Bates flirts with risk management

Chelsea chairman heads into unknown territory to scale the heights - but can Ranieri repair the fault lines?
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Who would be a magazine editor? On the newsstands yesterday lay this week's issue of Shoot, boasting a front-page interview with an article entitled "Luca Vialli: Chelsea manager on his future at Stamford Bridge". Inside, to suggestions that "the knives are out for him", Chelsea's manager until Tuesday at 5pm maintained: "I've always said that my future is at Chelsea, at least for the next 10 months, and that's a lot of time. Any number of things can happen - we might win the League or we might be relegated..."

Who would be a magazine editor? On the newsstands yesterday lay this week's issue of Shoot, boasting a front-page interview with an article entitled "Luca Vialli: Chelsea manager on his future at Stamford Bridge". Inside, to suggestions that "the knives are out for him", Chelsea's manager until Tuesday at 5pm maintained: "I've always said that my future is at Chelsea, at least for the next 10 months, and that's a lot of time. Any number of things can happen - we might win the League or we might be relegated..."

Or he might be replaced by a compatriot who, it would be a fair wager to suggest, failed to strike an immediate chord with the majority of the Chelsea faithful. You suspect a survey in the Fulham Road early last week would have placed Claudio Ranieri as a guru of fashion chic, not a master of coaching technique.

It would be easy to scoff, except Shoot were far from the only ones caught out. At least they could blame early deadlines. The grim scene at Chelsea's training ground on Wednesday morning, the day after the Italian had met the fate that so many others have suffered at the hand of clamorous Ken, suggested a few others had been caught unawares, too. Including those with futures in doubt. Managing director Colin Hutchinson and captain Dennis Wise sat with arms crossed in a defensive pose, while coach Ray Wilkins was as eloquently benign as always. No chairman Bates or coach Graham Rix. But behind the trio stood assistant manager Gwyn Williams, orchestrating a press conference which was scarcely informative, but still illuminating.

Wise declared mournfully that Vialli was "a good man", Hutchinson that the dismissal, conducted by himself and Bates, had "come as a shock to the players", that "the mood was very subdued and a lot of people were very sad".

In tone, it was almost as if we were discussing a suicide. It was anything but. Dismissals are rarely bloodless affairs and this is no different. Vialli's parting was made all the more curious by reference in a statement issued by his personal assistant, Virginia d'Amore, to the actions of a "Mr Nice Guy", a non-identified Brutus of the affair.

Teasingly, Ms D'Amore added that it was clear from the statement to whom it referred. It is not, though presumably the person involved is aware. It all brings a touch of drama to the sequence of events. Will we ever learn he identity of The Third Man? When it was inferred that the players' performances had contributed towards Vialli's downfall, Wilkins protested that we were "reading too much into it".

He added: "I don't think there's anything gone wrong with the team." Which begs several questions. Not least: why dispense with Vialli? Why replace him with an Italian whose English is limited and whose cv, impressive as it is, does not include the claim of a league title that his new chairman so craves? Ranieri's translated response to his initial approach by Hutchinson was: "If there are roses, they will bloom." It is an apt metaphor. The 48-year-old Italian arrives, on a reported £2m salary, with a reputation for pruning and replanting, of training the creepers at a club rather than of tending already flourishing gardens.

Chelsea are definitely the former. Despite Vialli's summer investments, which many believed would empower Chelsea to muster an authentic challenge to Manchester United, performances have lacked conviction and there have been persistent rumours of dissent.

After having progressed to a certain level by in-house appointments, there is a clear rationale in Chelsea's decision to opt now for a vastly experienced coach, albeit one who is unable to enforce his authority with a display of medals from a distinguished playing career.

Those who might condemn the import of a little-known Italian should perhaps ponder the effect a certain anonymous Frenchman, who arrived via Japan, has had on Arsenal. As for a lack of the local lingo, Jean Tigana appears to be communicating well enough down the road at Craven Cottage. But then, the cynics will contend, what of Christian Gross? "Crown Prince" or "Clown Prince" Ranieri, as he will undoubtedly become known, depending on his similarity to Wenger or Gross, will immediately have a conduit to the heart of the squad through his association with former players of his, Gianfranco Zola and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. He starts work tomorrow, having watched the home game with Leic-ester, acknowledged ego-busters.

It will also be by no means the first occasion that the Italian has encountered an autocratic, outspoken chairman, having dealt with Vittorrio Cecchi Gori at Fiorentina and Jesus Gil at Atletico, though Bates' pursuit of the implausible dream, the Premier League championship or winning the Champions' League, will set him a Herculean task.

Recruiting management from within, as Bates has done previously when installing Ruud Gullit and Vialli, can bring stability and continuity; it can also produce an adverse reaction. That is always a risk when a man one day plays the jester with his fellow players and complains about the coach, as Vialli did with his predecessor Gullit, and the next day takes charge. The transition is invariably a precarious one.

Your players may mouth all the correct terms of endearment for their manager/friend but authority, long-term, tends to be fragile, particularly when results fail to satisfy he who must be obeyed. A mood can quickly develop among the players that, for all his prowess as a player, the manager may be tactically naïve, especially so when his desire to rotate limits their own participation.

In Vialli's case, the list of supposed malcontents was steadily growing: Frank Leboeuf, (the now departed) Didier Deschamps, Gianfranco Zola, Gustavo Poyet and Albert Ferrer.

Although tension surrounding Vialli had increased following defeat at Bradford City and the home draw with Arsenal (after Chelsea had led 2-0), it is believed to have been a spontaneous decision to jettison him. There have been suggestions that Vialli was not satisfied with the role of Hutchinson in the transfer of Winston Bogarde and the departure of Emerson Thome to Sunderland. Hutchinson has denied this, claiming that Bogarde's transfer was "carried out with his full knowledge and authority". Nevertheless, in his post-dismissal statement the Italian makes clear his displeasure with the managing director. "It seems to Mr Vialli that his boss, Colin Hutchinson, lacked confidence in his conduct, which seems rather bizarre since under Mr Vialli's management the club won five trophies in two-and-a-half years," it read.

Club sources indicate that the decline of Vialli's relationship with Hutchinson may have been the nub of the problem. Bates certainly felt he had no option but to act. That decision brought, says Ruud Gullit, a wry smile to his face. "Until the club has lived up to its potential and finally collected the League or a European crown... Bates will keep hiring and he will keep firing," added the Dutchman.

Nobody can decry Bates' transformation of Chelsea. On Thursday night, at the 1-0 Uefa Cup win against Swiss champions St Gallen, the presence of former defender Colin Pates - now working for the media - reminded us of the days in 1983 when Chelsea were within two points from being relegated to the old Third Division. Their elevation back to the élite of English football has been swift and spectacular.

Having rebuilt Stamford Bridge, the club require big-spending corporate support to sustain the operation. However, it is arguable whether Bates' demands on successive managers and his tendency to rile the opposition have been truly beneficial to Chelsea. In recent years, as he has protested vehemently, all his managerial appointments have yielded reward, none more so than Vialli, the most successful in the club's history. Only a year ago, he insisted: "There is only one thing you need to know about Luca and that is that he was born to leadership just as a baby is born to his mother's breast."

In the summary removal of that same man, in whom he genuinely placed much faith and affection, he expects to take his club that final stage. In reality, Bates has embarked on a perilous journey into the unknown.

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