Chelsea in chaos?

AP

Recently at Upton Park, when Chelsea manager Avram Grant (in pic) was asked why he had kept his chief goal-scorer, Didier Drogba, on the bench and used Nicolas Anelka as his sole striker, his evasive reply was that he didn’t like to talk about players who hadn’t been playing!

Will Roman Abramovich ever rue the day he strode out of the Aston Villa Press Box, after Villa had scored their second goal against a Chelsea team — his Chelsea team — whom they’d defeat 2-0. It effectively marked the end of the flamboyant Jose Mourinho’s managership of the South West London club. This though under the combative Portuguese, Chelsea had won the FA Cup, the League Cup and the English Premier League.

Mourinho had made clear his displeasure and disappointment that he wasn’t given some of Abramovich’s — the Russian oligarch’s — billions to spend when the transfer window opened in January. For his part, Abramovich seemed unhappy with the somewhat parsimonious kind of soccer Chelsea were playing, despite all their stars. So the dour Israeli, Avram Grant, who, to Mourinho’s dissatisfaction, had been hanging about in the background as some kind of a supposed technical director was surprisingly made the new manager; and made implicit promises, yet to be fulfilled, to produce a more adventurous and entertaining style of soccer.

For some weeks the jury was out. Chelsea, under Grant, were after all winning most of their matches, though some, like their home 0-0 draw against Liverpool, which I was unlucky enough to see, and their similarly goalless draw in Athens against Olimpiakos in the European Cup were mind numbingly boring.

And while, for all his swagger and egotism, Mourinho’s Press Conferences after matches could at least be entertaining and amusing, Grant could be the dullest of dogs. Recently at Upton Park, after his team was reduced for most of the match to 10 men when Frank Lampard was undeservedly sent off, I asked him why he had kept his chief goal-scorer, Didier Drogba, on the bench and used Nicolas Anelka — recently bought from Bolton — as his sole striker, his evasive reply was that he didn’t like to talk about players who hadn’t been playing!

That win against Hammers came hard on the heels of a disastrous defeat by Spurs in the League Cup Final at Wembley which was surely in large measure thanks to Grant’s inept tactics and selection. Deciding to use both Drogba and Anelka in attack, he inexplicably banished Anelka to the left-wing, where he was predictably nullified. And, equally bizarre, he kept two of his most gifted and influential players, Joe Cole and Germany captain Michael Ballack, till absurdly late in the game.

That 4-0 win at Upton Park and an easy win at Stamford Bridge in the European Cup return, 3-0, versus Olimpiakos were some consolation. But then came major disaster. The FA Cup quarterfinal defeat at humble Barnsley who, though they’d won at Liverpool in the previous round, were bumping around at the lower end of the so-called Championship, alias the second division. True it was hardly Grant’s fault that the only goal by Barnsley’s giant Nigerian centre-forward Odejayi was the fault of a pathetic piece of goalkeeping by Carlo Cudicini, who barely even jumped to challenge the striker in the air. Nevertheless it was by Chelsea’s colossally expensive cohorts a wretched display about which Abramovich was said to be incensed. But which enormously pleased English football at large with this splendid reassurance that money after all may not be everything. Not to mention the fact that Chelsea are well on the way to becoming a deeply antipathetic club.

Not even in the draconian days of their previous patron, Ken Bates, when journalists were regularly excluded from the Press Box and Ken’s regular match programme notes lashed out at all and sundry, but chiefly at the media, had there been anything as outrageous as the case of the League Cup Final match programme. An almost Stalinist example of censorship. Though, given the present state of media repression in Russia, it was tempting to call it Putinist.

Indiscreet, perhaps, as Abramovich, who like other oligarchs owed his immense fortune to the patronage of the Yeltsins, Boris and daughter, is known, unlike some other oligarchs — the once wealthiest of all now in jail for nine years, having recklessly opposed Putin — to be on good terms with the Russian autocrat. But the way Chelsea censored that programme brought all too vivid and alarming memories of Soviet days, when those leaders who fell out with the regime became so-called Unpersons. Almost literally airbrushed — in official photos — from memory.

Chelsea had, in fact, granted access to players provided they had final approval of the eventual interviews. And when in some of these favourable mention was made of Mourinho, Chelsea insisted that these be suppressed. One should not automatically assume that Abramovich was in any way involved. It might have been the work of some apparatchik, anxious to impress the owner.

It was not only an arrogant thing to do, it was also profoundly stupid, since once it became known, which it quickly did, thanks to a Sunday newspaper, the repercussions were predictable. The word is that Chelsea, next summer, will appoint Barcelona’s Dutch coach, Frank Rijkaard. The very man Mourinho so infamously blackguarded, when the teams met in the European Cup, quite wrongly accusing him of entering the referee’s dressing room, when the teams played at Nou Camp. So it goes.

By contrast, when Chelsea scored a vital goal at Stamford Bridge, thanks to Carvalho’s blatant foul on the goalkeeper, Rijkaard, at the subsequent Press conference, didn’t even mention it. Mourinho is a rotten loser; but a far better manager than Grant.