Sam Wallace: Why are you so upset, Andre? You've had an easy ride so far
Villas-Boas rails against 'press persecutors' but really wants a siege mentality at Stamford Bridge
If Andre Villas-Boas wanted to know what a true monstering from the English press feels like then he would have been advised to seek out Graham Taylor at Stamford Bridge where the former England manager was a radio pundit for Chelsea's win over Valencia.
No-one copped it worse than Taylor, whose demise as England manager is so well documented that it does not need to be revisited here other than to say his treatment was of a brutal intensity which, almost 20 years on, still feels heavy-handed and aggressive. So it would have been interesting to know what Taylor thought of the invective Villas-Boas launched late on Tuesday night against what he said was the media's "continuous persecution" of his Chelsea team.
In his post-match press conference, the young Chelsea manager hit his stride early from an innocuous first question and never let up. He declared that the result was a "slap in the face" for his "critics". He accused the newspapers (you have to assume it was the papers from his elegant use of the phrase "editorial choice") of giving Manchester City a relatively easy ride. He got stuck into Gary Neville and he ended with a real twist of the knife. "It's unfortunate for you guys," he said, "because you'll have to write about Chelsea finishing first."
In the crowded press room at Stamford Bridge, bewildered expressions were exchanged. Yes, there have been times when managers have been given a rough ride, although when it comes to outright calls for a sacking that tends to be the sole preserve of the England manager. But Villas-Boas? On the whole, the general tone, even among some of the highest-profile columnists, has been that Roman Abramovich must strive for stability and give his bright young manager a chance. That is certainly an opinion I share.
It has not been easy for Villas-Boas over the last few weeks, but any Chelsea manager who loses five out of 10 games – as his record was before Tuesday – will find himself under pressure, and it will not just be the newspapers or the phone-ins asking questions. This is Chelsea, where the owner has sacked five famous managers in eight years so to pose the question that he might do so again is hardly fanciful.
As an astute, modern coach who attends his press conferences with a series of answers to questions he expects to come up prepared in advance, Villas-Boas is clearly conscious of how he handles the media. He was so scrupulously attentive in his first press conference in June that within a few minutes of it beginning he was addressing reporters by their first names. So what is it that has got him so upset now?
He is not an innocent who comes fresh to the Premier League. He experienced it with his mentor Jose Mourinho whose supposed mastery of the press was overblown – it was his team's success on the pitch that won him the plaudits. Villas-Boas will also have known that the British media is a different beast to its equivalent in Portugal where Mourinho boasted that he once persuaded a newspaper editor to sack a columnist who was critical of him.
With the benefit of greater reflection, you have to wonder whether there was another purpose behind Villas-Boas' words. Like all managers he needs something for his squad to unite against and what better than the vague notion of "persecutors" in the press, a convenient bogeyman and a lot less contentious than taking on an establishment figure like Sir Alex Ferguson or, as Mourinho did, Uefa.
The practical problem with casting the press as the enemy these days is that not every foreign player in the Premier League reads the British newspapers. Those old-school stories about managers pinning critical articles to the dressing-room wall to motivate a team are long gone. Nowhere is that more evident than in the post-match mixed zones at Champions League games where players gravitate to the media from their respective countries.
Nevertheless, Villas-Boas is entitled to play "the-world-is-against-us" card at least once, because, goodness knows, others have used it often enough over the years. And he has a point about Neville. The Sky Sports pundit's line about David Luiz playing like a PlayStation footballer "controlled by a 10-year-old" was evocative but it is hard to imagine him being quite so scathing about a Manchester United player. At least while Ferguson is still in charge.
The problem for Villas-Boas, as it has been for many of his predecessors, is that the real battle he has to win is internally at Chelsea. He has to ease Frank Lampard away from his right to an automatic start, a process that continued with the decision to drop him against Valencia. He will also have to do the same one day to John Terry, which could be soon if Gary Cahill arrives next month.
He has to find a way to manage Didier Drogba who, despite his display on Tuesday, will not always be a happy figure this season as long as the club refuse to give him the two-year contract extension he wants. There may even be a case for replacing goalkeeper Petr Cech next season with Thibault Courtois, currently on loan at Atletico Madrid, although it should be said that Cech was excellent on Tuesday.
Lampard, Terry, Drogba and Cech. They constitute the nucleus of the most successful team Chelsea has ever had. They have survived all five of the managers that Abramovich has appointed. The Chelsea fans accept they will need replacing one day but they love them and instinctively side with them. When Lampard warmed up on the touchline on Tuesday night he was given an ovation by part of the East Stand.
My bet is that when Villas-Boas sits at his desk and contemplates the enormous challenges he faces at Chelsea, it is the question of how he will ease those names out of the club without the whole place descending into civil war – and taking his career down with it – that occupies his mind. The newspapers can wait for later.
Bound up with the problems he faces are all the issues of Villas-Boas' credibility: his relative youth and his lack of a playing career. He is diminished, unfairly in my view, simply for being young for the job. There is nothing he can do about that. He assumes a professorial attitude – that tendency to use the language of an over-written technical coaching manual – because he cannot reference his experiences as a player.
He knows that he has to build credibility rapidly because in the struggles that lie ahead he will need all of it if he is to move on some of the most famous players at the club, especially Lampard and Terry. There is no precedent he can learn from: as a 34-year-old foreign manager with no playing history, in charge of the modern Chelsea, he is breaking new ground.
So what better way to sharpen yourself for those kind of battles than with a pop at the beastly press? It is a guaranteed vote-winner with the fans and none of the players are ever going to disagree. Fair enough, those of us on the other side can take a bit of stick. But it is his relationship with some of the individuals on the other side of the press room wall, in the home dressing room, where Villas-Boas' future really will be shaped.
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