REMEMBER when Chelsea went left-field and hired André Villas-Boas, the 35 year-old Porto head coach? It was meant to be bold, innovative and – with absence making the heart grow fonder for the man who brought two league titles to the club – a Mourinho-lite appointment. It all turned sour and inexperience, over-expectation and tactical confusion led to AVB out of work in mid-February 2012. The experiment had lasted eight months.
Frank Lampard has been named as Chelsea’s new coach after just one year in football management, a relatively successful campaign at Derby County. A large percentage of Chelsea fans will be happy that the club has turned to an adopted “one of our own”, that Lampard’s superb reputation as a player will buy him the patience from the club’s ownership and that the ejector seat in the dugout will be locked to prevent Lampard flying over the East Stand and into a period of “gardening leave” clutching a handsome pay-off cheque.
Lampard is a fairly unique individual in the football world. He’s reasonably well educated, he’s level-headed, he says the right things and rarely acts otherwise, and he’s doubtless been warned of the pitfalls of the game by his father, Frank senior. He is indelibly linked with past glories and played 648 times for the club, scoring 211 goals. He has all the credentials that will appeal to the fans.
But Lampard is treading dangerous ground. A solid reputation can be tarnished by an unsuccessful and troublesome spell as manager. Chelsea have a classic example in John Hollins, possibly the closest comparison to Lampard the club has had in modern times. Hollins was an excellent player, a stable individual, a great clubman and a decent fellow to boot. After Osgood and Cooke, Hollins was probably the most popular player in the Chelsea squad of the early 1970s.
Hollins was appointed as manager in 1985, taking over from John Neal. At the time, “Holly” was 39 years old and it was seen as a natural move for him. When things go well, nobody looks at how a manager operates, how he interacts with his players, or any eccentricities that he might have. Conversely, when results go against the team, rumours start to emerge of “discord”, “disconnect” and “dissent”. Chelsea have long had problems with player power and the odd ego getting in the way of progress. Go back to the 1960s and you have Tommy Docherty and his young Blackpool hedonists, later it was Dave Sexton versus Osgood and Hudson and in the 1980s, there was unrest in the dressing room involving David Speedie and Nigel Spackman. The Hollins era ended with the fans urging Ken Bates to get rid of a man who had an impeccable record before donning the tracksuit. In recent years, it has become clear that players have so much influence on the future of a coach and, more worryingly, the club comes down on the side of high-earning players over a coach – even one that has won major prizes.
At Chelsea, winning trophies does not guarantee your future if you are a coach. When José Mourinho departed in 2007, he had just won two domestic prizes in 2006-07. Carlo Ancelotti, after winning the double in 2010, was sacked a year later. Roberto di Matteo won the Champions League but was out of a job early in 2013. Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri both departed after winning silverware, the only difference is they wanted to go, unable to tolerate the Chelsea way any longer. All too often, it is not results that determine a coach’s tenure, but the ability to accept and work within the club’s peculiar structure. There comes a time when proud professionals, regardless of the money, want to be happy in their work rather than fighting a system, albeit one that, in spite of the politics, has been extremely successful.
Returning favourite sons are not always successful, as Glenn Hoddle found out when he was handed the reins at White Hart Lane in March 2001. Hoddle, “the appointment we’ve always wanted”, only lasted two and a half years. Others have been more productive, such as George Graham at Arsenal, whose win-rate of 48.91% was only marginally below the great Herbert Chapman. Graham had earned his spurs, so to speak, at Millwall and won two league titles with the Gunners. Seamless appointments, in other words, players moving straight from the team into the manager’s office, are rare these days, but Liverpool pulled off a master stroke when they handed Kenny Dalglish the chance to be player-manager in 1985 and he responded by leading the team to the first double in English football since 1971. Manchester United currently have Ole Gunnar Solksjær who was brought back, on an interim basis, to restore order, but the club got carried away and gave him a longer-term contract after a burst of success in the opening weeks after his return.
The timing of Lampard’s hiring may be a relevant factor as to why Chelsea decided to select a popular and close-to-home name. The transfer embargo is key because there will be no massive outlay on new players this summer, unless FIFA change their mind. Therefore, Lampard will have to work with the squad he has, which is now shorn on the club’s best player of recent years, Eden Hazard. He has a batch of players whose contracts are up in 2020 in Willian, Pedro and Olivier Giroud, while there are others on the payroll, such as Kenedy, Danny Drinkwater, Tiémoué Bakayoko and Michy Batshuayi who are still Chelsea players despite being out of the Stamford Bridge limelight. And of course, there is the ongoing Callum Hudson-Odoi debate.
Expectation, then, could be lower than in previous years, although the club has got UEFA Champions League football to look forward to. However, you have to ask who is taking the biggest gamble – Chelsea in securing a manager with a low level of experience or Lampard in opting to return – at a very early stage of his managerial career – to a club that is characterised by a culture of short-termism and one that has many question marks over its immediate future?
The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking Lampard may be given that rare Chelsea commodity of time. But then again, every new arrival in the job gets pictured smiling, holding a shirt and is accompanied by cliché and jargon along the line of “dynasties”, “great football” and “the right man for the job”. It is easy to be cynical about every new era that unfolds. You get the feeling, though, that this is different. Lampard will probably benefit from the will of the people – there won’t be many who won’t want him to be a success, and if he is, it could well break the pattern that has prevailed at the club since 2003.