Monday, May 23, 2011

Dead men walking in the Roman empire

"I knew my time was up. I knew from the start, from the very beginning I was just a dead man walking." Those were the reflections of Claudio Ranieri, the likeable if somewhat erratic Roman sacked by Roman Abramovich as Chelsea manager after a year of speculation. The poor man had to endure almost a season of rumours, including the clumsy, clandestine meeting between the Russian oligarch and Sven-Goran Eriksson.

When Ranieri was sacked, after a season in which he had earned the tag "Tinkerman" for his often eccentric team selections, he left with a rare dignity in an era of professional disrespect in football. Contrast that with his replacement, Jose Mourinho.

Roll on seven years and history has repeated itself: Carlo Ancelotti, another highly likeable Italian, has been dispatched by Abramovich, with the club explaining that: "This season's performances have fallen short of expectations and the club feels the time is right to make this change ahead of next season's preparations." This is the same club which won the Barclays Premier League title and the FA Cup in Ancelotti's first season in charge, the first league and cup double in Chelsea's history (patronisingly, the official club statement does make a nod to the Italian's achievements by adding: "Carlo will always be welcome at Stamford Bridge, where he will be given the reception and respect his position in our history deserves." Cheers. Thanks. Grazie.)

It is, of course, ludicrous to sack a manager who wins The Double in one season and only manages the  runners-up spot in his next. By this token, Arsene Wenger would have been fired years ago. But when you're Roman Abramovich, Britain's third richest resident and the 53rd richest man in the world, you can - and patently do - whatever you want.

What makes it all the more ridiculous, however, is that Ancelotti was the manager Abramovich wanted in the first place, even before he signed Mourinho (who remains Chelsea's most successful manager ever). So the story goes, when the newly-minted billionaire decided that his next 'must-have' bauble would be an English Premier League club, he began an obsession with winning the European Champions League - just as AC Milan seemed to be very good at doing...under then-manager Ancelotti.

Abramovich is said to have courted Ancelotti to become Chelsea manager several times before he eventually prised him away from the San Siro in 2009. Until then, all Abramovich had been able to get out of Milan was the perma-crocked and extremely expensive Andrei Shevchenko. With Ancelotti finally he had the manager he'd always wanted; and with the results of the 2009-2010 season, it would appear his obsession with the Reggiolan had been worth it.

Come the new season, and Chelsea came back out of the traps like Wile E. Coyote strapped to a new Road Runner-seeking rocket, winning their first two games 6-0 and seemingly running away with the Premier League before most people's summer tans had started to peel. But then the wheels started to fall off: Ray Wilkins - the genial former club captain-turned media-friendly coach was informed - at half-time of a reserve match, if you please - that his contract wasn't being renewed. Both the timing and the motivation of this stank. Almost at once, Chelsea's fortunes turned, soon conceding top spot and the generous margin it had built over Manchester United, and enduring a winter of discontent which even saw them fall out of European positions for next season.

Whatever magic Ancelotti had applied in his first season had somehow been irretrievably lost down the back of the sofa by Christmas. Nothing, and no-one seemed to be getting the side up on its feet. Ancelotti was already looking like the next dead man walking. Given that Abramovich had dispensed with Jose Mourinho after an indifferent Champions League match in September 2007, his successor, Avram Grant went within days of taking Chelsea to within a penalty kick of the European Cup, and his successor Luis Felipe Scollari walked the plank after just seven months in February 2009, Ancelotti's departure was a foregone conclusion, regardless of the logic.

To his credit, the club rallied: despite or in spite of the preposterous £50 million arrival of Fernando Torres in the January transfer window (an arrival which has produced just the one league goal since), Chelsea clawed their way back into contention for the league title itself. However, as incredible as it seemed that they could still retake the top spot they'd conceded to Manchester United some months before, defeats in Europe and the league to the Mancunians sealed Ancelotti's fate.

Disarming and dignified to the last, the Italian maintained a que sera sera stoicism that whatever would happen wouldn't bother him. There would be no wailing or gnashing of teeth, no Latin histrionics. He would politely walk away.

No Chelsea manager walks away empty-handed, of course: the modern penchant for golden parachutes means that in prematurely jettisoning five managers in seven years, Roman Abramovich has also forked out a substantial amount of money - as much as the price of a Torres - in payoffs.

And so, Chelsea starts its search for the eighth manager of the Abromovich era. Money is already changing hands on who will be the next lucky individual. Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his 19th league title in almost 25 years as Manchester United manager. That's almost a quarter of a century, and 27 trophies in all. No prizes for guessing the secret of his success, then.

Success for anyone mad enough to take on the Chelsea job will always be fleeting. Jose Mourinho won back-to-back Premier League championships but was still sacked; Ancelotti was even the one Abramovich had wanted, but was still sacked. Whoever enters the Roman lion's den next will have but one objective - win the Champions League. If he fails, there will be only one outcome.

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