LONDON – The dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo was as brutal as it was predictable and unpopular, but let nobody think that Roman Abramovich gives a damn about public opinion. The saddest part about the serial sacker’s methods is, that if success is the yardstick, Abramovich’s way works as Chelsea has won 10 trophies in eight years under eight managers.
Even the ultimate success in club football does not give you much credit at Stamford Bridge. Last May under caretaker-manager Di Matteo, Chelsea won the Champions League final a couple of weeks after lifting the F.A. Cup, but a run of poor results when the Blues won two of eight games saw the revolving door on the manager’s office in action again.
Abramovich stood by John Terry when he was found guilty by the Football Association of making a racist remark to Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand yet sacked his manager after a dodgy month.
Chelsea’s statement said: “The team’s recent results and performances have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt a change was necessary.” I loved “the owner and the board” bit, as if there was the slightest chance of any member saying he disagreed with Abramovich’s decision.
It is not as if these are desperate times for Chelsea, which is third in the Premier League and four points behind leader Manchester City, which plays on Sunday, is in the quarterfinals of the Capital One (League) Cup and could still qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions league. Next month, Chelsea is in the Club World Cup. One day a Chelsea manager will probably be fired for having a bad training session.
Abramovich was never keen to give Di Matteo the job full-time despite bringing two major trophies to the club after succeeding Andre Villas-Boas in March. It took the oligarch a month after Chelsea’s Champions League triumph to offer Di Matteo a permanent contract though RDM was aware that he was little more than a stand-in until someone the owner thought was better came along.
It always seemed strange that Abramovich would give the job to a man sacked by West Bromwich the previous year, whatever his achievements in temporary charge of Chelsea. Pep Guardiola could not be persuaded to scrap his sabbatical and Rafa Benitez, on Wednesday appointed the next ex-Chelsea manager, was reluctant to accept a short term deal at the time so the man who guided Chelsea to the European summit was given the job by default. Abramovich is not used to making decisions he is unhappy with, on this occasion he was left with no realistic alternative to Di Matteo.
Six months later the former Chelsea midfielder did what most of Abramovich’s managers have done and left with an estimated £2.5 million payoff as compensation to those the Russian has hired and fired reached £80 million.
Only Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti have lasted more than a year under Abramovich, and since he assumed control Chelsea has now had as many managers as Manchester United has had since 1937.
Abramovich has devalued the position of Chelsea manager to almost incidental. He may as well do the job himself, though many feel that in effect he is by choosing players to bring in, paying them top dollar — cost is an irrelevance to the billionaire — and allowing whoever is in charge an average of eight months before writing out another compensation check.
Benitez, who said he had yet to meet the owner, will be expected to win the Premier League title playing the sort of stylish football that meets Abramovich’s approval. Oh, he must also make Fernando Torres into the player he was when Benitez brought him to Liverpool from Atletico Madrid. The Spain international is a pale shadow of the razor-sharp striker he was between 2008 and 2010, injuries blunting his cutting edge and confidence.
Even all that might not be enough to prevent the Roman emperor from giving Benitez the thumbs down. The Russian is prone to knee-jerk, inexplicable decisions which baffle even those close to him, not that they would question the paymaster.
The former Liverpool manager is an unpopular choice with Chelsea supporters for whom Di Matteo was an idol and assumed legendary status when he led the Blues to their Champions League victory in May. As manager of Liverpool, Benitez twice oversaw Champions League semifinal defeats for Chelsea, which are not easily forgotten by the Blue Army, though victory over City at Stamford Bridge will soften the blow of his arrival.
Chelsea fans accept that the man who owns their club does not court, want or care about popularity. If the number of managers Abramovich employs keeps pace with the trophies the club wins, then so be it.
It’s Roman’s way and it works, to hell with what anyone thinks.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.