LONDON – Roman Abramovich is unlikely to have been particularly bothered by Chelsea’s exit from the Carling Cup at the hands of Liverpool. The competition remains fourth on the list of Stamford Bridge priorities, but elimination next week from the Champions League, the Russian’s Holy Grail, could see the twitchiest sacking finger in the Premier League in action again.
Chelsea requires a victory or a goalless draw when Valencia comes to town on Tuesday to advance to the knockout stage. Abramovich, who has sacked five managers in eight years, is not a man to tolerate what he sees as failure — in the cases of Avram Grant and Carlo Ancelotti it was finishing runnerup — and the second coming of Guus Hiddink cannot be ruled out.
Andre Villas-Boas arrived from FC Porto last summer with a reputation as the best young coach in Europe. Four months into his Chelsea career, AVB has lost more friends than he has won, his tactics and team selection have been questioned, key personnel are struggling for form, he has failed to make Fernando Torres look like a ￡25 million striker let alone a ￡50 million player, and the man who could do no wrong in Oporto is, for the first time in his brief managerial career, facing repeated criticism.
It is a long time since Torres put fear into defenses and I wonder if we shall ever see the Spain international showing his form of three years ago. An insipid performance in the 2-0 Carling Cup defeat by his former club Liverpool, the Blues’ third home defeat in four matches, will see Torres dropped for Saturday’s trip to in-form Newcastle.
“The Champions League is a competition that is life or death and this standard won’t be enough,” said AVB after Tuesday’s defeat by Liverpool. “We need to up the tempo and play with the ultimate desire.”
Another home failure may see the Portuguese pay the ultimate price.
STEVE BRUCE became the first Premier League managerial casualty of the season when he was sacked by relegation-threatened Sunderland. Never the most popular appointment given his Newcastle roots, Bruce’s days were numbered after the vitriol-filled reaction from fans following the 2-1 home defeat by Wigan.
Popular with the media because of his availability and humor, Bruce has made a number of poor purchases this year while his lack of tactical acumen has been highlighted with every defeat. The former Manchester United defender is an old-school manager, almost boasting about his inability to send an email and dismissing the notion of sports psychology.
Season ticket holders at the Stadium of Light have seen only two home league wins this year and Ellis Short, the majority shareholder who became chairman recently — an ominous move in hindsight for Bruce — decided to bring a new manager in before the transfer window opens next month.
Martin O’Neill, a lifelong Sunderland fan, and Mark Hughes are the favorites to succeed Bruce, whose disappointment at being sacked will be helped by the compensation check — he had 2½ years to run on his contract.
WE SHALL never know the dark pain Gary Speed suffered that made him think suicide was the only option. There were no clues, nobody suspected that anything was slowly burning inside him that saw the Wales manager hang himself in his garage.
There was no suicide note, no explanation. Speed’s family, closest friends and those he worked with had no inkling that one of the most popular and respected people in football would end his life. There was no sign of depression, Wales was on a winning streak and Speed seemingly had everything to live for.
Suicide is not a sudden decision, it is usually the result of depression caused by a buildup of personal, professional or financial problems; maybe the news you have an illness from which you will not recover. Speed did not tick any of those boxes but something, somewhere pushed him over the edge.
There is still a stigma about depression in England. If we are suffering from personal problems that cause depression, too often the reaction is to “pull your socks up,” or perhaps the most ignorant of all: “How can you be depressed, you earn ￡50,000 a week?”
That was what one manager said to former England striker Stan Collymore, who has spoken openly about his condition in an effort to help others. What power depression has when it can force people like Speed or former Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke to believe suicide is the only solution to their inner trauma.
Speed played for Leeds but was respected by Manchester United fans. He played for Everton but Liverpool supporters acknowledged his worth. He played for Newcastle but those who followed Sunderland did not have a bad word to say about him.
It takes a very special player and person to unite football’s tribal divides and Gary Speed managed that and much, much more.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.