Is Roman really ruthless?
Abramovich's fierce reputation obscures that few firings were unfair
Once the media has formed a consensus about your character, it's difficult to shake the reputation -- even if it isn't true. Generally, this principle applies to players and managers, even though both have the opportunity to set the record straight every weekend, on the pitch or on the touchline.
For chairmen and owners of clubs, it's significantly more difficult. Many of these men are now well-known by football fans, at least by sight. They sit in the stands, appear in the club program or give the odd interview, but we never actually see them at work. How does John W Henry deal with his staff? What do the Venky's do on a daily basis? Has Mohamed Al Fayed had any ideas crazier than the Michael Jackson statue? No one really knows; our only impression of them comes purely from the way their managerial hiring and firing is reported.
Take a guy like Roman Abramovich. Chelsea's Russian owner has been one of the most influential figures in English football in the past decade. He wasn't the first wealthy benefactor in the Premier League, but he took the practice of pumping millions into a football club to new levels. Despite this, the number of television interviews he has conducted can be counted on the fingers of one hand; he seems quiet, reserved and shy.
He is also, quite obviously, not English. Whereas numerous foreign investors have followed (and Abramovich wasn't the first foreign chairman of a Premier League club -- Sam Hammam, with Wimbledon in the 1980s, was there long before him), it furthers the intrigue about Abramovich's role at Chelsea and his motives for putting huge sums into a club he had no previous attachment to. An Englishman with such a fear of the limelight would be painted as a mild-mannered gentleman, yet Abramovich has been cast as the Bond villain.
Since he came to Stamford Bridge, Abramovich has been frequently criticized for the high turnover of managers: in 8½ seasons, Chelsea has had no fewer than seven managers: Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Phil Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Villas-Boas have all taken charge. None has kept his job the summer after failing to win the league title, with the one exception being Mourinho in 2007, and he was gone within weeks of the new season.
This has earned Abramovich a reputation for being trigger-happy, firing managers without giving them a chance to complete their project. In comparison to Sir Alex Ferguson's 25 years at Manchester United, and Arsene Wenger's 15 at Arsenal, seven coaches in less than nine seasons is a ridiculous figure.
But look through the list of coaches and you'll find that few sackings have been bad Abramovich decisions. For a start, Hiddink and Grant were always intended as short-term options; both men knew they were doing a job until the end of the season before leaving. Abramovich was hardly being hasty by ending their tenures.
Mourinho's departure was officially by mutual consent, but was widely reported as more of a Mourinho resignation than a sacking. Granted, in the power struggle at Stamford Bridge, Abramovich may have made mistakes, but he didn't fire Mourinho.
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Meanwhile, two other departures were simply the correct decision. Ranieri was an extremely nice man and a good manager for most top-half sides, but there was always a feeling that he wasn't quite skilled enough to win the title, and he has hardly disproved that theory since -- for example, after a strong start at Inter, the Nerazzurri have lost four of their past five in Serie A, and his removal was justified by Mourinho's subsequent success. Scolari's reign at Chelsea was a disaster -- the players looked to have no motivation, while training sessions reportedly lacked structure and discipline. Appointing him may have been a mistake, but sacking him certainly wasn't.
All of which leaves us with just one arguably unfair sacking in eight years, that of Ancelotti last summer, and even that was hardly a crazy decision. For the majority of his tenure he didn't seem to know his best side; it all fell together almost by accident in 2009-10 for a variety of reasons. Chelsea lacked a clear shape so much that Ancelotti was forced to leave out top scorer Didier Drogba for the title decider against Manchester United. In his second season, things got even worse, not helped by the arrival of Fernando Torres. For the final few months under Ancelotti, Chelsea was a poor side with no structure or clear strategy.
Besides, Abramovich's obsession with the Champions League is well-established. Ranieri, Mourinho, Grant and Hiddink all reached at least the semifinal, whereas Ancelotti couldn't get past the quarterfinal in two attempts, despite having been appointed predominantly for his experience of reaching three finals with Milan.
Furthermore, there was no clear long-term plan. A little like at Milan, Ancelotti depended upon veterans and wasn't bringing through youngsters or new signings. Daniel Sturridge was cast aside, while the spine of the Mourinho side continued to dominate. Chelsea was going nowhere, and a change was not unreasonable.
Despite the reputation, Abramovich has never harshly sacked a Chelsea coach, though Villas-Boas is the latest man in the firing line. The Portuguese prodigy espouses a long-term approach -- Abramovich and chairman Bruce Buck are supposedly on board -- and is the first manager who has actually tried to significantly change things since the Mourinho days. In Mourinho's first game, a 1-0 win over Manchester United in August 2004, the spine of Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Drogba was in place for the first time -- every subsequent coach has taken that as gospel.
Villas-Boas' long-term plans are admirable, and he deserves a chance. But even if this is a long-term project, there is a short-term level of performance that Villas-Boas can't slip behind.
Chelsea's next six games are the two legs against Napoli, the FA Cup replay at Birmingham and three Premier League games against bottom-half clubs. If Villas-Boas finds himself out of the Champions League, out of the FA Cup and outside the top four, he'll probably be sacked by Abramovich. Yet again, it wouldn't be harsh.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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