The shock decision by Chelsea yesterday not to renew the contract of their assistant manager, Ray Wilkins, was sanctioned by owner Roman Abramovich after the club told manager Carlo Ancelotti that changes had to be made to the coaching structure.
The decision took many at the club by surprise with its suddenness – Wilkins, 54, was watching a reserve-team game at the club's Cobham training ground when the news was announced yesterday. Those at the game said that Wilkins spoke with the reserve-team coach, Steve Holland, during the match against a Bayern Munich XI, telling him that he would be leaving the club after the game.
It is understood that the Chelsea hierarchy believe that Wilkins had outlived his usefulness at the club. Wilkins is a popular figure with players, staff and fans, who has had a 37-year association on and off with Chelsea since his debut as a 17-year-old, and the club are aware that his departure will not be their most popular decision.
The move has been explained internally as one where Wilkins' role at the club no longer fits the brief he was given when he arrived in September 2008 as assistant to the then manager Luiz Felipe Scolari following the departure of Steve Clarke to West Ham.
At that time the club needed a coach – ideally an Englishman – who knew the club, the players, the Premier League and was comfortable with the English press to help Scolari find his feet in English football. Wilkins was the ideal fit and when Scolari was sacked by Abramovich in February 2009, Wilkins stayed on to help Guus Hiddink's interim spell in charge to the end of the season.
When Ancelotti arrived in the summer of last year with the minimum of Italian staff – his assistant Bruno Demichelis is his sole major appointment – it made sense that Wilkins, who played at Milan and spoke Italian, should stay. It is understood that Chelsea staff are now being told that Wilkins' original brief, to help while Ancelotti settled in and learnt English, has now passed and it is time for a new approach.
Despite Chelsea's Premier League and FA Cup Double last season, there is still frustration among the club's hierarchy at the failure to make progress in the Champions League during that campaign, especially given that they were eliminated by Internazionale, coached by their former manager Jose Mourinho, in the first knockout round.
That result was a great source of disappointment to the club's Russian owner. When Wilkins' contract as assistant manager came up for renewal over the last two months, the decision was made at the very top of the club that there should be changes among Ancelotti's coaching staff – with the Italian just one part of the consultation process.
Ancelotti was told that the decision was being made, but was not given the power to veto it. It is not clear how hard the Italian fought for Wilkins to stay in the job. It is understood that the manager was with Wilkins at the training ground when he was told of the club's decision over the phone by the chief executive, Ron Gourlay.
The decision to allow Wilkins to leave was all the more surprising because it came in what has been a relatively smooth period in the club's history, with Chelsea top of the League by four points and poised to qualify easily for the Champions League knockout rounds. Having built on the success of last season, they had looked a more stable ship than ever before in the Abramovich era.
Gourlay was instructed to wield the axe yesterday, telling Wilkins that he would not be offered a new contract and would be allowed to leave straight away. Gourlay was not the instigator of the decision and it is not even being presented as a cost-cutting measure, because a replacement is expected to be recruited from outside the club.
Ancelotti will go ahead with his usual Friday press conference this afternoon at Cobham. Ever the pragmatist, he is expected to react philosophically to the decision and project it as simply "one of those things" that happen in football.
In his recent autobiography Ancelotti described Wilkins as an integral part of Chelsea's success in breaking the grip that Manchester United had on the Premier League for the previous three seasons. Ancelotti said: "Ray is one of those select few, always present, noble in spirit, a real blue-blood, Chelsea flows in his veins. His heart beats in two languages, and that helped me. Without him, we couldn't have won a thing, and in particular we would not have started the year at supersonic speed."
Wilkins is understood to be sufficiently well off not to have to seek another job in football. A smooth performer in front of the cameras, he will be in demand for punditry work. However, as a resident of the Surrey area in which Chelsea's training ground is based it will no doubt hurt this popular figure.
Chelsea released a brief statement which did nothing to explain the decision. Gourlay said: "On behalf of everyone at the club I would like to thank Ray for everything he has done for Chelsea football club. We all wish him well for the future."
Wilkins' Chelsea career
Chelsea playing career: 1973-79 - 198 games (34 goals)
Assistant manager: 1998-2000, 2008-10
At 17, Ray "Butch" Wilkins arrived at Stamford Bridge and quickly became the club's youngest captain at the age of 18. He led the Blues back to the First Division and was voted Chelsea Player of the Year in both 1976 and 1977.
He returned as assistant to Gianluca Vialli in 1998, helping the club win the FA Cup in 2000 before departing early in the next season. He returned for a third spell in 2008 under Luiz Felipe Scolari, staying on as the club won a Premier League title and two FA Cups.