Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Antipiphany Of Roman Abramovich

The English language has no antonym for the word epiphany but if one could imagine the opposite of a flash of inspiration it would be that unpleasant slow creeping realisation that you may have just done something incredibly foolish. It’s that feeling of trying to free one foot from a bog and seeing the other foot get slowly get sucked under in the attempt to escape. This newly coined “antipiphany” is probably worming its way through the Chelsea boardroom at this very moment as the various suits who serve Roman Abramovich’s ponder a very awkward question. The question of exactly what do we do if this next managerial appointment goes south?

The odds on Guus Hiddink being announced as the next manager of Chelsea have been dramatically slashed in recent days as both sides have made doe-eyed faces at each other through the media. The appointment is a fairly sensible one given that both Chelsea and Hiddink had a very positive experience during their time together and that the Dutchman has a reputation for being able to develop teams as well as being a tournament specialist, two things Chelsea desperately need.

Even ignoring the six months in which the man and club very publically fell for each other Hiddink’s CV is almost a perfect fit for Chelsea. The 1988 treble with PSV Eindhoven put that all important European Cup on his resume. There’s the fact he’s managed at the highest level (Netherlands, Real Madrid, Valencia etc) for decades and most importantly he’s proven that he is one of the best tournament managers going. The 1988 European Cup was followed by World Cup semi-finals with the Netherlands in 1998 and South Korea in 2002 not to mention guiding Australia to their first World Cup in 32 and their first knock-out stage ever.

With the possible exception of the Netherlands each one of those teams seriously over-achieved with Hiddink in charge. The spells with South Korea and Australia are particularly relevant to as they demonstrated just how good Hiddink is at maximising the potential of the resources at his disposal. Neither side was tipped to get anywhere near where they actually did prior to the tournament but the Dutchman installed a sense of unity and common purpose that served them very well. The 2002 and 2006 tournaments have elevated Hiddink to the level of national hero in both countries. For his services to Korean football Hiddink was granted citizenship, free flights on a Korean airline for life, an island villa and a stadium named in his honour.

So on the surface everything about the appointment of Hiddink is wonderful. A match made in heaven. However like so many managers that have taken the Russian’s rouble there is a feeling that Hiddink is unlikely to complete his contract at Stamford Bridge. Mr. Abramovich has developed a seriously itchy trigger finger since the departure of Jose Mourinho in 2007. Numerous managers have tried to fill the hole left by the Special One and none has lasted. Abramovich has hardly been hiring a procession of nobodies either. Avram Grant had a fairly minimal reputation in football when he took the job but it would be hard to name many coaches with the same pedigree as Luiz Felipe Scolari or Carlo Ancelotti.

Since the Abramovich take-over Chelsea have taken to hiring the elite of world management. Between them the five managers since 2004 had, at the time that they were hired, won two Portuguese leagues, one UEFA Cup, four Champions League, two Israeli championships, two Copa Libertadores, one World Cup, six Eredivisies, one Serie A and a FIFA World Club Cup trophy and that is only counting major honours. With the sole exception of Avram Grant, Abramovich has pretty much exclusively hired managers with an impressively long list of major honours to their name.

Yet his habit of getting shot of managers who’ve won league titles without giving them a chance to really make their mark on a squad is massively problematic on a number of counts. Firstly it inhibits the teams chances of winning that elusive Champions League trophy. Secondly the squad needs to be rebuilt and the constant hiring and firing allows for almost no continuity from year to year. But finally the problem is that if Abramovich keeps wanting the best managers in world football and then dropping them after a year or two, sooner or later there will be no more top class managers out there to take the job. This is the antipiphany currently creeping over the Chelsea board members. If Hiddink doesn’t turn out to be the solution, who is there left?

If Hiddink arrives and is subsequently fired for failing to win the Champions League within two years (a tough task at the best of times but with this Barcelona side around virtually impossible) then who can Abramovich replace him with? The number of truly great coaches around is dwindling rapidly. Managers like Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger aren’t going to go to Chelsea. Pep Guardiola seems unlikely to want to switch as he is constantly making noises about taking a break from football. Mourinho and Ancelotti have both been disposed of already. Aside from Hiddink there is Fabio Capello or the ever erratic Louis van Gaal neither of whom would be ideal to work for the Russian billionaire. Capello won’t provide the samba football he craves and van Gaal’s combustible relationship with bosses is as well-publicised as Mourinho’s, an experience Abramovich will not care to repeat.

The appointment of Hiddink represents the last chance of vindication for Abramovich and his attitude towards managers. If Guus cannot provide the European glory he so badly craves there is virtually no world class managers left for him to employ and the squad is in need of serious renewal. The antipiphany of Chelsea is that the money spent over the last three seasons and combined talents of Scolari, Hiddink and Ancelotti have been unable to deliver the Champions League and that the team is actually further away from their goal than they were when Avram Grant was in charge. Guus Hiddink is the last possible roll of the dice before accepting that there need to be serious changes at Stamford Bridge.

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