at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – Shortly after the termination of his seventh marriage, Larry King, the American talk-show host, reached a perceptive conclusion. ‘I’m just not good at marrying,’ he said. True, he slipped back a few years later, when he married for the eighth time, but that was just force of habit. For the old goat had experienced a moment of self-awareness and it did him credit.
Larry’s marital misadventures came leaping to mind when Bruce Buck made his latest pronouncement. Buck is an American attorney whose expertise is in mergers, project finance and capital market transactions. He is also the chairman of Chelsea Football Club. Quite soon, he will start to draw up a list of candidates for the post of Chelsea manager.
Now, Chelsea already possess a manager, a competent chap named Rafa Benitez, who stands a sporting chance of qualifying them for next season’s Champions League, as well as winning the Europa League. An admirable effort but it won’t be enough for the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich.
For this is the man who sent Jose Mourinho packing after he had won two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups in three years as manager. And even those of us who winced at his posturing would concede the immensity of his achievement.
Abramovich was similarly dismissive of Carlo Ancelotti, who won the League and Cup double, and Roberto di Matteo, who was sent on his way after winning first the FA Cup and then, weeks later, the Champions League. In all, the owner is seeking the 10th manager of his 10-year Chelsea tenure; a statistic as absurd as it is insulting.
The obedient Buck explained his master’s modus operandi: “I know we have fired what most people would say is a lot of managers – terminated the relationship is a better way to describe it – but we’ve always thought long and hard when we’ve done it. It’s always sad when a relationship is terminated … We certainly believe in stability in managers but it has to be with the right manager.”
And that’s when the stomach turns. You see, the modern game has more than its share of apparatchiks who are prepared to defend the indefensible. Ten managers in 10 years, yet “we certainly believe in stability”. Utterly pathetic. And that bit about always thinking “long and hard”. It offends the intelligence.
For we can all see that the owner’s managerial appointments have nothing to do with serious strategy; everything to do with hunch, whim, fancy and the opinion of the last person who whispered in his ear.
Yet Buck, that master of the capital market, can churn out his company-speak with the air of a man unused to contradiction. Why is it “sad” when another one bites the dust? How can “terminated the relationship” be more accurate than “fired”? Can he really believe his own self-serving gibberish?
Surely not because the evidence is stacked up against him. Those who have chosen wisely and kept faith with their choice have been suitably rewarded: Wenger at Arsenal, Moyes at Everton and, even after just three years, Mancini at City. They have proved the point month by month, season after season.
Then there is that old gentleman in Manchester, after whom they name grandstands and erect statues and who is almost a definition of stability. The message is blatantly obvious, yet still Abramovich doesn’t get it. Of course, he may point to an impressive collection of cups and titles these past 10 seasons and he has a case. But they are the trophies of transient overseers, the ephemeral achievements of men who put down no roots.
The genuinely durable football clubs are those who favour dynasties above passing strangers, the permanent above the temporary. Chelsea ought to be such a club but the butterfly instincts of their owner make it impossible.
Such is the tribal nature of our game that any criticism is greeted with derision and worse. In this respect, at least, Chelsea’s followers have much in common with their confreres in Manchester and Liverpool. But the more reflective among them are uneasy with the way in which managers are hastily hired and lightly fired, with their pockets full and their reputation bruised.
For the result has been a state of permanent revolution, with a cabal of senior players enjoying a damaging and disproportionate influence on the conduct of the club.
And it matters because Chelsea are a major presence on the English scene. They ought to stand for something; instead, they stand for anything. At least Larry King has learned from his multiple mistakes. If only Roman Abramovich could make the same claim. – Mail On Sunday