LONDON – Like all Chelsea managers, Rafa Benitez was a dead man walking from day one.
Of the previous eight during the Abramovich era, only Guus Hiddink wasn’t fired, but the Dutchman was on loan from the Russian Football Federation for three months. Even the trigger-happy Abramovich would have struggled to fire a loanee.
While the sack is an occupational hazard on Planet Football, Abramovich has made it an ignominious art form. If he appointed himself as manager, he would probably sack himself after two months in the wake of eight consecutive wins.
Success does not guarantee you job security at Stamford Bridge.
Abramovich’s limitless supply of money initially made him the best thing to ever happen to Chelsea. Ten years on, he has become the worst, presiding over a toxic club with a poisoned atmosphere where anarchy rules.
Managing the champions of Europe should be a hugely attractive proposition, but it is a minefield of politics, player power and owner interference.
There is an argument that Benitez should never have taken the job in the first place because, like everyone, he knew the dressing room enjoys a disproportionate influence while when he signed his six-month contract he knew his title was interim manager.
My information is that he was offered an 18-month contract, but preferred to see how things went in the short term. It looked a marriage of inconvenience and a quickie divorce always on the cards.
The main reason the Spaniard was an unpopular, putting it mildly, choice was because of quotes about Chelsea attributed to him while manager of Liverpool, a case of newspaper top-spin becoming the reality.
The supporters who have been brainwashed by what they believe Benitez said are unwilling to protest against the man who made the appointment because they want his money, which has helped them win trophies, so they target the interim manager instead.
Despite his experience, nothing could have prepared Benitez for the hate — and that is not too strong a word — from Chelsea fans. Even seasoned football writers were taken aback by the bile from supporters — “Rafa Out” is one thing but “He’s nothing but a fat Spanish waiter” is crossing the line like Bob Beamon’s leap at the 1968 Olympic Games.
On Wednesday, Benitez snapped. For weeks he had bitten his lip, saying he hadn’t seen or heard anything and, yes, everything was hunky dory, no problemas.
Confirming he would leaving at (maybe this should be “by”) the end of the season, Benitez attacked the fans and the club (i.e. Abramovich) in what seemed a premeditated outburst after the 2-0 F.A. Cup fifth-round win at Middlesbrough, where even the DJ got in on the act with records designed to mock Fernando Torres: Fernando, Money, Money, Money and Money For Nothing.
Enough was enough and at least Benitez had the guts to say what he felt before the lawyers insist on the inevitable gagging order when he leaves.
Even some of the anti-Benitez brigade conceded he had a point when he said: “They (the protesting fans) don’t need to waste time with me. That group is not doing the club, the players or the other fans any favors. What they have to do is continue supporting the team.”
The negativity at Stamford Bridge is not conducive to the sort of advantage home teams traditionally enjoy. Chelsea supporters have even said they hope the team loses as it may speed Benitez’s departure, a twisted logic that is unique in football.
Benitez spoke of a “hidden agenda” but it is hardly a secret that Chelsea supporters want Benitez out and Jose Mourinho, sacked in 2007, back. Mourinho would love to return, but whether Abramovich will make a decision that would be viewed as eating humble pie remains to be seen.
Benitez’s title (though all of Abramovich’s managers are interim in one sense) was because “I had an agent (who negotiated the job). It was the English-Spanish translation. I felt it was a mistake to call me the interim, but I could not change it. It was too late. But I am the manager. I am professional and I will do my best until the last minute.”
On Monday there was a training ground bust-up, correction, another training ground bust-up, with John Terry — surprise, surprise — at the center of it. Benitez had accused the squad of under-performing since he replaced Roberto di Matteo in November and Terry responded by reminding the Spaniard that senior players have spoken to him about his managerial methods. One player chipped in with: “We won the European Cup with this team.”
Benitez’s managerial methods have enabled him to win La Liga (twice) and the UEFA Cup with Valencia, the Champions League and F.A. Cup with Liverpool, plus the Supercoppa and Club World Cup with Inter Milan in the last 11 years.
Yes, Chelsea won the Champions League last May and a side improved by the arrival of Oscar and Eden Hazard was knocked out of this season’s competition at the group stage, lost at home to basement club Queens Park Rangers, trails Manchester United by 19 points and needed a replay to beat Brentford of League One in the F.A. Cup.
Meanwhile, Andre Villas-Boas, hounded out of Stamford Bridge by the barrack room lawyers in blue, is proving what a fine young manager he is at third-place Spurs.
The visit of West Bromwich, managed by Steve Clarke, who was Mourinho’s assistant at Chelsea, promises to see the anti-Benitez vitriol reach new depths. Only an absence of viable and available options is keeping Benitez in his job.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.