Avram Grant: Out of the blue

The Chelsea boss can be as grumpy and as enigmatic as his predecessor, without the flashes of charisma
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The Independent Football

At the conclusion of Chelsea's thrilling Champions League semi-final victory over Liverpool on Wednesday, the Chelsea manager Avram Grant sank to his knees, looking emotionally spent. Or at least as emotionally spent as that peculiarly inexpressive face allows.

Grant's club had just reached the European Cup final for the first time in its history, an achievement that eluded Grant's predecessor, the self-styled Special One, Jose Mourinho. He was entitled to feel proud, even if the Chelsea fans, who have not warmed to Grant even though their team are chasing Manchester United all the way to the wire in an effort to win both the European Cup and the Premier League, could not bring themselves to chant the jowly Israeli's name.

In the same circumstances, the chant of "Jose Mourinho", to the (somewhat approximate) tune of "La donna è mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto, would have reverberated around the streets of west London until the small hours. And therein lies Grant's problem; who he is not, rather than who he is.

The definition of who he is was perhaps less in evidence at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening than at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, the following day in Poland. To mark Holocaust Day, Grant took part in the March of the Living, a silent walk from Auschwitz to the neighbouring death camp Birkenau, which doubtless cast some useful perspective on his conviction that he has not been accorded the respect he deserves in English football, even, and perhaps especially, from the Stamford Bridge faithful.

On the same day, a letter from Grant appeared in the pages of the Tel Aviv-based newspaper Maariv. In it he drew a poignant comparison between three adolescent boys, starting with his son Daniel, who was at the semi-final on Wednesday sharing his triumph. The second boy was his own 15-year-old self, standing on the balcony of the modest family flat in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petach Tikva, and shocked to hear blood-curdling screams coming from his parents' bedroom. It was his father Meir, asleep in bed, having a nightmare. That was the day Grant's mother told him what Meir had suffered in the Second World War, also at the age of 15.

Transported from his native Poland to Siberia with the rest of his family, Meir watched his parents and five siblings die of starvation. Most of them he buried himself, in the snow, with his bare hands. It was a story Grant told publicly for the first time only in February, when his father travelled from Israel to watch the Carling Cup final. Chelsea lost to Tottenham Hotspur that day, and many observers criticised Grant for his tactics. Not for the first or last time, he found comfort and perspective in his 80-year-old father's zest for life.

Yet a highly developed sense of perspective does not always offer Grant the protection he craves from the barbs of the British media, to which he has been exposed since he arrived at Portsmouth FC almost two years ago, against the wishes of manager Harry Redknapp, as the club's so-called technical director. Following a league match against Everton a few weeks ago, Grant gave a bizarre press conference, in which long silences were punctuated by terse, monosyallabic answers. This was interpreted as a protest against his critics in the press, but it merely proved that he can be as grumpy and enigmatic as Mourinho, without the flashes of dazzling charisma.

Nevertheless, according to those who know him best, there is considerable charm and warmth behind Grant's hangdog demeanour. They say he is a typical "sabra", the Hebrew term for a native-born Israeli Jew, which derives from "tzabar", the word for the Negev desert's indigenous cactus pear. This is supposed to allude to Israelis being formidably prickly on the outside, tender within. So far, with Grant, we have seen only the prickliness.

Should he lead his team to European Cup success in Moscow later this month, or should Chelsea win the Premier League, or even both, it will be interesting to see what becomes of him. He enjoys the friendship of Chelsea's billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, who in 2006 brokered Grant's move to Portsmouth from his job as manager of the Israeli national team, it now appears, as part of a deliberate strategy to install him at Chelsea. This was made possible by Abramovich's own friendship with Portsmouth's half-Israeli owner Alexandre Gaydamak, shenanigans that did nothing to defuse suspicion that wealthy foreign businessmen are carving each other slices of the English Premier League. Yet Abramovich has not ploughed an estimated £587m into Chelsea for the club to enjoy near-misses. Should Grant and his players fail on both counts, it seems likely that Abramovich will invite his friend to step aside.

Whatever happens, English football has provided quite an adventure for the man born Avraham Granat, 53 years ago tomorrow. A keen follower of Leeds United and then Liverpool as a boy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he had little talent himself as a footballer, but was a quick and eager learner as a coach. His ambition was always to operate in this country, but instead he made his name with his home-town club Hapoel Petach Tikva, and later with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, before taking over the national team.

During these long years he acquired a reputation as an astute but, just as usefully, lucky coach. For one of his predecessors as Israel's national manager, Shlomo Scharf, he rides this luck to an absurd degree. "He is an illusionist, incapable of using a proper game plan and relying on fortune rather than skill," Scharf has said, and it is true that Grant's tactics are sometimes bewildering, as for example on Wednesday night when, needing to protect a lead with minutes to go, he replaced the midfielder Frank Lampard with a striker, Andriy Shevchenko.

Yet others are more forgiving, and the Hebrew expression "hatachat shel Avram" was coined out of affection. It basically means the luck of Avram, but more specifically, "Avram's arse". Either way, whether or not his marriage is an example of "hatachat shel Avram" is open to question. His wife Tzofit is one of Israel's most famous television presenters, broadly comparable with Ruby Wax here, although it is doubtful whether even Wax would sit naked in a bath of spaghetti or drink her own urine, as Tzofit Grant has done on her popular TV show Milkshake.

In Israel, there is ambivalence towards Grant. If he lifts the European Cup he will arguably become the country's most famous and successful footballing export, eclipsing Eyal Berkovic, the former West Ham, Celtic and Manchester City player (who loathes Grant), and Yossi Benayoun, the current Liverpool player (who loves Grant). In the meantime, he has used his profile to try to reconcile hostile factions in his troubled country. The Iraqi founder of the Football for Unity charity, Yamam Nabeel, has praised him as "a man of vision", whose Israeli team not only included but positively embraced Arabs, and whose "dream is to build a great stadium in Palestine".

But to some of his Jewish compatriots he is a shameless schmoozer of exceedingly rich men, who owes his success to their continuing patronage. Aware of this criticism, and hoping to puncture it, Grant once recalled an evening he spent with Abramovich in 2005, when he was running the Israeli team. "We talked about many things and then turned to football," he said. "After 15 minutes he said to me, 'Coach, which team do you want to manage? I'll sort it out for you.' I just smiled. What else could I have done?"

But Abramovich wasn't joking. "An hour later we each went our own ways," Grant added, "and one of his guys chased me down into the parking lot and told me off. 'Mr Grant, what is wrong with you?' he said. 'I don't get it. Roman Abramovich offers you a team and you just smile like nothing happened? How many opportunities like that are you going to have?'"

Abramovich would eventually deliver on his spurned promise. In July last year he made Grant director of football at Chelsea, despite Mourinho's vehement objections. For Mourinho, whose relationship with the owner was becoming fractious, the writing was on the wall. Yet it still came as a seismic shock to many in the game when the colourful Portuguese left the club on 20 September, having won six trophies in three seasons, with an undefeated record in the league at Stamford Bridge, and still hugely popular with most of his players.

When he was promptly replaced by Grant, a man with no coaching experience outside Israel, the shockwaves intensified. "Grant will be as welcome (in Chelsea's dressing room) as Camilla at Diana's funeral," opined the former Chelsea winger Pat Nevin. "Grant becoming Chelsea coach is the same as Neil Armstrong landing on the moon," added another leading figure in Israeli football, the Hapoel Kiryat Shmona coach Ran Ben-Shimon.

If Grant now becomes the first Chelsea coach to win the European Cup, then it will perhaps be more like Louis Armstrong landing on the moon. But not to his one-time protégé at Maccabi Haifa, Benayoun, who ironically was one of the Liverpool players trying to secure Chelsea's exit from the competition the other night. "I don't think that he can do well at Chelsea. I am sure of it," said Benayoun, when Grant landed the job. "He's got what it takes."

Whether that is luck or skill or a neat combination of both won't matter to the Chelsea fans converging on Moscow on 21 May. And if they do see their players parading the most coveted trophy in the world of club football then it could be, it could just be, that the name ringing around Luzhniki Stadium, in the country where his grandparents, aunts and uncles all died of starvation, will be that of Avram Grant.

A Life in Brief

Born 4 May 1955, Petah Tikva, Israel.

Education Attended a local school in Petah Tikva. Never a talented player, he started coaching boys' teams aged 17.

Career Coached Hapoel Petah Tikva's youth team at age 19, then promoted to the senior team in 1986, before leaving to take the reins at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel's most decorated club. Won the Israeli title in his first year before a brief stint as coach of Hapoel Haifa. Second spell at Maccabi Tel Aviv resulted in his dismissal and move to Maccabi Haifa, where he won the title in 2001 and 2002, when he was appointed manager of Israel. Left Israel in 2006 after failing to qualify for the World Cup, and was appointed technical director at Portsmouth. In 2007, he moved to Chelsea, succeeding Jose Mourinho as coach last autumn.

He says "I didn't stab Jose in the back. I enjoyed working with him and respect what he has achieved. I didn't plan to be manager."

They Say "I think Avram deserves respect and rightly so. Things have been very good and results don't lie." – Chelsea captain John Terry