Ruthless streak of Abramovich may be sign of genius

Di Matteo is seventh Chelsea manager to be fired by Russian since 2005, but doubters just have to look at Blues' bulging trophy cabinet

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2012, 3:06am

Stuck for a Christmas present to buy your favourite Chelsea fan? Then why not buy a set of Russian dolls - the small painted wooden figures that decrease in size and are placed inside one another. You can easily obtain matryoshkas in discounted bulk from any Guangdong factory listed under "cultural tack" on Alibaba, and they are easy to modify. Simply stick on mug-shots of the nine hapless Chelsea managers appointed during the reign of Roman Abramovich.

Blues fans will discover hours of fun over many years collecting these novelty figures. They should have over 20 by the end of the decade - representing all those who have spun through the revolving Stamford Bridge doors since 2003.

Marking the fleeting employment of Chelsea managers is no more insane than the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo this week. The lunacy was swelled just hours later by the appointment of former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez, a long-time irritant of Blues' supporters.

There are neutrals that argue Di Matteo was out of his depth and riding his luck, despite guiding Chelsea to their first European Cup, winning the FA Cup and with the team currently third in the EPL. During recent under-par performances, it was rumoured the former Chelsea player-turned gaffer had lost the notoriously volatile dressing room, a development as fatal as Caesar losing the respect of the Senate. 'Et tu, Terry?' you can imagine Di Matteo asking as he was shown the door.

What is certain is Di Matteo's departure was two months shy of the average eight-month life span of a Chelsea boss. Only Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti lasted more than a year.

Abramovich may be ruthless but some claim he is a master tactician. The media-shy Russian oligarch has hired nine coaches and sacked seven since 2004. It has cost the billionaire £86 million in compensation since 2004 and he hasn't blinked. Despite his chaotic human resources record (he has appointed more managers in his nine years than Manchester United have employed since 1937), Chelsea have won seven trophies.

"Go figure," jeer those disciples of the Abramovich school-of-man-management.

His brutal approach is not defined by random acts of a hard-to-please tyrant. Instead, the serial sackings are the workings of a great footballing mind, they argue. There is no room for sentimentality at this level. But these Abramo-cons are in danger of missing the crucial factor that gives Abramovich and his board legitimacy to rule - fan loyalty. Chelsea supporters have often been baffled by the board's decisions.

Di Matteo is a Champions League winning manager regarded as a family member by Chelsea fans. He was a loyal and productive soldier of fortune on and off the pitch and who'd brought home the prized bacon.

Fans are highly tolerant of a good manager hitting a rough patch, so his sudden dismissal during a dip in form has brought about a dramatic sea change at the Bridge. The reaction to what many see as another capricious sacking by an indulgent, arrogant oligarch has been bordering on open revolt.

The appointment of Benitez rubbed salt into the gaping wounds. In the eyes of many Blues fans, the Spaniard personifies the divide in character between Liverpool and Chelsea. In 2007, Benitez said he would "never" take the Chelsea manager's job.

He also contrasted the passion of the two sets of fans, saying Liverpool "don't need to give away flags for our fans to wave - our supporters are always there with their hearts, and that is all we need".

Though the former Liverpool manager will act only as caretaker until the touted summer arrival of former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola and is primarily tasked with wringing the money's worth out of Fernando Torres, reaction from Chelsea fans has been understandably hostile. They are bristling with discontent at what they now perceive to be an out-of-control tyrannical owner toying with their loyalty and their club.

Abramovich was once admired for his ambition and wealth. He defied convention and many were blinded by the bling and the arrival of the costly stars. They ignored his flaws. He proved that if you throw enough cash at a problem in football the results will still come and everyone will forgive the crass behaviour. Losing is to Abramovich what dissent was to Stalin. Summary justice is meted out on a whim and goes unchallenged by his board, who would never dare question it.

Di Matteo dared to - and was fired. Defiantly, during his 42nd and last game, he dropped the costly but out-of-form £50-million (HK$618 million) Torres for the clash with Juventus - a team selection that brazenly challenged the direct orders of Abramovich.

The 3-0 loss and the near-certain premature exit from Europe merely sealed the envelope containing his termination letter.

The fans might detest the prospect of Benitez in the dugout tomorrow against Manchester City. But, in truth, it no longer matters who sits in the manager's seat. All under the Chelsea sun are guided by the controversial owner who sits aloft and manipulates the game for his amusement.

There will be little point sending Abramovich a Russian doll set for Christmas. He will tire of the figures easily and break them with a petulant flick of his finger.