Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sort it out, you Muppets - Part II

Call me suspicious. Call me a conspiricist. Call me a cab. But something stinks in SW6. No sooner has Carlo Ancelotti charmed sports hacks into defusing speculation about his future at Chelsea Football Club, than Frank Arnesen, the shadowy 'Director of Sport' (er...what else does a football club do?) announces his resignation in order to "seek a new challenge".

According to Chelsea's currently overworked communications department, the Dane's exit at the end of the current season will be amicable and "no surprise" to the club's hierarchy. Admittedly, Arnesen probably feels his job is done, now the stated aim of getting at least one member of the club's academy into first team action has been achieved. The sight of Josh McEachran (17), Patrick Van Aanholt (20), Jeffrey Bruma (19) and Gael Kakuta (19) all turning out last week in the near-nasty 2-1 Champion's League win over Slovakian minnows MSK Zilina shows some progress. But, at risk of taking a cynical tone, this is not much of a return on the investment.

When Arnesen was poached from Spurs in 2005, he was quoted as saying: "Our target is to find an academy player and bring him through to the first team in two years' time." Clearly that was a stretch target. In the absence of any major 'marquee' signings over the last couple of seasons, Chelsea have - to their credit - given more prominence to the younger squad members this season. But a lengthening injury list - with the likes of Terry, Lampard, Benayoun and Alex undergoing treatment, Bosingwa making a slow recovery from his long-term absence, Carvalho sold to Real Madrid, Mancienne put out on permanent loan, and Michael Essien falling to a three-match suspension, there has been more necessity to pressing the cadets into service than just their individual development.

Although the official announcement of Arnesen's resignation was probably brought forward by The Sun  and others running the same  "EXCLUSIVE" on Saturday morning, the timing is nonetheless unfortunate. It came on the back of the PR bungle of Ray Wilkins' dismissal, three league defeats out of four matches, and preceeded Manchester United moving ahead of Chelsea on points in impressive style with their 7-1 hammering of Blackburn.

This weekend's away fixture to Newcastle United will pile even more pressure on an otherwise relaxed Ancelotti: a club losing two key backroom figures, league games and the top spot in quick succession, is one in desperate need of a morale boost. Whether that will come at Newcastle's expense remains to be seen. But as the Christmas season looms, and fixtures against Everton, Marseille, Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal and Bolton before the year's out, Ancelotti will need some festive spirit to keep Chelsea - which had been seemingly running away with the 2010-2011 Premier League title - even in a European place for next season.

Much, it has to be said, depends on one Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich. Players win games, and managers choose the players to win those games; but with so much of what happens in and around Chelsea dependent on, or influenced by, an owner with little or no tolerance for failure - or indeed anything he takes a dislike to - it's no surprise that Ancelotti is currently the bookies' second favourite manager to get sacked (the favourite, ironically, being West Ham's Avram Grant, another former Abramovich victim).

I couldn't comment on whether something is rotten in the state of Denmark. But something is definitely not right in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. A short walk up the Fulham Road from Fulham Broadway tube station will lead you to all the Shakespearian tragedy you could ever want to experience at a single football club.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sort it out, you Muppets

OK, so its been a month, or thereabouts, since I last committed prose to blog. Mea culpa. Sorry for tuning out. The truth is, I haven't been anywhere, much. Mostly keeping mind, body and soul together as my life starts to turn upside down, and then back up the other way again.

But what has brought me back to the bile-filled blogosphere today is, once more, The Beautiful Game™. Last week, the English sports press trilled in unison that England's abject failure to overturn France in a friendly (albeit with a 'B'-team) was the result of the England coach, Fabio Capello. PRAT IN THE HAT, screamed at least three back pages, clearly throwing originality out of the window in the face of screamingly accurate headline writing, and continuing the tradition of firing alliterative splash decks at the incumbent national team manager (with WALLY WITH THE BROLLY the magnificent arrow that dispatched the hapless Steve McClaren).

England manager-baiting has been a national pastime for time immemorial. It turned Bobby Robson's hair grey and Graham Taylor into a computer-generated vegetable (though time has been strangely benevolent to both their tenures in the Three Lions dugout).

The anger now aimed at Capello is, let's be honest, entirely justified. The FA hired him with stunning arrogance (in much the same way as they hired Sven Goran Erikkson) about Fabio being "...a winner. His record over the last two decades speaks for itself..." with nods to his club successes in Italy and Spain. As if that didn't convince us that The FA Is Right, they threw in a £6 million, four-and-a-half-year deal. Nice.

So, after one of the most embarrassing and humiliating English departures from an international competition, Capello remains in charge. The FA allegedly had the option to sack him after the 2010 World Cup debacle, but instead they - or perhaps their lawyers - chose not to. Fast-forward to a pointless, November friendly against a team who suffered an equally ignominious departure from South Africa, and we patently see no improvement, no team members going the extra yard to put themselves into the reckoning for a place come a competitive Euro qualifier, and the continuation of a coach looking on in apparent silence with the expression on his face, to quote TalkSport's Danny Kelly, "of a man straining on the toilet." I believe the phrase du jour is that "he doesn't have a Scooby".

From a rapidly emptying Wembley Stadium, where the boos from England fans can still be heard, we head across the western side of London to Stamford Bridge where another Italian coach with "an excellent pedigree", Carlo Ancelotti, is wondering what on Earth he's let himself in for.

Like his countryman, Ancelotti was hired on his record: "Carlo was the outstanding candidate for the job," Chelsea's official statement trumpeted. "He has proved over a long period his ability to build teams that challenged for, and have been successful in, major domestic and European competitions. He also had a highly successful playing career in those competitions and therefore brings unparalleled all round experience to the job."

That was in June 2009. Fast forward, ooh, 18 months, and most bookmakers have cut short their odds on Ancelotti being out of the Chelsea job by Christmas. According to The Sun, the Italian has "taken advice" from the League Manager's Association after claiming that he is no longer in control. This is following Chelsea's fourth defeat of the season and their Premier League lead being cut to just goal difference over Manchester United.

What may have tipped the scales for Ancelotti to wake up and smell the roses is the departure of Raymond Colin Wilkins - once the club's youngest captain, and latterly coach to Gianluca Vialli, Luis Felipe Scolari, Gus Hiddink and then Ancelotti. Ray Wilkins' summary dismissal the other week seems to have sent a shockwave through the club's hierarchy, coinciding with an apparent injury epidemic which has given even me the chance of turning out in a blue shirt.

With his right-hand man gone, and a new coach whom no-one had ever heard of, and who doesn't even have coaching badges, in place, Ancelotti is understandably feeling exposed to the fact that he doesn't manage Chelsea Football Club, or even the team. Ironic, given that only the other day Alex Ferguson was thundering away in dictatorial tones about being the sole man in charge. Ancelotti, however, may be coming to terms with the fact that the real reins of power at Chelsea lie way above him. 

Roman Abramovich is, of course, not even an executive at the club. To all intents and purposes, the Russian billionaire is merely an investor in the club. Chairman Bruce Buck and his board of acolytes actually run the place. The much-vaunted coach, however, seems to do nothing more than pick the team from whomever isn't on the treatment table, and make some sort of attempt to strategise tactics. Ancelotti should be used to this sort of football-by-politics. In Serie A and La Liga it's rife, and the managerial merry-go-round never stops turning.

So why should we be surprised about it in English football? Even more so, why should we be surprised about it at Chelsea? Ken Bates was no less a meddler, especially when it came to dispatching managers, but somehow he became depicted as a lovable, white-bearded rogue because he gave good copy in his programme notes. Abramovich, the apparent mute savant, keeps his thoughts to himself, and uses besuited henchmen to do his bidding. Wilkins, it is alleged, was informed by club managing director Ron Gourlay during the half-time interval of a reserve match that his services were no longer required, even though his contract was meant to last until the end of the season. Wilkins' role, it appeared, was partly that of interpreter to Ancelotti (who, unlike Capello, has improved his English tremendously in 18 months), and partly as a figurehead for players and fans alike owing to his lifelong association with the club. He's also a thoroughly nice bloke, good on TV and therefore good for club PR. My, how Chelsea could do with that now.

I'm sure many - if not most - reading this will know that Chelsea is my club. I've supported it and attended games since I was an eight-year-old.  I'm not some arriviste prawn sandwich muncher who has only been on board since there was plundered Russian gas money abroad. 

I've witnessed the highs of wins over Manchester United and Liverpool, and the lows of League Cup exits and the blink-and-you'll miss-it period of Winston Bogarde's overpaid time at the club. I've enjoyed the three League titles of the Abramovich era, the Cup Winners Cup wins, the trips to Wembley for successful FA Cup Finals and, believe it or not, even the emotional rollercoaster of that night in Moscow.  But I do, now, wonder whether the club's executive leadership have a Scooby themselves. 

The lack of high quality playing acquisitions to replace departing veterans; an apparent indifference towards managerial stability, growth and consistency; a failure to recognise that even a dressing room full of overpaid and overpampered spoiled brats is also a dressing room of highly trained athletes who need inspiration, motivation and leadership to do the job. 

Odd that this should apply to both England and Chelsea. Odd that both should have Italian managers. Odd that when you put footballing affairs in the hands of men in suits, the men in tracksuits lose focus.

Is there any wonder that the stands of Wembley and Stamford Bridge are more likely these days to reverberate to the call of "Sort it out, you Muppets!" than anything more positive. Sort it out, you Muppets.