GETTING RID of the man who has won more silverware than any other Chelsea manager was never going to be easy. Chelsea and Jose Mourinho parted company for the first time in 2007 with the team struggling to get into the super-charged gear of 2004-06 and, seemingly, a breakdown in relations between the owner and manager.
It was still a genuine shock when he left the club. This time, the Blues have imploded and Mourinho’s body language suggested, for some time, a disconnect between himself and the players. The club could not allow that to prolong.
Amid claims that Chelsea’s players have let him down and that the convenient label, “player power” has led to the departure of the one-time “special one”, what has happened at Stamford Bridge is no different to what happens all over football.
The fact is, it is easier to remove one body than a whole squad of players, many of whom are on long-term, expensive and foolishly-awarded contracts. When one man is out of sync with 20, the one has to go, regardless of how “special” he once was. It’s the same in any workplace.
Track record of palpable discord
It is not the first time this has happened at Chelsea. When Mourinho left in 2007, there were rumours that one or two players might have been asked, “Et tu brute?”. But go back to 1974 and Dave Sexton’s final days. Chelsea’s squad, arguably the best they had employed until the current era, fell-out with Sexton one-by-one. It resulted in the prelude to a decade of steep decline, on and off the pitch. Sexton was a lot more steely than met the eye. Indeed, James Lawton, an experienced football writer of considerable skill, told me recently that, “I wouldn’t have wanted to work for Dave Sexton….one of the hardest men in football.” This came as something of a surprise – I met Sexton, albeit in his latter years, and he came across as he had on TV in the 1970s – softly-spoken, gentle and mild. Apparently, though, he was a disciplinarian who didn’t suffer fools.
If you’ve read any books on Chelsea’s past, you will have also picked up that players and management didn’t always see eye-to-eye: Tommy Docherty, Ken Shellito, Danny Blanchflower, Geoff Hurst, John Hollins, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas all had issues.
Generally speaking, with Mourinho you sense it is a case of “what you see is what you get”. His method is fine when it works, but when it doesn’t, it fuels discontent. Chelsea’s squad has barely changed since last season, but its performance in 2015-16 has been incredibly poor. Something was clearly wrong.
It is possible that, in the aftermath of his departure, people will start to leak stories about the decline of Mourinho as a man manager. During his time at Chelsea, he was always good at demanding – and getting – intense loyalty from his players. Even now, listen to Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, John Terry and the like and they will speak, moist-eyed about Mourinho. But he may have lost that, and not just at Chelsea. At Inter, his stay was brief and successful enough to leave the relationship intact, but his time at Real – especially in the latter year – was sprinkled with tension and strained relationships.
Mourinho brings baggage, but rarely unpacks all of his luggage
You have to question Chelsea’s management on the wisdom of handing a long-term contract to a man who brings plenty of baggage but rarely unpacks all of his luggage when he joins a club. The past two and a half seasons have not been unsuccessful by any means, but they follow a familiar pattern for Mourinho.
The situation is also so typical of Chelsea. As a supporter of almost 50 years’ vintage, I have – like all Blues fans – witnessed dramatic scenes that do not seem to occur at other clubs. There’s an air of “boom and bust” that has hung in the air at Stamford Bridge since the 1970s. I recall the late Greg Tesser, writing in 1973, foreseeing a decline at the club that certainly came true – largely driven by the behaviour of players and the “Babylon” nature of Chelsea. His words must have haunted the club’s chairman at the time, Brian Mears.
This is a club that, in the 1930s, lost half of its team to frostbite in a game at Blackpool, although there were stories that the players were actually drunk and not merely frozen to the bone. And the club that, when chasing the title in 1965, decided to drop the core of its team in a vital game because players broke curfew. Somehow, this type of story rarely surfaces at clubs like Arsenal – I guess it is part of what makes Chelsea interesting. But there is a hint of the “drama queen” about Chelsea, there always has been, and Mourinho and his antics only served to perpetuate that image.
Today, some media reports talk of an “inherently unpleasant man” and the removal of the aura that surrounds Mourinho. Between 2002-03 and 2009-10, Mourinho won six league titles, two Champions Leagues, one Europa League and five domestic cups in seven seasons. In the five seasons since (i.e. Real Madrid and Chelsea), he was won two titles and two domestic cups. That’s not a bad haul, but Mourinho moves in the sort of circles that demand more, and in 2015-16, Chelsea were looking likely to end the campaign empty-handed.
That prospect, plus the arguments, disciplinary problems and general demeanour of the man in the dugout was too much for Chelsea to bear. In the cold light of day, even the most myopic Chelsea fan would have to admit that time had run out.
But Mourinho’s departure has been handled with all the usual clumsiness. As always, the owner, Roman Abramovich, did not swing the axe personally, but sent his acolytes to do the dirty work. And instead of a top-level executive explanation, the technical director is sent on TV to talk about a “palpable discord”.
It is time that Abramovich connected with Chelsea’s public. There will be plenty of supporters who are unhappy about the decision to dispense with Mourinho’s services. The supporters need Abramovich, the man who hires and fires from a distance, to speak. Time to break out of his Garboesque persona.
Critics of Chelsea will doubtless point to a lack of class in the way the club operates. Leaks about replacements for Mourinho were circulating for weeks, which only serves to put the incumbent under more pressure. From 2007 to 2013, Chelsea desperately tried to recreate the Mourinho 1.0 period when they won five trophies in three seasons. When they got close, they let a decent man like Ancelotti go one year after winning the double. Mourinho 2.0 has now come and gone, the question is, what will they strive to create now?
By all accounts, it is now going to be Hiddink 2.0