Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

James Lawton: Sympathy for a football man lost in an absurd circus

In the first shock waves of Jose Mourinho's departure there was much fevered speculation about whether he had walked or been pushed, but somehow it seemed as irrelevant as the specific method of a collective suicide.

Chelsea Football Club had, after all, been damaging itself so severely for so long that the demise of Mourinho, either by his own hand or the orders of his increasingly frustrated patron Roman Abramovich, carried the inevitability of a Greek, or in this case, Russian tragedy.



The actors played their parts, and said their words, and if the audience knew anything about the peculiar but self-evident dynamics of football it could not doubt for a serious moment where the plot was heading.



In all of it, it was possible, against all odds, to feel a growing sympathy for Mourinho, not because of what he represented as a man, not in his often nauseating arrogance and lack of sportsmanship, not in his willingness to tell lies that in one instance wrecked the career, and at least temporarily, the life of a referee, but in the fact that he was still demonstrably a football man, and a brilliant one in many ways, caught up in a circus. In the end the ringmaster was the owner's mouthpiece and, in football terms, he might just as well have been the resident clown.



It was chief executive Peter Kenyon who took Mourinho to the brink this week with his latest job specification for a Chelsea manager : the requirement of two Champions League wins in the next few years. This, said Kenyon, was necessary if Chelsea were to become a world "brand". The desperate home draw with lowly Rosenborg of Norway in a more than half empty stadium promptly made the projection as heavy as it was absurd, as was Kenyon's demand of Mourinho's predecessor Claudio Ranieri that not only did he win, but by five-goal margins and with at least one of the strikes coming from long distance.



Chelsea have locked themselves into a surreal collision of big money and big ambitions – and not as much hard-nosed football knowledge as required to get through an afternoon at Hackney Marshes.



Mourinho will not go short of job offers, here and across Europe, but he will be kidding himself if he thinks there is any point in packing his bags with much of the old mythology.



His declaration that he was the Special One had been shop soiled for some time, but now it is not worth an ancient trading stamp.



Special ones do not allow their power to dwindle to next to nothing; they do not let go of their control of signings, the key to the success of any manager; they do not allow the appointment of the owner's cronies in positions of influence; they do not get separated from the source of power so completely that they are reduced to their last asset: the loyalty of the dressing room.



When that wavers, as it apparently did over the weekend, Mourinho was down to the affection of fans who for so long had been starved of any significant success, but its value had been dwindling for some time under the weight of disdain, even ridicule, from the owner's box.



The Chelsea manager was surely using up the last of his pride when he stayed around after Abramovich's dismissive body language in the wake of the 2-0 defeat at Villa Park. The Oligarch marched from his seat like some petulant schoolboy barred from the tuck shop, and all the world could see what it had suspected for so long : the Special One was now operating on borrowed time.



When time ran out this week it was no doubt much to the benefit of his contractual negotiations, but the cost to his pride had been levied too long for his authority to survive.



The vital lesson for Abramovich cannot now be imparted from the business office of Kenyon, with his figures and his commercial projections, or various other tame occupants of rungs further down the ladder of command, and certainly not the former football director and now, as a final insult to the memory of the Special One, the new manager, Avram Grant.



Grant, the friend of the owner and a man with breathtakingly slender credentials was originally appointed despite the manager's protests, and chief scout Frank Arnesen was another provocation to Mourinho.



Abramovich must remember the principles by which he became a government-approved owner of so much of Russia's mineral wealth. He has to see what works in football, an allegedly simple game, as he did so acutely the action along the corridors of Kremlin politics and business manipulation.



He has to see you cannot parcel up leadership of a winning football club. Such a club is never a working democracy. It is the autocracy of a Stein or a Busby, a Ferguson or a Wenger. Of course such men are subject to the limits of budgets. They are liable to be fired, but not so long as they do their job well and, most vitally, on their own terms.



If he always wanted fantasy football at Stamford Bridge, if it wasn't something that he understood might grow naturally out of the development of the early success Mourinho achieved so brilliantly, Abramovich was disastrously advised in his move for the Special One, whose speciality wasn't mystical at all. It was the ability to identify those players with the energy and power and discipline to make a team, one that would work and battle in an irresistible way. That's what happened when he ran the modestly financed Porto all the way to Champions League success and he did not arrive at Chelsea with any new bag of tricks. It was the same old routine, with Frank Lampard for Deco, and of course it worked in every way except for the aesthetic pleasure of the man who was footing the bill and, it now appears, craving to be loved for the beauty of his football team.



You cannot buy love in football any more than you can anywhere else. It happens for various reasons; the chemistry of individual players, the style of the team, the way it grows together and acquires the confidence to express all of its ability.



Under the influence of Kenyon, or vice versa more likely, Abramovich seems to believe that you can get such football on a five-year plan. But five-year plans are for economies and land reclamation and building programmes. You cannot order up beautiful football. You have to have the right people in the right place at the right time.



Guus Hiddink, already on the Abramovich payroll as coach of Russia, was considered one possible successor to Mourinho, and there was talk of Seville's Juande Ramos. Both have reputations for creative football and Hiddink, particularly, has long been seen as his own man.



Plainly, though, Abramovich has no desire for such an independent figure. His most recent track record suggests a wish for a compliant manager, one ready to accept signings like Andrei Shevchenko, imposed over his head but also capable of producing sublime entertainment on the way to quickfire European titles. Such a football man is not known to exist. Avram Grant is surely the irrefutable proof.

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