James Lawton: The faces have changed but it seems a knife in the back is still the way Chelsea know best
Saturday 13 November 2010
The crude sacking by Chelsea of Carlo Ancelotti's assistant manager, Ray Wilkins, may not be the most significant convulsion at the club since Roman Abramovich decided to carry it into an entirely new dimension.
Still, it has to worry those who thought the arrival of the amiable and accomplished Ancelotti was a signal that the oligarch had finally grasped a vital truth.
It seemed that the rouble might finally have dropped on the fact that creating and maintaining something as finely balanced as the morale of a successful football club is not quite the same as sending out some Siberian drilling team.
Ancelotti's own role in the rather sad little affair is, for the moment at least, sufficiently lacking in clarity to be disappointing in a man who, until the chop landed on Wilkins' neck so brutally this week, has been pretty much flawless in reacting to the routine ups and downs of the football life.
There is also the jarring fact that in his recent well-received autobiography the Italian was at pains to praise the contribution of the former Chelsea, Manchester United, Milan and England player Wilkins, both as a football man and someone who knew the heartbeats of the game in two languages.
Having had 24 hours to weigh up his response to a decision which he suggests was taken out of his hands, Ancelotti was still straddling the fence so strenuously he might have been risking a hernia. Wilkins had been a fantastic friend with fantastic knowledge of English football and he had done a fantastic job. However, he respected the club's decision and now had to move on.
So it's ciao and grazie mille, Raymondo, enjoy the rest of your life.
Still, two points can be made without hesitation. Chelsea and Ancelotti, who may prefer an assistant closer to his own background – Paolo Maldini, apparently being one possibility carrying superb credentials – have a perfect right to change their staff.
It is also true that few should know better than Wilkins the perils of football after his frustrating times in management and he will have noted the rising visibility of his fellow assistant, Paul Clement, and heard talk of another appointment.
The trouble with this week's events is that they evoke too strongly some of the worst of Chelsea's recent past. At the time when the club has been showing, by some margin, its most agreeable face since Jose Mourinho was cut down by some political in-fighting which might have earned a frown or two at the Palace of Westminster, the sacking of Wilkins is an unwelcome reminder that the knife in the back is still considered a convenient way of doing business.
Wilkins' position, despite his high visibility, was said to be in some danger last season, pretty much as soon as Ancelotti had established his easy touch and a more than decent ability to express himself in the English language. If this is indeed true, the summer provided plenty of opportunities for Chelsea to sever connections with their old and notable servant in a much more civilised way.
A way, also, that might indicate some hard lessons had been learnt when Mourinho, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari made their farewells to the King's Road and Guus Hiddink declined the offer to build on his short and brilliant stint.
It could just be that Abramovich and some of his faceless advisers at Chelsea believe that a show of ruthlessness from time to time is quite helpful in concentrating the minds of the football department. This is all very well until it impinges on the ability of those inhabitants of the most important corner of the club to do their work without fear of interference, or worse, from above.
At the end of his time at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho had been marginalised. He had unwanted signings imposed upon him as his power base eroded a little more each day. Abramovich had his friends and confidants, Mourinho had only the bleak knowledge that at a time when he desperately needed to develop his first, brilliant impact he had as much to do to ensure survival.
It may be too much to say that the Wilkins episode confirms that such ruthlessness is again part of the Chelsea climate. But at a time when the club are four points clear at the top of the Premier League, when qualification to the knock-out phase of the Champions League has been achieved without scarcely a breaking of sweat, it seems to represent a piece of almost casual cruelty.
We are told the decision was simply hard and businesslike and that there is not much call for sentimentality in modern football. All true, no doubt, but since when was a little class priced prohibitively? In fact, there is a theory, wild though it is, that in the long term there may still be no better value out there. Someone should at least run it by the oligarch.
Well, at least the hype is world-class
It would be churlish not to concede that the promoters of tonight's world heavyweight title fight between Dave Haye, the WBA champion, and Audley Harrison, who won an Olympic title at Sydney 10 years ago but has subsequently been beaten by, among others, a Belfast taxi driver, deserve some kind of gold medal for salesmanship.
The TV broadcaster Sky says remarkable levels of intrigue have been created. This may be the final confirmation that Abraham Lincoln was spot-on when he said you could fool some of the people all of the time.
Haye and Harrison have talked up their contest quite remarkably.
What hasn't been said, of course, is precisely why this fight is happening instead of Haye taking a unification bout with either Vitali or Vladimir Klitschko, the brothers from Ukraine who own the other two major world titles. Several reasons have been advanced, including an unfortunately timed hand injury and various sets of failed negotiations.
A more bracing explanation is that the big-talking Haye is running scared. Hence tonight's insult to even the sad residue of a division once graced by men like Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. It rather puts the hype in the context of, well, a crime.
O'Connor exposes RFU's big failing
If it should happen that fifth-ranked England beat Australia at Twickenham today, and confirm the promise of a narrow victory Down Under in the summer, there will be an argument that embattled coach Martin Johnson may have crossed his Rubicon.
Just let's hope, then, that if this welcome development comes to pass there will not be too much hubris at headquarters.
Certainly, those responsible for the development of the biggest and wealthiest rugby-playing population in the world should be cautioned by the presence of at least one Australian player.
It is, of course, James O'Connor, who pulled on his country's shirt for the first time when he was 18 and promptly scored three tries against Italy. In the summer he touched down three times against England on the Australian tour. He is 20 now, has 25 caps and 51 points, and two weeks ago he scored the winning try against the All Blacks
O'Connor is the kind of pearl apparently beyond the resources of English rugby. Until this problem is solved, one win in an autumn Test is unfortunately not about to bring a permanent light to the sky.
From new bike to £50K in a few years...
While liverpool fans hope against hope they are peering into a brighter future, they have an opportunity to warm themselves on a glorious past.
Ian Callaghan, Chris Lawler, Ian St John and big Ron Yeats, members of Bill Shankly's first great team, are currently rehearsing an Anfield Legends show going on at the city's Empire theatre on 21 November.
Lawler will tell one of many stories of football when it operated on another planet. In the month that saw Arsenal's brilliant teenager and putative England star Jack Wilshere land a £50,000-a-week contract, Lawler recalls the time when the bicycle he rode to the Melwood training ground was stolen. He was devastated until Shankly took him to one side and said the board had been told the news and had voted to buy him a new bike. "Right then," he says, "I knew I had made it."
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