On RTÉ this week Eamon Dunphy called Abramovich a fool, after Roberto Di Matteo had become the club’s eighth gaffer in eight years to go into the ex-files, yet the reason Chelsea fans continue to indulge him should be blindingly obvious: the fool’s gold has brought the club unprecedented success. Back-to-back titles, a domestic double, the holy grail of one Champions League triumph and the club’s general transformation from cult entertainers to one of the big beasts of the English game means fans are prepared to put up with the grisly sight of a succession of bloodied managerial heads piling up, even that of the special one, Jose Mourinho.
It also means that, disgruntled though they may be at the hiring of a man they like to call a “fat Spanish waiter”, they’ll have to put up with Rafa Benitez too, at least for the short term. Because the only other alternative is the departure of Roman Abramovich and, for all associated with Chelsea, that’s the one head they simply can’t afford to see roll.
As far as just about everyone else in football is concerned, Chelsea simply continue to find new ways to embarrass themselves. Lacking the box-office appeal which Abramovich seems to find intoxicating, Di Matteo was always likely to find that even landing a Champions League and FA Cup double would not be enough to protect him when the going got rough or even just a little bit sticky. Yet, the ruthlessness with which he was dispatched this week was still shocking: a night of the long knife at Cobham which, according to reports, saw him summarily instructed to clear out his desk in the wee hours after returning from Turin. Classy.
Also this week, in light of the exoneration of Mark Clattenburg against charges he directed a racist slur against John Obi Mikel, Chelsea may have achieved something considered hitherto impossible in football: uniting all other supporters in passionate defence of a referee. From now on, don’t be surprised if the whistler’s name is sung to the rafters by opposition fans whenever Chelsea take the pitch.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual — meaning, of course, business unusual — at Stamford Bridge, with Rafa installed as interim manager, though under Abramovich, the term “interim” is effectively meaningless since it seems to apply to everyone who slides into the hot seat at Chelsea. Still, considering the enmity which has built up between the clubs in recent years, the arrival of the former Liverpool boss at Stamford Bridge is a surprise.
It certainly seemed unthinkable at Anfield in 2005 when I happened to be in attendance to see Luis Garcia’s “phantom goal” do down Chelsea in the Champions League. Even seasoned Merseyside hands in the press box that night were taken aback by the outpouring of passion from the home support, as the Kop made clear its disdain for the nouveau riche Londoners and the idea they could buy history.
As the poisonous rivalry between the two clubs intensified, Benitez wasn’t slow to show his true colours — and they definitely weren’t blue.
“We don’t need to give away flags for our fans to wave,” he once scoffed at Chelsea’s expense. “Our supporters are always there with their hearts, and that is all we need. It’s the passion of the fans that helps to win matches — not flags.”
And lest their be any further doubt about where his allegiance lay, he also said: “Chelsea is a big club with fantastic players, every manager wants to coach a such a big team. But I would never take that job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool, no matter what. For me there is only club in England, and that’s Liverpool.”
That is, it seems, until a man finds himself out of work too long and itching to get back into the game. Benitez has made all the right diplomatic noises in defence of those comments in the last few days but the reality surely is his arrival at Chelsea is a calculated gamble made, in large part, with his own long-term career prospects in mind. In short, you suspect it’s his head rather than his heart that’s in it.
If the job goes well, it’ll enhance those prospects considerably. And if it goes pear-shaped — which, at a club as dysfunctional as Chelsea’s is highly likely — he can always claim mitigation in the fact that, well, it’s a club as dysfunctional as Chelsea.
In any event, it all adds spice to another new storyline in the long-running soap opera which is the Premier League. Tomorrow, Chelsea face Manchester City in a Super Sunday clash which doubles as one of those weekend omnibus soap blockbusters — the club which has just sacked the man who won them the Champions League against the club which may be about to sack the man who won them the Premier League.
Nope, you couldn’t make it up.