James Lawton: Shed no tears for Di Matteo but envy a man strong enough to keep his dignity
Few men in life or football appear less in need of such teary acclamation
You might say that of all the inhabitants of the football jungle among the least envied must be the fallen Roberto Di Matteo - cut down in those bleak hours just before dawn, the taste of defeat and betrayal rank in his mouth.
Yet there is another way of looking at it — and a question to ask.
Who would you rather be? Di Matteo with a record enhanced so extraordinarily over the last eight months, a man who kept his nerve and his dignity in the most appalling circumstances, or Rafa Benitez, scrambling back to London at the bidding of Roman Abramovich?
Benitez had been posting regular advertisements on behalf of himself, most recently suggesting that he was the man best qualified to activate the ghost of Fernando Torres, and so of course he is contemplating a bright new dawn after his sackings at Liverpool and Internazionale.
Di Matteo, however, can deal in certainties which do not include the inevitable New Year conversations between a besotted oligarch and the advisers of Pep Guardiola, the man he was desperate to sign in place of the most successful caretaker in the history of the game.
Financially insulated, serene in the knowledge that no man could have accomplished more amid the wreckage of a club which think that money can buy anything,
Di Matteo can take, for as long or short as he likes, that precious pause which comes to the lives of those who have truly seized the opportunity to announce who they are and what they represent.
Di Matteo’s announcement was about an understanding of how professional football works.
To get anywhere you need to know the value of patience and have a coherent understanding of what you face. Di Matteo had enough high level experience as a player and a manager, and enough nous, to grasp the nature of the problem when the regime of Andre Villas-Boas collapsed under the weight of its own accumulated follies.
Di Matteo didn’t court the favours of veteran figures like Frank Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole and, supremely, Didier Drogba. He said simply that the imperative was to establish a few working principles for however long they remained together. The idea of the team was paramount — not some fancy notion of a project that could be charted like some business plan divorced from the real-life preoccupations of those expected to help in its passage. Di Matteo didn’t inflict himself, he didn’t operate in the style of a Villas–Boas or, let’s be frank about this, a Benitez. He didn’t patrol the touchline bombarding the players with his insights, even directing individual throw-ins.
He certainly didn’t suggest that when a goal was scored the players automatically rushed, like trained puppies, to the touchline to include the coach in their celebrations.
No, Di Matteo was his own man and this was so right up, it seems, to the moment when the axe was finally raised.
He dropped Fernando Torres, after his latest wretched performance at West Brom, after being advised that such a decision would pretty much amount to the scrawling of a suicide note.
We will never know what might have happened if Di Matteo’s reward had been a brilliant early goal after a superb run by Oscar and a shot by Eden Hazard which brought a fine save from the veteran Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. But probably we can guess accurately enough.
Di Matteo was, we have to suspect, already history in that process by which Chelsea make their staccato imitation of an organisation which understands the dynamics of sustained football success. That it is one shaped by the whims of their owner has never been more explicit.
We have seen it happen often now but when men like Jose Mourinho, and Carlo Ancelotti, European Cup winners, went down there was always a hope that a few basic lessons might be learned.
Mourinho went on to Inter and Real Madrid with the self-belief of a natural-born winner and when he moved from San Siro to the Bernabeu as only one of three coaches to win the great European prize with different clubs there was an image which for many closed the last argument about the effect of his work — it was the sight of weeping Inter players saying farewell.
There was no such emotion when Di Matteo became the latest victim of Chelsea’s version of empire-building. However, few men in life or football appear less in need of such teary acclamation. He knew he had done his job as well as any man could. It was another reason to envy a man strong enough to win and lose, on precisely his own terms.
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