Football: Rix the touchline talisman

The man who looks after Luca has played a prominent role in Chelsea's quest for credibility; Phil Shaw reflects on the story behind the glory that was Stockholm
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The Independent Online
FOR one heated moment in Stockholm, Graham Rix turned into Basil Fawlty. Chelsea's coach had just engaged in a forceful exchange of opinions, shrugs and finger-jabbing with Gianluca Vialli. Turning away, Rix gritted his teeth and threw back his head. All that was missing was the sardonic cry of "Oh thank you, God, thank you so very much."

Later, as Chelsea celebrated their 1-0 victory over VfB Stuttgart in the European Cup-Winners' Cup final, Vialli explained the background to their full and frank discussion. With barely 20 minutes to go before extra time would be necessary, Rix had called him over to the bench to say that they needed to make a change up front. The snag was that he felt the player- manager ought to come off.

There have to be some perks to being manager, so the Italian told his assistant: "Don't even think about it." Soon afterwards, Rix unilaterally sent Gianfranco Zola on for Tore Andre Flo. The substitute scored gloriously within 20 seconds, and the rest is hysteria.

The choreography of the incident leading up to the winner revealed much about the chemistry between the duo now guiding Chelsea's fortunes, as well as highlighting Rix's rise to a position where he can beg to differ with "the gaffer" in public and emerge with credibility enhanced.

Ken Bates, who as chairman and overlord of Stamford Bridge has tended to fall out with his managers on a more permanent basis, values Rix's input so highly that he recently gave him a four-year contract.

Initially taken on at Stamford Bridge as youth-team coach during Glenn Hoddle's spell in charge, the 40-year-old former Arsenal and England midfielder not only survived the departures of Hoddle and Ruud Gullit but grew in influence. Now, with Vialli seemingly intent on taking the playing side of his title more seriously than his predecessor, Rix has become Chelsea's definitive touchline voice.

"I trust Rixie and he never lets me down. He knows the game and his job," said Vialli, whose 13-week reign has also included a Coca-Cola Cup triumph. "I'm learning every day (about management) and how to cope with the problems. Sometimes I do things right. When I get it wrong, he lets me know so that I can do better in future."

Vialli added: "He has become my right arm. He's my first coach as a manager and he's superb. I wouldn't want to lose him." Despite the body language in the Rasunda Stadium, the feeling is evidently mutual.

Rix's relationship with Gullit appears to have been considerably more fraught. After the latter's dismissal, Rix intimated that he had often acted as a brake on some of the Dutchman's more impetuous thinking. He claimed that at half-time during February's Premiership game at Arsenal, when Chelsea were 2-0 down, he had had to talk Gullit out of sending out only two defenders in the second half.

In a match 18 months ago at Leeds, the club Rix supported as a boy growing up in Doncaster, he argued forcibly, and successfully, against Gullit's wish to withdraw two players after Chelsea conceded two goals in the first 10 minutes. His reasoning was that such drastic action could shatter team spirit and inflict long-term damage on the morale of younger players.

In broad terms, however, he and Gullit share the same philosophy about football. Rix was an accomplished player rated highly enough to succeed Liam Brady in Arsenal's midfield and to win 16 caps alongside the likes of Hoddle and Trevor Brooking

In 1980, coincidentally, he was in the team which reached the Cup-Winners' Cup final against Valencia, when he had the misfortune to miss from the spot as the Gunners lost 5-4 on penalties. When his time at Highbury ended, after more than 500 games, he also had sufficient technical ability to build a second career in France. His sojourn with Caen, apart from fostering a passion for vin rouge and weaning him off the bubbly permed look, opened his eyes to the Continental ideas in much the same way that Hoddle was learning under Arsene Wenger at Monaco.

That would later make him an obvious choice to link up with Hoddle in west London, and to prepare would-be graduates to Chelsea's increasingly exotic squad. But his belief in the overriding importance of skill was tempered by a bluff Yorkshire pragmatism, which has made him the ideal foil for the Fancy Dans whom Bates has made a habit of employing as managers.

Rix's high-profile role in Wednesday's success inevitably revived doubts as to how long he would be content to remain a No 2. He is arguably the Premiership's most coveted coach, and although speculation about a move to Tottenham came to nothing last month, his name is sure to come to the fore when the autumn managerial cull comes around. Having been a senior player at Arsenal during Don Howe's tenure, Rix may have a better appreciation than most of the difficult transition from coach to manager. It is a change which others, notably Ray Harford, Dave Sexton, Peter Shreeves and Colin Harvey, have also found problematic.

So it may well be that Rix will be content to bide his time, learning rather than yearning. His volatile rapport with Vialli should, if nothing else, ensure some lively exchanges as Chelsea strive to make their own metamorphosis from cup specialists to championship challengers.

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