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Time will tell if Hiddink can heal bruised reputation

By Mark Ogden

Guus Hiddink was presented with an engraved watch by Chelsea's grateful players when he left Stamford Bridge at the end of his three-month spell as interim manager in 2009.

The inscription may well have read: "Please don't go," but it should have said: "Never go back."

In the end, football managers usually do. Perhaps it is the heart overruling the head, maybe it is ego, but whenever they answer the plea from their stricken former clubs the experience ultimately offers further proof that decisions based on emotion do not end well.

Kenny Dalglish was sacked by Liverpool second time round, Howard Kendall suffered the same fate at Everton and we all know how Kevin Keegan's second spell at Newcastle United came to a sad conclusion.

And with Jose Mourinho the latest to learn the hard way that football is an unforgiving business with your first love when you are unable to recreate the magic of the first time, Hiddink is preparing to walk back into Chelsea, challenged by Roman Abramovich to salvage something from the mess of a season that has left the Premier League champions teetering just a point above the relegation zone.

Hiddink really should know better. The 69-year-old was on holiday in France earlier this year when he was informed by the Dutch Football Federation that his second spell in charge of the national team was over after five defeats in 10 games had left the Oranje on the brink of missing out on Euro 2016.

The man who used to be known as "Lucky Guus" because of his uncanny ability to make a success out of whichever coaching job he was given was facing the end of his managerial career.

But Abramovich only remembers the good times - just as he did when re-appointing Mourinho two-and-a-half years ago after the relationship ended so acrimoniously the first time - and the Chelsea owner will have recalled how Hiddink soothed a mutinous squad and oversaw a remarkable turnaround in form when he replaced the miscast Luiz Felipe Scolari in February 2009.

Chelsea suffered just one defeat in 23 games under Hiddink, with the Dutchman guiding the club to FA Cup success against Everton at Wembley in his final game.

The players loved him - he left with a signed shirt as well as the watch - and so did the supporters, who serenaded him with chants of "We want you to stay" and "Roman, sign him up".

But Hiddink did not allow emotion to sway his decision. Contracted to manage Russia through to the 2010 World Cup, he returned to his international commitments, only to be sacked following his failure to guide the Russians to South Africa.

From that point on, it began to turn sour for Lucky Guus and maybe that is why the ego has now enticed him back to Chelsea.

Like the old boxer who wants one last shot at redemption, Hiddink will head back to Stamford Bridge recalling how he landed a big punch the last time, but first he really should check whether that watch is still ticking. It is not 2009 anymore - the game has moved on.

Some managers are smart enough to get out of it when they realise their time is up, but Hiddink returns to Chelsea as a man whose reputation has taken some knocks. After the failure with Russia came failure with Turkey, who missed out on Euro 2012 under Hiddink. Then followed a turbulent 18 months in charge of Russian outfit Anzhi Makhachkala.

He returned to the Netherlands and the national side which he had guided to the 1998 World Cup semi-finals, but this time it was a disaster and his reputation was burned by turning Louis van Gaal's heroes of Brazil 2014 into a team who ended fourth in a Euro 2016 qualifying group behind Iceland, the Czech Republic and Turkey.

For Abramovich, though, there was simply nowhere else for him to turn.

Carlo Ancelotti, having been sacked by the Russian a year after winning the double, was never keen on a return and has now fixed himself with Bayern Munich, while the rest of the leading candidates are out of reach.

Pep Guardiola is too wary of Abramovich's volatility to risk his stellar reputation at Chelsea and Antonio Conte is committed to leading Italy at Euro 2016, while Diego Simeone is focused on Atletico Madrid.

Steve Holland, Mourinho's assistant first-team coach, could step in to fill the breach, but the 45-year-old's managerial experience is limited to an 18-month spell in charge of Crewe as Dario Gradi's successor.

So Hiddink it is, but the upside is that he can surely do no worse than Mourinho this season.

He will attempt to bring unity to a divided group of players that had grown tired of Mourinho's self-centred approach and increasingly heavy-handed management and, with memories of the good times still fresh among fans, Hiddink will be assured of a raucous welcome.

A group of players who had so clearly given up under Mourinho during the 2-1 defeat at Leicester City on Monday can now perform without worrying about their individual agendas and there will be a sense of freedom and release.

But Hiddink is experienced enough to know that a bounce ultimately has a downward trajectory and when the initial euphoria of change dissipates, what will happen then? He inherits a much bigger problem than he did when replacing Scolari.

This time a top-four place is disappearing and there is a daunting Champions League encounter with Paris Saint-Germain looming.

Belfast Telegraph


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