Even after a run of one win in eight matches, reports of heated exchanges in the dressing room and pressure emanating from board level, it remained the news Chelsea fans feared rather than the news they expected.
Roberto Di Matteo has been sacked by Chelsea after just eight months in charge. He is the seventh manager to be relieved of his duties since Roman Abramovich assumed control of the club in June 2003. Another, Guus Hiddink, wisely elected to jump before he could be pushed.
Di Matteo leaves a young, exciting but developing team on the verge of Champions League group stage elimination after Tuesday's comprehensive defeat at the hands of a superb Juventus in Turin, and four points behind Manchester City in the Premier League. Unlike with previous managers, this was no crisis point, only the merest hint of one on the horizon.
It is a decision utterly mystifying in its timing, and another moment for Chelsea fans and neutral observers alike to contemplate with incredulity the irrepressible ruthlessness of Abramovich. Only six months and two days ago Di Matteo was celebrating delivering the first Champions League crown in the club’s history. Today he is packing his belongings and saying his goodbyes.
“For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” It may appear crass to use a phrase uttered by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel in reference to football, but the sentiment expressed could scarcely be more apt.
Under Abramovich, Chelsea has ascended to the top of the English and European game, at the cost of all credibility and integrity. The club has spent ludicrous sums, sacked managers on an almost yearly basis, alienated club legends such as Steve Clarke and Ray Wilkins, and kept a man found guilty of racist abuse as its captain because he is still a valuable ‘asset’. At some point, every discerning follower of this club must have asked themselves: “Is it worth it?”
As far as exacting change goes, however, it is irrelevant – no more than a moral quandary. For Chelsea under Abramovich are the most absolute of dictatorships, with a lone voice barking orders from the darkness. When the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar are brought in for a combined 80 million pounds, being a billionaire’s play-thing feels pretty good. Only on days like this is the heartlessness and senselessness of it all dwelt upon.
The anger of Blues fans towards their owner will always be tempered by a feeling of intense gratitude. Had Abramovich elected to buy Tottenham back in 2003, Chelsea would almost certainly have been consumed by its crippling debts in the manner of Leeds United, becoming yet another cautionary tale for chairmen willing to live the dream with somebody else’s money.
Instead, the club promptly embarked upon the most successful era of the its history. Three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups and the miracle of Munich. Those who frequented the Kings Road in the dark days of Bobby Campbell and Ian Porterfield could never have imagined such a golden age in their lifetimes.
Throughout, Abramovich has never made false promises or assurances. He has never claimed to back a manager when he does not. Invariably he elects to remain silent, contemplating the current state of affairs with his secret band of advisers and forcing those around him to react to his actions rather than his words.
Unlike his many managers Abramovich is accountable to no one. He will never take responsibility for the vain purchases of Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres which have made Chelsea a laughing stock in the transfer market, nor the decisions to employ Luiz Felipe Scolari or Avram Grant, or to invest almost 30m pounds in Andre Villas-Boas on the strength of one excellent season at Porto.
But then, he has earned the right not to be, not only as a result of some 1 billion pounds of investment, but also because he has brought an amount of silverware to Stamford Bridge unprecedented in the club’s 108 years of history. There remains the nagging sense that Chelsea would have achieved even more without this now infamous ‘sacking model’, but we can only remark on what is, not what might have been.
Abramovich can do what he wants and he knows it, and anyone who objects can, to paraphrase the words of Fulham owner Mohamed Al-Fayed at the unveiling of that notorious Michael Jackson statue outside Craven Cottage, “Go to hell or go support Fulham”.
For Chelsea fans there is no choice to be made, and they await his next move.
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