'More nervous than the players': the manager who was out of his depth
Without the respect of the dressing room, Avram Grant never stood a chance. Sam Wallace and Jason Burt report
Monday 26 May 2008
It was the moment all top managers hope to experience: a team-talk before the European Cup final. One last message to the players, a final opportunity to affect the game. But when Chelsea's band of international superstars listened to Avram Grant at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last Wednesday night, they were not inspired. Instead, they could barely understand what their manager was trying to say.
Minutes before the biggest game of his Chelsea career, Grant's team-talk was, according to sources, a mess. He stumbled over words, stammered and tied himself in knots. The players tried to concentrate but eventually left the dressing room none the wiser. It was evident to the Chelsea squad that Grant was, a dressing room source said, "more nervous than the players". As a postscript to a bizarre regime it was somehow fitting, although Grant still came within a single penalty kick of bringing home the greatest prize in the European club game.
Grant's time in English football, at the head of its most newsworthy club, will be remembered as a unique chapter in the history of the national game. The son of a Holocaust survivor, the husband of an Israeli television presenter who once drank her own urine live on air, he certainly had the potential to be an interesting character. But although he was decent and polite in his dealings with the press he never shrugged off the stigma of being Roman Abramovich's pet, the man who undermined Jose Mourinho and, ultimately, an individual who had neither the personality nor the football experience to handle the viperous, competitive environment of a top Premier League club.
It's instructive to know that Chelsea have no plans to appoint another director of football, the post Grant originally filled, even though they offered him the chance to return to that highly-paid job when he was sacked as manager on Saturday afternoon. The reason for not filling the post? Grant was appointed under a unique set of circumstances which pretty much summed up his involvement in the Abramovich project.
Grant first surfaced in England at Portsmouth, having been offered a job without the say-so of the club's manager, Harry Redknapp. That bred suspicion and that suspicion grew when his name was linked to Chelsea. Mourinho and his associates quickly picked up on it, especially as it was first mooted that Grant would be employed as a specialist coach to work with the striker Andrei Shevchenko who, it was felt, had been sorely mis-used and ridiculed by the Portuguese. It is ironic that one of the comments made to Grant after Wednesday's defeat, by a member of his coaching staff, was that his failure to bring on Shevchenko in Moscow would "kill him".
Grant should have known this. He should have known how the so-called "golden circle" around Abramovich works, how sometimes nothing is said before things, however irrational, happen. How easy it is to get the billionaire's ear – and how quickly it can be lost. It is one of the oddities of Abramovich's way that he is such a willing listener and sometimes affords audiences to unexpected people, but is then quick to withdraw his patronage or change his mind. Grant should have realised this when communication with Abramovich dried up and he was directed to the owner's right-hand man, Eugene Tenenbaum.
It was instructive of what was thought of the Grant regime that when John Arne Riise headed an own goal in the dying seconds of the Champions League semi-final first leg at Anfield, Tenenbaum bounded out of the directors box to declare: "Roman's a lucky man." The 1-1 draw was not Grant's result: it was Abramovich's.
Grant's nickname among some of the players – "Avram Can't" – was born of his more erratic tactical decisions. When he replaced Frank Lampard with Shevchenko in the last minutes of the second leg of that Liverpool tie, at Stamford Bridge, the players were bewildered. Changing a striker for a midfielder when trying to defend a one-goal advantage did not make sense. It compounded the feeling that Grant – as he had demonstrated against Tottenham Hotspur in the Carling Cup final – was unsure of himself in difficult tactical situations. Against Derby County in the Premier League he encouraged his players to go for broke in order to reduce the goal difference deficit to Manchester United, yet he kept a four-man defence and substituted a midfielder, Michael Ballack.
Grant's impressive record at Chelsea – played 54, won 36, drawn 13, lost five – will be quoted in his defence, even if the anecdotal evidence does not bear him out as a successful manager. His assistant, Steve Clarke – who projects a fairly dour, suspicious aspect to the world outside of Chelsea – largely took responsibility for training and for giving the rabble-rousing, traditional British pre-match team-talks. Clarke has been lampooned as the man for the training-ground balls and bibs but there is a good deal of respect for him among the players.
The appointment of the combative Dutch coach Henk Ten Cate, previously at Ajax and Barcelona, did nothing to improve the mood. Ten Cate's clash with Terry on the eve of the Carling Cup final, as well as his inability to get along with the players, meant that he was due to be replaced, come what may, this summer. With Grant's dismissal taking place so rapidly, there must be a fear throughout the Chelsea coaching staff that none will be around for the start of next season.
Grant's most recent appointment, the chief scout, Michael Emenalo, was made as recently as October. Within the realignment of power at Stamford Bridge he may prove another casualty.
Life and times of Israeli coach
1955 Born 6 May, Petah Tikva, Israel
1974 Becomes youth coach at Hapoel Petah Tikva aged 19
1986 Appointed coach of Hapoel first team
1991 Appointed coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv. Wins title in first season
1995 Wins second title with Tel Aviv before moving to Hapoel Haifa
2000 Appointed manager of Maccabi Haifa. Wins title in first full season
2002 Appointed manager of Israel
2006 Appointed technical director at Portsmouth
2007 Appointed director of football at Chelsea (20 Sept). Put in charge of team following Jose Mourinho's exit
2008 Loses Carling Cup final 2-1 to Tottenham (24 Feb). Loses Premier League title on final day (11 May). Chelsea lose Champions League final to Manchester United on penalties (21 May). Sacked by Chelsea, with a record of: P 54 W 36 D 13 L 5 – the lowest percentage of defeats of any Chelsea manager (24 May)
Grant adopted 'philosophy of a loser', claims Mourinho
Avram Grant departed Chelsea with a flea in his ear – not from the club but from his predecessor Jose Mourinho, who described Chelsea's season as "really bad" and said their campaign could be described as great only by someone with "the philosophy of a loser". Mourinho, who left in September, was asked whether Chelsea's season had been a good one, as described by Grant.
"That depends on your philosophy of leadership," he said. "In my philosophy it was a very bad one because in football 'almost' means defeat and Chelsea almost won the Carling Cup, almost won the Champions League and almost won the Premier League. Almost is nothing.
"After two titles per season for the last three years there were zero titles this season, which in my philosophy means a really bad season. Maybe in the philosophy of a loser this was a great season, which I respect." Mourinho admitted to being "very sad" at Chelsea's defeat in Moscow to Manchester United in the Champions League final.
"The supporters deserve more, [the players] and some others deserve happiness. I still think of them as my boys." However, he added: "I believe that after an empty season new success will come to Chelsea. And I will always be a Chelsea supporter."
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