Football: Situation vacant at the Bridge

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD appear that three things should be borne in mind if you are persuaded to take up work as a football manager in the employ of Ken Bates, the ice-cream tycoon who is master of all he surveys at Stamford Bridge.

Don't be in a hurry to move house. Stay close to the telephone. Save.

I can't remember exactly when I last had a conversation with Chelsea's saviour, but it was immediately after we'd been on radio, talking about football. We were standing beside his tycoon-type car, and it was about 11 o'clock in the morning. 'I've had a busy day,' he said proudly. 'Up at six and put a business deal through before breakfast. On my way here I sold one player and bought another.'

A conclusion can be drawn from the emphasis Bates placed on the first person singular, especially as he did not refer to the Chelsea manager of that time.

It is that David Webb became the second manager to leave Chelsea this season because he demanded high-risk money for what is unquestionably one of the most difficult and perilous appointments in football, never mind just the Premier League. Ask John Hollins, ask Ian Porterfield. By comparison Barcelona is a rest home. There is less potential grief at Juventus. It would be easier to make out in Brazil.

Brian Clough would have been 10,000-1 against becoming manager of Chelsea because in matters relating to the team he was stoutly of the opinion that directors should be seen and not heard.

Many years ago, the Sunderland and England inside-forward, Len Shackleton, a skilful and infectiously rebellious figure, came out with an autobiography that carried a blank page beneath the chapter heading, 'The Average Director's Knowledge of Football'.

Shackleton meant the game, players and how they are educated to go about things. This is not how Bates and some of the other brethren see it. Foolishly they believe that having a large financial stake immediately qualifies them as experts. A little learning, a learned man once observed, is a dangerous thing.

According to recent reports, by which I mean those which followed the announcement of Webb's departure, Bates wants Chelsea to play more attractively, a laudable ambition, but not one that can be achieved overnight, or simply by appointing another manager.

When Webb replaced Porterfield three months ago, his task was to retrieve the ground Chelsea lost during a run of 12 Premier League games without a win. Webb won five and drew four, enough to ensure Chelsea's safety.

Doubtless, Webb was there long enough to realise that the stories about Bates thinking himself to have a real mind for the game had not been exaggerated.

I have it from a previous incumbent that Bates is not given to interfering directly in team selection, but frequently drops hints. He also gets aggrieved about newspaper criticism and is among the league leaders in law suits.

Too much cannot be made of Bates's efforts to get Chelsea on a sound financial footing, and his success in fighting off property developers. However, it has to be said that nobody ever went to a football match to see Bates or any other director. As long as the team win and the players perform creditably, the public won't care who is putting on the show.

What they ought to understand is that active chairmen like Bates and Ron Noades of Crystal Palace, who takes immeasurable pride in a preliminary FA coaching badge, are as accountable as the managers they appoint.

I've heard it said, and it's true I'm sure, that there are still chairmen who interfere to the point of signing players their managers didn't want.

This brings me to a tale about the chairman of a Midlands club in the old First Division who awoke with a hangover the morning after a board meeting at which, unbeknown to the manager, it had been decided to sign a Welsh international half-back. Upon returning with the player, he saw a look of astonishment cross the faces of his fellow directors. 'You've bought the wrong man,' one of them said.

It's impossible to know whether David Webb would have turned out to be exactly the right man for Chelsea, but candidates for the job had better know who's boss.