James Lawton: Abramovich's misrule leaves Scolari impotent to avert decline of empire

Tuesday 13 January 2009 01:00

It was entirely typical, and not inappropriate, that Jose Mourinho should linger in the Old Trafford directors' box on Sunday night long after his fellow celebrity Fabio Capello had left. Mourinho, surely, had a sight to relish: living, well barely living, proof that when his former patron Roman Abramovich first began to undermine him he was revealing his slender grasp of what makes a football club.

It is the thrust of authentic leadership, the presence of a man with whom the fans can truly identify and, most vitally, the players can both respect and fear.

Whether the fans always respond for the right reasons is quite beside the point, it being their sovereign right to announce their taste in both football and life quite as vociferously as they like. Mourinho may have been guilty of some ghastly behaviour, at times he may have resembled nothing so much as a walking, lurid advertisement for himself, but he gave both a core and a personal identity to the club.

His football wasn't always lovely and he was twice outsmarted in Europe by Rafa Benitez. But then it was absurd when the word came down from the owner's suite that he wanted a more pleasing style of play. Mourinho came to Stamford Bridge as advertised: the Champions League winner with Porto who played tight, pressurised football and was never likely to exploit fully the width and skill and bite offered by the current star of Real Madrid, Arjen Robben, and Damien Duff. He wasn't running a star system but a team made in his own uncompromising image.

However outrageously he behaved or spoke – as in his appalling treatment of the Swedish referee Anders Frisk, the Berkshire Ambulance service, and airy dismissal of the potential of Wayne Rooney – Mourinho became Chelsea. It was not the remote oligarch, counting his toys and his assets and entertaining his friends.

As he said in one of his more beguiling moments, Mourinho was a star in his own movie. Now, agonisingly for those supporters who embraced the arrival of the Abramovich years as though they had been assigned from the heavens, the reel of that particular film has long been parted from its spool.

Neither Avram Grant nor Luiz Felipe Scolari have been able to begin to fill seriously the vacuum. They simply haven't been empowered, Grant because of the widespread belief that even triumph in the Champions League would not necessarily have guaranteed his tenure, Big Phil because if you take away the jaded Deco and so-so Jose Bosingwa he looks to be doing no more than hosting somebody else's played-out party.

It is not a time for reflex gloating because if Chelsea did come to represent an appalling degree of smugness – remember the chief executive Peter Kenyon's gleeful claim that the Premier League race had come to involve a "bunch of one"? – they also concentrated the minds of Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Benitez – and set a high bar indeed for any English club with the means and the nerve to make a serious challenge.

Indeed, even in the current crisis created by persistent suggestions that Abramovich's love affair with the Bridge has become as cold as the wind down Gorky street, and Sunday's ultimately spineless performance at Old Trafford, Chelsea are performing a certain service to the rest of an English game which can no longer be quite so sanguine about the effects of the recession.

They are showing what can happen when a football man like Mourinho loses his ability to represent the club as a true leader rather than a figurehead threshing in his own bruised ego.

It is a mistake that the Glazer family at Old Trafford, whatever the wisdom of their debt-laden financial planning, the rulers of Arsenal and even the harassed bosses of Liverpool are unlikely to make if they dwell for a moment on developments at Stamford Bridge.

If Benitez can drive you crazy with his obsessive team tinkering, he deserves everyone's respect for his jealous protection of his rights as a football man who ultimately will be judged on results – and his ability to make the right signings.

In the last few days Benitez has earned scorn in certain quarters for what has been erroneously perceived as his rising to the bait put down so relentlessly by Ferguson. If Benitez loses the title race, it will not be because of his willingness to stand up to Ferguson with arguments that have been researched solidly and expressed with considerable cogency.

Wenger goes his own brilliant, nervy, maverick way and, on the heels of such major figures, Martin O'Neill and David Moyes have also announced control over their own destinies.

By comparison, Scolari cut a somewhat forlorn figure at Old Trafford on Sunday. The extrovert winner of the World Cup, and a man who bestrode the Brazilian club scene with untouchable chutzpah, spoke in that mournful tone to which Portuguese often adapts so readily. No doubt his stint at Chelsea will underpin him financially for the rest of his life, but if he is anything he is plainly a football man of great heart.

He must feel he has inherited a club suffering not a financial brake but also a dwindling of passion. That the owner missed a match as vital as Sunday's suggests that the shortfall is nowhere more pronounced than at the top of the pyramid. He was said to be devastated by defeat in the final in Moscow, the city where he made his name and his billions, and if that state of mind wasn't terminal it might well have become so at Old Trafford. Chelsea played tidily in the first half but virtually disappeared in the second.

More than anything they lacked the steel and the certainty imparted by strong leadership. Had he seen it, even Abramovich might have recognised where he had gone wrong. If not, the sardonic smile of Jose Mourinho would surely have been a potent clue.

Stumped by Botham's role in Pietersen affair

Kevin Pietersen's track record suggests that he will respond to his loss of the England captaincy with heightened ambition when he returns to the batting crease. That, along with his statement of distress over the course of last week's events and his resolve to do all he can to restore his reputation as a devoted team man, is a bonus for the administrators of English cricket you may feel they do not really deserve. Their handling of the whole business has been, to say the least, maladroit.

It is also necessary, however, to remember the origins of the crisis. They lay in Pietersen's understanding that, along with the captaincy, he had also been given writ large. He could fill the dressing room as he pleased and he could appoint his own coach. It was a naïve belief to adopt at such an early stage of his leadership and the consequences, for anyone who knew about the organisation of team sport, could have been easily foretold.

This brings us to an issue that is vital to a satisfactory long-term conclusion to a disastrous affair. It is the quality of the advice Pietersen receives. The word in cricket is that at least some of it came from Sir Ian Botham, who has an interest in the management company which represents Pietersen. As a luminary of the game and a trenchant analyst for Sky cricket, Beefy's rumoured role has so far escaped the radar. Perhaps his public should know a little more.

Beckham's eye for a winning shot

David Beckham's genius for self-publicity has not always been a cause for tumultuous celebration in this corner. Indeed, some of the objections have been categorised as obsessive, perhaps even a reason to seek psychiatric help.

Rest assured, however, even his most dedicated critics have to hold their hands up at the familiar sight of him leaping on the back of a goalscorer and dominating the resulting picture (right). That he should be able to do it so long after his retirement from serious club football, at the expense of the brilliant young Brazilian striker Alexandre Pato and while playing for Milan, is cause only for unabashed admiration.

You can say that no one who ever pulled on a pair of football boots ever showed more flair for getting in the picture. But then it would be terribly remiss not to add that his staying power is nothing less than wondrous to behold.

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