Managerial merry go round

AP

Hardly had Avram Grant been dismissed by Chelsea than it was made known that Shinawatra, owner of Manchester City, was considering him as a successor to manager Sven Goran Eriksson.

As the managerial merry go round spins madly on, at the end of the European club season, I am reminded of the wry anecdote recounted to me years ago by a man and a manager who knew all too well how that merry go round could spin. Bela Guttman was one of the most successful managers of his era. A Hungarian international centre-half before World War II, he had twice won the European Cup with Lisbon’s Benfica, launching Eusebio and his glorious right foot along the way. He also coached with success in South America, but when I met him by chance in a Roman restaurant in 1955, he had just been sacked by Milan; even though they then led the Serie A League.

“I’m going to have a clause in my next contract,” he remarked bitterly. “Not to be dismissed when the club is top of the League.” Then he told this all too significant little story.

Some while ago, he said, Lucchese, then for a brief while a Serie A team from the beautiful Tuscan city of Lucca, were on their way by train to play the mighty Juventus in Turin. On the journey their manager, poor fellow died. The directors were thrown into a panic. How could any Italian team take the field without a manager on the bench? In desperation, they phoned all over the peninsula until they had found a manager, who arrived just in time to sit on the bench. Lucchese then proceeded against all the odds to hold Juventus to a draw, and the players carried the new coach off the field on their shoulders.

The experience of poor Avram Grant seems to me alarmingly indicative. Sacked within days of Chelsea losing the European Cup Final, in Moscow, to Manchester United only on penalties and only because John Terry slipped, you wonder what would have happened had Chelsea won. Sack a manager who had just won the Euorpean Cup? It would have been hard, though it still might have made sense.

Yet, how much sense did it make for so many writers and commentators to go into ecstasies about the winning manager, Alex Ferguson, when the margin of his team’s victory was so very slight and fortuitous? Grant, an Israel manager, as we know was hurried into Chelsea’s managerial post, having for what it was worth been their director of football, hard on the heels of the sacking of the infinitely more vivid and charismatic Jose Mourinho. A friend of Chelsea’s millionaire owner, the Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, Grant could hardly have been more of a contrast with the flamboyant, voluble, egocentric Mourinho. His Press conferences were evasive dirges. The idea that he had been appointed to make Chelsea’s football more adventurous and entertaining hardly held water.

Yet, after an initial defeat, forgivable enough, at Manchester United, the team settled down to play reasonably well, even if it was hard to see the more exciting and ebullient style which Grant kept promising.

Few matches were lost, but they tended to be all too important ones. Such as the League Cup final against their London rivals Spurs at Wembley, when Grant’s decision to keep Joe Cole off the field for so long when, as he showed on entering, he was in such vigorous form, his insistence on keeping Nicolas Anelka, a hugely expensive purchase, out on the left flank rather than in support of Didier Drogba in the middle, made no sense.

There were rumours, strongly denied by Chelsea, that his players held a meeting at their training ground from which they excluded him. And late in the season, Anelka attacked him for continuously fielding him out of position. Though his accusation that he shouldn’t have been asked to take that missed penalty in Moscow after spending so much time on the bench held less water.

Worst of all was the abysmal 1-0 defeat in the FA Cup at humble Barnsley, the sort of result which, in Italy, would have had a manager sacked in a flash. But Grant survived that as well and eventually had the huge satisfaction of getting his team to the Moscow Euro final. But there, his selection was open to strong criticism. Above all, why choose for the left flank a Florent Malouda who, since a brief brisk start to the season, had looked anything but effective in recent games? And how daft to use Michael Essien as a vulnerable right-back? In passing, Chelsea could be said to have thrown away their chance of the Championship with a series of dull draws against modest opposition at Stamford Bridge, where their long unbeaten record looked less and less relevant when, in the final stage, one saw them held to 1-1 draws so embarrassingly by Wigan and Bolton Wanderers.

In Moscow, it would surely have made sense for Salomon Kalou to have started on the left rather than Malouda, instead of bringing him on too late to make a difference. True, United had the superiority and the chances to wrap the game up in the first-half. But they just didn’t take them, enabling Frank Lampard, against the run of the play — but that, historically, is football — to take advantage of a couple of deflections and equalising at that delicate psychological moment, just before half-time.

Hardly had Grant been dismissed than it was made known that the sinister Shinawatra, Thai owner of Manchester City, was considering him as a successor to Sven Goran Eriksson, who has begun the season in a blaze of glory only for the team to tail away badly. But why Grant? Surely the fact of the matter was that with glittering, hyper-costly squad such as Chelsea had assembled, thanks to Abramovich, almost any manager could have done well with it, and arguably, better than Grant.

Mark Hughes then emerged as a favourite for the Chelsea job, if Chelsea could prise their former Wales and Manchester United centre-forward away from Blackburn Rovers. It was interesting to see Hughes admitting that, when he became manager of Wales, he at first found it hard to get his bearings. I thought he never quite did, making errors of choice and tactics which sometimes cost the team dear, but he has learned on the job at Blackburn. Strange to see Frank Rijkaard in the frame and to read that he had simply left Barcelona. In fact, they sacked him after a deeply disappointing season.

Managerial talent, world wide, is thin on the ground. And sometimes a team might even do better without one.