Mourinho. Grant. Scolari. Hiddink. The revolving door of Chelsea FC management continues to spin. A newcomer to the world of the English Premier League might wonder at first glance if Chelsea is another incarnation of Newcastle United, forever dreaming of success, struggling with results, and then sacking the boss when the season falls apart. But Chelsea’s achievements quickly dispel that theory. Two league titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups and a Community Shield (if you care about that sort of thing) all since Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003. Chelsea also enjoyed a record home unbeaten streak in the League, an 86 match run that ended only this season when Liverpool beat them 1-0.
After purchasing the club, Abramovich quickly plunged his own financial resources into the subsequent transfer windows, buying up enough top shelf talent to transform Chelsea into his own personal dream team. The Russian oligarch eschewed the role of pragmatic investor and acted more like a twelve-year-old plugging a cheat code into a video game. Up up down down triangle square: Chelsea’s bank account suddenly bubbled over with funds and it became hunting season in the superplayer market for the West London club. The detriment his rash spending caused European football (setting ridiculous standards and overblowing the value of the talent) may seem less consequential in today’s market since Manchester City’s £130m bid on Kaka makes Abramovich’s deals look modest. But the Russian’s moves and methods were quite a shock when he first made them and he quickly transformed Chelsea from a mid-table standard to a title contender. And to think this was the same club that had fought to avoid relegation to the old third division in the early 80s.
To steer his platinum squad to victory, Abramovich brought in Jose Mourinho for an initial salary of £4.2 million. And indeed, all the aforementioned trophies were gathered during the Portuguese manager’s expensive, dynamic reign. But a poor Champions League outing last season escalated the tensions that had been boiling between owner and manager for many months and before anyone could grasp what had happened: Mourinho was gone. By all official accounts, he resigned, but what, if anything did Abramovich do to hold on to the man who had brought Chelsea so many rewards? Very little it would seem.
Almost immediately, Abramovich gave the job to Avram Grant. Grant was promoted from director of football to manager, a surprising move since Grant’s resume, with no coaching experience outside of Israel, was very sparse in contrast with Mourinho’s. For a club of Chelsea’s new found stature, his appointment proved baffling to the football world. His main qualification seemed to be his longstanding friendship with Abramovich. And yet, despite the widespread skepticism of his managerial worth, Grant guided Chelsea into second place in both of the coveted races: a mere two points behind Manchester United in the Premier League, and losing to them in the Champions League final on penalty kicks. Many would consider this a brilliant start to a promising managerial career, but not Abramovich. Second best is nowhere near good enough. Grant’s contract was terminated at season’s end.
To start the 2008/09 campaign, Abramovich brought in Philippe Scolari. Here was a proper heir to Mourinho’s kingdom, at least on paper. Scolari is a legend of international football, having coached the Brazilian national team to a World Cup victory in 2002 and bringing Portugal as far as the semi-finals in 2006. Many questioned whether he could adapt this international effectiveness to the world of club football, but overall it seemed his abilities and experience combined with Chelsea’s overwhelming talent and depth should prove to be a highly successful marriage. At the beginning of the season Chelsea looked virtually unstoppable. The goals kept coming and clean sheets abounded. But streaks thrive and fade and the winning run gave way to a series of unconvincing results. And though Chelsea are currently only seven points behind league leaders Manchester United, the gap was enough for Abramovich to pull the lever to the trap door beneath Scolari.
What Abramovich fails to understand is good leadership often needs time. Apart from Chelsea the other two clubs to find repeated success have been Manchester United and Arsenal. The former’s results have been staggering, the latter’s impressive. But it took Sir Alex Ferguson years to establish himself as a successful coach for Man U. And while Arsene Wenger has not won trophies for Arsenal every year, his board has been patient with him as his long-term planning and youth development have been healthy for the Gunners both as a competitive force and as a global brand. Once these men established their ability to achieve, neither have had to worry about keeping their jobs in the years when they haven’t won big. So far, their organizations seem willing to take the long view and stand by the men who have delivered the success. Abramovich has no such patience. Otherwise, Mourinho would still be steering the boat.
As Chelsea’s new manager, Guss Hiddink, takes charge, he must look at his predecessors and realize job security is not implicit when Abramovich is writing the paychecks, and frankly, even a League title may not ensure a renewed contract if Chelsea are knocked out of the Champions League, a prize Abramovich is so intent on claiming. Hiddink does almost have a luxury in that his contract only extends to the end of the current season. He won’t be fighting to keep a job, only, perhaps, to extend it. This somehow seems like less pressure than Mourinho, Grant and Scolari bore during their stints in charge. I suppose it depends on what Hiddink’s goals are as Chelsea manager. Perhaps the pressure will be the same if he sees a future with the Blues beyond this year.
But even if Abramovich’s mother were to take the reigns as Chelsea manager after Hiddink doesn’t meet the great expectations bestowed upon him, she’d surely stay up late nights, sleepless, wondering if her son will sack her if she doesn’t get maximum points in the next match against Wigan. Maybe Chelsea managers should except that Abramovich’s hatchet is inevitable, and start taking bets on who can last the longest.
Roman is interested in immediate results. There’s no waiting for glory as far as he is concerned. Anyone who doesn’t bring the instant trophies will be out the door. No question. José. Avram. Philippe. Guus. Mum. Anyone.