Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

James Lawton: Abramovich the tinker man undermines Mourinho's own vision of a dream team

There we were believing that no football manager had ever been humiliated quite so relentlessly, at least publicly, as Tottenham's Martin Jol. But that was before the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, dusted down his best samovar for the weekend visit to his Knightsbridge home of Roberto de Assis Moreira, the agent and brother of Ronaldinho.

"Roman's dream scheme," said the headline. Roman's dream maybe, but there were surely nightmarish implications, once again, for his manager, Jose Mourinho.



If it was really true that the oligarch was attempting another unilateral move into the market, if he has indeed reached the conclusion that his yearning for beautiful football can be satisfied only by signing one big name after another, the manager's already difficult position had to be touching the untenable.



Mourinho was saying the other day that Chelsea had closed the transfer window in advance of Friday's deadline and if this statement was correct, rather than the wishful thinking of a coach who has always prided himself on his ability to build a team rather than maintain a star system, it could be that Abramovich and his closest advisers were merely involved in some preliminary prospecting. This view was vehemently advanced back at the Nou Camp, where Barcelona swear that Ronaldinho is going nowhere this season.



Whatever the reality, the circumstantial evidence is not encouraging for those who imagined that Mourinho's ability to survive the erosion of his command and retain the loyalty of his players promised a return to the certainties and power of his first two seasons at Stamford Bridge. For the owner to fraternise with the agent of the world's most valuable and, it seems, most demanding footballer, is surely to reawaken the fears that came when Abramovich imposed Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Ballack on a reluctant Mourinho last season.



These concerns can be summarised briefly enough. Abramovich is utterly weary of the functional football that brought the clatter of domestic silverware as his first returns on a vast investment and now his patience, drained a little more by another victory of attrition, this time over Portsmouth, has been exhausted to the point where he, quite literally, has only stars in his eyes.



No star shone more brightly than Ronaldinho's on the way to the Champions League final and the World Cup of last year but, on current evidence, there have to be serious reservations about his capacity to regain the sublime touch and confidence that twice made him the world's player of the year.



That Ronaldinho was a football gem, but the lustre was clouded game by game in the World Cup and was almost lost from sight as Barça surrendered their grasp on the titles of both Europe and Spain.



At the World Cup a bemused Mario Zagallo, who won the tournament as a player and a coach, asked, "When is Ronaldinho going to turn up? Not the one who is giving such a poor impersonation here, but the one who plays for Barcelona."



Abramovich's apparently ever-increasing desire to be involved in the detailed workings of his club provokes another question: when is Mourinho going to re-establish a little of his old control and conviction about the proper basis for a football empire?



The truth, however the Ronaldinho business unravels, is that certain ground in football, as in other arenas where authority is the key to success, can never be reclaimed. You either have it or you lose it and it is never again negotiable.



Mourinho had his choice to make at the end of last season. He could have walked away from Stamford Bridge, safe in the knowledge that he was one of the game's most marketable coaching commodities.



Yes, he had surrendered the Premiership to Manchester United, but there was considerable kudos in the manner of Chelsea's FA Cup victory over the new champions and Mourinho's record was surely proofed against one or two disappointments. Mourinho's other option was to take Abramovich's money and whatever impositions that came with it.



He still had the loyalty of the dressing room, but then for how long?



How fervent would be the commitment of the arch-loyalists John Terry and Frank Lampard, this side of signing a contract, if they found their wages dwarfed by a player who might, in terms of his aura and his sense of his own importance, might have arrived from another planet?



No doubt Chelsea fans would have cause to celebrate a player of Ronaldinho's pedigree, but how much of that pleasure would be diluted by the knowledge that certain other strengths of their team – indeed, the ones that for a while made them look untouchable in their ambition, at least at home – were unlikely to survive the arrival of such a superstar?



The point is that the best football managers have their own vision of their team. Ferguson's is of attacking strength, width and the contribution of players of outstanding talent and character. Wenger's is absolute absorption in the challenge of producing beautiful football. Mourinho's has been clear from the start. It is the building of strength and organisation and a team psyche that he can control and unleash.



Ronaldinho, quite simply, is not Mourinho's kind of player. He is an individual around whom a team must be built, a team who must respond to almost his every heartbeat.



If Mourinho was still the man at Chelsea, this reality would have been as tangible as any samovar in the oligarch's palace. However, we can presume that it wasn't. Abramovich, it is increasingly clear, has decided he should determine membership of the Chelsea playpen, and the kind of game that is played.



Maybe it's not the way to run a football club, but who could argue it's not a fun way to spend your own money?



Moss can guide Hamilton through chicane of celebrity



Before his weekend outburst on the price of fame, it might have been possible to give young Lewis Hamilton a poignant insight into how it used to be when even a god of the racing track could slip easily into the life of a London neighbourhood.



You could have taken him to a byway of Mayfair and shown him the relatively modest town house of Stirling Moss. It is full of gadgets, for which the great man developed a deep fascination after he left the tracks on which he was considered to be the finest driver who never won a world title, but from the outside its only distinguishing mark is the outline of an old sports car, in British racing green, of course.



Moss is part of his neighbourhood, a little gruff at times, but generally amiable.



He has announced himself a fan of Hamilton and, who knows, he may be persuaded to give the current superstar a talk on how to deal with the onset of fame – and, hopefully, a lifetime of celebrity.



No doubt part of it would be to do with the value of counting your good fortune – and, perhaps, not taking yourself too seriously. Hamilton and his devoted and brilliantly supportive father have said that they are ready for the hard times and will know how to deal with them. This makes it a little disappointing to hear that an instant hero of British sport, inconvenienced somewhat by unruly paparazzi, is about to defect to Switzerland.



From Sir Stirling, no doubt, the reaction was a resounding snort.



Sotherton's bronze comes against a bleak background



Kelly Sotherton, once categorised as a wimp by her coach, deserves all praise for fighting through to a bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships in Japan. But national joy, we must hope she understands, is unlikely to be utterly unrestrained.



In five years' time London will stage an Olympics which were awarded, we were told, as an investment in the future of youth. This, some of us will always believe, was an astonishing reward for the systematic destruction of sport in this country as an integral part of the education of young Britons.



Now pleasure at the success of Sotherton (right) has to be set against the bleak likelihood that her bronze will mark the nation's only success in the current championships. It is sad to think a Britain which once produced athletes of the quality of Roger Bannister, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Mary Peters is now required to trumpet a single bronze medal. Sickening, though, is probably a better word when you consider the orgy of self-congratulation that followed the winning Olympic bid.

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