The curious case of club chairmen

Club owners or chairmen can be a strange lot to deal with. There are the ever over-powering lot of Roman Abramovich and Silivio Berlusconi and also people like Sheikh Mansour of Man City, who has given his manager Roberto Mancini a free run. Over to Brian Glanville.

Many years ago, Len Shackleton, alias the Clown Prince of Soccer, a greatly gifted maverick inside forward, published a book under that nickname. It caused immediate controversy for its chapter headed ‘The average directors knowledge of football'. The page was provocatively blank.

How true was it then, and how true can it be today in the vastly different, hugely more lucrative, football which we now can enjoy or deplore? Recently, when Chelsea, under the new regime of the precocious 34-year-old Portuguese, Andre Villas-Boas, hit a very bleak spell indeed, conceding no fewer than five goals at Stamford Bridge to their London rivals Arsenal, there was much discussion of how far the Russian oligarch billionaire Roman Abramovich was pulling the strings at Stamford Bridge.

One leading sports columnist made Abramovich the chief culprit in Chelsea's ups and downs, deploring his effect on transfer policy. And indeed you can cite two flagrant instances of Abramovich plainly getting his way at the expense of the team.

Surely, a few seasons ago, no sane manager would have shelled out GBP30 million to enlist Andrei Shevchenko, an Ukrainian international centre forward with you might say, a great future behind him. Plus a huge salary. All too predictably, Shevchenko was an utter failure, never able to command a regular place in the team's attack.

But last season Abramovich surely surpassed himself when, clearly at his own instigation, the club paid a colossal GBP50 million to Liverpool for another centre forward so clearly past his meridian. In this case it was, of course the Spaniard, Fernando Torres, not since a salient figure in his country's attack, with almost irresistible gifts of speed and control. But that was emphatically in the past. By the time Torres arrived at Chelsea from Liverpool, his spark and speed and confidence had gone. No more spectacular goals. When he did play, he was virtually a passenger.

But just as Villas Boas' managerial predecessor Carlo Ancelotti, who, after all, had won the Cup and League double, was obliged to use Shevchenko now and then, so it seems that Villas Boas has to protect his back by using, however unproductively, Torres now and then.

Patience, meanwhile, has hardly been a virtue of Abramovich when it comes to Chelsea managers. After he had somewhat petulantly quit the Directors' Box at Villa Park when his team went a couple of goals down, he soon got rid of Jose Mourinho who, however flamboyant and controversial, has unquestionably been one of the outstanding managers of his day, going on to win a second European Cup with Inter then flourishing with Real Madrid. In his place Abramovich surprisingly installed the obscure Israeli figure of Avram Grant. The word, however hotly denied by Chelsea, was that when things were going wrong, the players had a meeting about it from which Grant was excluded.

You can, however, understand that when a Chairman or a President puts massive sums of money into a club, he will expect to have a say. Curiously enough, however, you don't hear stories of Sheikh Mansour and his fellow Abu Dhabi billionaires interfering with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City, where they have splashed enormous sums of money.

Now will you hear any complaints about Dave Whelan, owner and Chairman of modest Wigan. For Whelan himself was an accomplished professional footballer whose career as a fullback came to a bitter end one day in the 1980 Cup final at Wembley, when he broke a leg playing for Blackburn Rovers against Wolves. Out of evil, however, cometh good. Whelan went into business and became the millionaire owner of a chain of sports goods shops. Recently with typical modesty he declared that he thought it might be time to stand down.

You couldn't imagine Silvio Berlusconi, the ineffable President of Italy which has fallen on such evil economic times; quitting as the President of the Milan club. To give him his due, it has flourished under his regime and one star player, the Yugoslav international forward, Dejan Savicevic, has thanked Berlusconi for restoring his confidence.

As against that, Berlusconi was once hell bent on signing the Argentine centre-forward Claudio Borghi, who'd fail in Italian football, rather than the influential Dutch midfielder, Frank Rijkaard. His manager, Arrigo Sacchi, persuaded him to buy Rijkaard, who proceeded to form a triumphant Dutch trio with Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten.

Blackburn at the moment are owned by the millionaire proprietors of an Indian chicken business. They don't profess to be soccer experts and are allegedly advised by the agent, Jerome Anderson, but what does it matter? They have been much criticised for getting rid of Sam Allardyce as manager and appointing his assistant, the pilloried Steve Kean in his place. But at least — so far — the chicken millionaires have bravely defied huge pressure from the fans, to keep Kean in his place, even improving his contract.