Vialli sent packing by Chelsea player power

George Graham favourite to step in after dressing-room unrest ends manager's two-year reign at Stamford Bridge
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The Independent Football

Push came to shove earlier than expected last night when Gianluca Vialli was sacked as manager of Chelsea five matches into the new season and four months after winning the FA Cup. Although this season was widely regarded as being the Italian's last chance to lead them to a first League championship since 1955, the ruthlessness of the club's decision still came as something of a shock.

Push came to shove earlier than expected last night when Gianluca Vialli was sacked as manager of Chelsea five matches into the new season and four months after winning the FA Cup. Although this season was widely regarded as being the Italian's last chance to lead them to a first League championship since 1955, the ruthlessness of the club's decision still came as something of a shock.

Among the favourites to succeed Vialli are the Tottenham Hotspur manager, George Graham, and the Chelsea striker Gianfranco Zola, while the former England coach Terry Venables may also be interested.

It appears that the lack of confidence in Vialli's manmanagement felt by some of his players has now been reflected at board level and intensified by a defeat against Bradford City and three subsequent draws against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Newcastle.

Chelsea had lost only one of those opening five games, having warmed up for the season with an impressive 2-0 victory over the champions, Manchester United, in the Charity Shield at Wembley. That match, and the exciting first Premiership game, in which West Ham were beaten 4-2, suggested that Vialli had spent well during the summer in securing Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (who scored in each match) and the attacking Croatian midfielder Mario Stanic.

Eidur Gudjohnsen was also bought, for £4m, and the club's abrasive chairman, Ken Bates, backed his manager further with the acquisition of the Internazionale defender Christian Panucci and Barcelona's Winston Bogarde.

Vialli has also pursued another defender, Aston Villa's Gareth Southgate, upsetting their manager, John Gregory, in the process, and only yesterday he offered West Ham £4m for the mercurial Paolo Di Canio, which suggested he was off on a different tack altogether. Real Madrid's Brazilian forward Savio was believed to be another target, but before writing any more cheques Bates summoned Vialli to a meeting at 5pm yesterday.

The club's increasingly influential managing director, Colin Hutchinson - one of only two other members of the Chelsea board - was also present, and within less than an hour a statement was released which read: "Gianluca Vialli has been released from his duties as manager of Chelsea Football Club with immediate effect. He will continue to be paid under the terms of his contract. Chelsea have great admiration for the achievements of Gianluca Vialli in his two and a half years in charge of team affairs and would like to place on record our appreciation for his services. However, the club feels that in a wider context it is in our best interests to seek a change of direction. An announcement on the succession will be made in due course. For the immediate future, the current staff will take charge of the team."

The phrase "wider context" could cover a multitude of sins. What is clear is that some members of the Stamford Bridge dressing-room - notably those who were team-mates of Vialli's under the previous manager Ruud Gullit - did not like the changed relationship that inevitably followed his promotion to succeed the Dutchman, who left after a pay dispute in February 1998.

At that time Vialli was a highly popular successor with players and supporters. He inspired the team to overturn a League Cup semi-final deficit against Arsenal in his first match and in the next three months the team won that competition, beating Middlesbrough at Wembley, and then took the European Cup-Winners' Cup against Stuttgart. Although they slipped to fourth in the League - lower than when Gullit had left - it was Chelsea's best finish since 1970.

A serious championship challenge has been expected every season since, but materialised only the following year. Chelsea led the table in January 1999 and lost only three times, yet still finished behind Manchester United and Arsenal, and Vialli was blamed for a crucial tactical error as the team sacrificed a 2-0 lead at home to Leicester.

Last year, on his own admission, they paid too much attention to the Champions' League, achieving some fine results in reaching the quarter-final before a 5-1 mauling in Barcelona. Questions were again asked on that occasion about the manager's tactical nous, while whispers began to emerge from players who often found themselves left out in his rotating team selections.

After finishing fifth in the Premiership, Chelsea salvaged the season by winning the FA Cup, but all was far from well. One of their supporters, Tony Banks MP, revealed last night that even as they celebrated winning the Cup, some players were complaining to him about Vialli. "There's no doubt there was a lot of dissatisfaction among players," Banks said. "Even after winning the Cup final, they were saying he simply couldn't hack it in terms of his inter-personal skills. He was just not very good at getting on with the players and motivating them. I'm afraid in the end Luca just didn't deliver."

In a dressing-room dominated by foreigners, the British concept of keeping all disputes in house rather than hanging dirty washing out in public tended not to apply at Stamford Bridge. Days before this season began, Frank Leboeuf was guilty of telling the world that many Chelsea players "had problems" with Vialli. The Frenchman was dropped for the first game, against West Ham.

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