Abramovich's urge for fulfilment makes Chelsea the home of swift executions
Consistency may be one of the Chelsea owner's virtues but it causes a rapid turnover of managers, and at quite a cost
To understand the way Roman Arkadievich Abramovich goes about his various businesses, which range from dealing in the earth's natural resources to manipulating the personnel of a football club, it helped to spend a couple of days watching him give evidence in London's high court this time last year, defending himself against his former business partner Boris Berezovsky's attempt to recover about £5bn out of which he claimed to have been cheated.
Abramovich won, of course. His legal costs, which will be met by the loser, are estimated to have been in the region of £35m, of which around £10m is said to have gone to his advocate, Jonathan Sumption QC, who was enjoying a last big payday at the bar. A defendant who can reward his barrister with such a sum is hardly going to be unduly inconvenienced by the need to pay off football managers at the rate of approximately one per season.
As he outlined his case, Abramovich made a powerful impression. This was not the man who ambles quietly across the Stamford Bridge turf long after the crowd has gone home, wearing a rather vacant grin. He was alert, animated, precise in his responses and surprisingly expressive in his gestures.
Orphaned at the age of four, he graduated from selling rubber ducks to owning a considerable portion of Russia's natural resources. Such a man must necessarily be decisive and sometimes ruthless. To retain the patronage of Vladimir Putin, a certain consistency would also be required. Those qualities can be seen in his treatment of the men he recruits to run his football club and then discards when the desired results are too slow to materialise.
Consistency may indeed be among the Russian's cardinal virtues. Luiz Felipe Scolari was dismissed after 223 days in charge. Avram Grant had 247. André Villas-Boas went after 256. Roberto Di Matteo, Wednesday's "victim", got 262. On that basis, you could even say the oligarch is getting more patient and forgiving as the years roll by. By small margins, admittedly, but then it was the small margins involved in transfer pricing -- the selling and repurchasing of oil -- that Abramovich consolidated the fortune which changed the face of Chelsea, allowing the fans of the West London club to celebrate almost a decade of triumphs on a scale beyond their wildest dreams.
Only one of Chelsea's last five managers has ended a season that he started. That is a truly astonishing fact, and it is one that would serve to condemn Abramovich as a destructive dilettante and a footballing ignoramus had his stewardship of the club not brought so much success.
It is a statistic that gives prospective incumbents a pretty good inkling of their likely fate, but it needs to be seen in conjunction with the fact that after Abramovich sacked Claudio Ranieri in 2004, José Mourinho won the club's first league title in 50 years and four other major trophies; after he removed Grant and Scolari, the caretaker Guus Hiddink won the FA Cup before Ancelotti won the Cup and Premier League in the same season; and after he sent Villas-Boas on his way, Di Matteo won the even more precious double of the Champions League and the FA Cup.
Future Chelsea managers are also comfortingly aware that they will be handsomely rewarded should things not work out to their employer's satisfaction. Abramovich has now spent £77m on divesting himself of the services of the men who have been unable to meet his expectations. An estimated £2m payoff for Di Matteo pales next to Mourinho's £18m or Ancelotti's £6m, but it is hardly chicken feed for seven months in charge, particularly since there will also have been a handsome bonus for the two trophies he added to the collection.
The money to pay off these managers, like the rest of the billion or so that he has splurged on Chelsea, came from a plundering of the wealth that once belonged to the people of the Soviet Union. Now it is recycled in the form of salaries and redundancy payments that trickle down to London's car salesmen, concierges, watchmakers, estate agents, fashion designers, chefs, security guards, croupiers, interior decorators and dealers in yachts and executive jets.
Such a consideration is unlikely to cloud the thoughts of Chelsea's fans, particularly when rival clubs are also in questionable hands, but they may be bewildered by the demise of Di Matteo, a former player who is held in considerable affection, as was the case with Ray Wilkins, so mysteriously and damagingly axed as Ancelotti's assistant two Novembers ago.
But the evidence is that Di Matteo did what he was asked to do between 4 March, the date of Villas-Boas's departure, and 19 May, when the European Cup was won in Munich, and did it extremely well, before demonstrating that he had no more to offer when it came to replacing the spine of the side once represented by John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Finally he was condemned by an inability to organise a coherent defence in Terry's absence or to make a lasting success of an expensively acquired attacking group including Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. On that basis, the verdict is perhaps not so hard to understand. The irony, of course, is that he leaves having proved that a swift and brutal execution can be exactly what is required.
At least the next man, Rafa Benítez, has more of the season left than was available to Di Matteo when he accepted promotion to the manager's job. That may be a blessing and a curse. He will also have to convince the Stamford Bridge fans, who will suspect that he is only there until Abramovich can persuade Josep Guardiola to end his sabbatical next summer. But after this latest twist in the saga of the owner's quest for football that is both world-conquering and world-seducing, at least everyone is a little clearer on where they stand.
- Roman Abramovich
- Roberto Di Matteo
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