs should not have such a hair-trigger with the men in charge.
He said: "Clubs who stick with their managers longer term are the ones who succeed. Avram Grant had a win ratio of 71 percent and took Chelsea to the Champions League final but that wasn't acceptable.
"The demands for success are enormous and football is a results-driven business, but unless they find a manager who has stability for three to five years they won't win trophies on a regular basis.
"With Portsmouth, no matter what stats people throw at Tony Adams, if you are only given 16 games it's hard to find results and consistency in that time."
Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.