Andy Greeves on why Avram has struggled to live in the shadow of the Special One.
One of the most abiding images of the season so far was Avram Grant’s reaction to Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final victory over Liverpool. The Israeli crumbled to his knees as the final whistle sounded in west London, overcome by a mixture of emotion. He gave tribute to his father on Holocaust Memorial Day and celebrated the Blues’ victory – a rare and personal moment of reflection rarely afforded in the last nine months he has been in charge at Stamford Bridge.
The focus on Grant since his appointment as Blues manager on 20 September, 2007, has been unprecedented and on occasions, unseemly. Sections of the UK football media and Chelsea’s support base have revelled at every opportunity to lead a character assassination of the former Portsmouth technical director. Grant has been portrayed as a hapless tactician, unable to communicate with his players and ultimately a sub-standard replacement to Jose Mourinho.
Yet this is the manager who has led Chelsea, a club playing in the second tier of English football less than twenty years ago, to a Champions League final. In touching distance of landing a trophy that was, until now, the stuff of simple football fantasy for those in SW6.
But when has football ever been logical? For that matter, when has it ever been fair? The achievement of leading any other English club to the Champions League final would have guaranteed Grant near immortal status amongst that side’s supporters. As would matching, stride for stride, a seemingly irresistible Manchester United until the final day of the Premiership season. Yet going into the final, there is the feeling that not even landing Europe’s biggest prize would secure love and admiration for the Israeli at Stamford Bridge, let alone his Chelsea future.
So why is the man standing on the brink of Chelsea greatest glory at the same time walking the most perilous of planks? The reasons carried by press, fans and players alike are plentiful, but ultimately the resentment of Avram Grant is quite simple – he is not Jose Mourinho. The media pine for Mourinho’s flamboyance, unpredictability and talk of omelettes and football teams. The players crave the father figure that made them believe they were all special ones. And the fans miss the man that put them on the world football map.
The comparisons drawn between Grant and Mourinho are as frequent and tiresome as stories of the Israeli’s ‘inevitable’ sacking. Even after the semi-final win, the victory was referred to most commonly as Grant going ‘one step further than the Special One’, rather than becoming the first Chelsea manager to take the Blues to a Champions League final. And on the eve of the most significant match in their history, Didier Drogba claimed all Grant needed to do to be successful at Stamford Bridge was to turn up and ‘wait for the results to come along’. Just as Mourinho could do no wrong in the eyes of players, fans and media, it would appear Grant can do no right.
His lack of experience and UEFA recognised qualifications rankled greatly with Chelsea’s supporters from the word go. Still bitter over Mourinho’s departure, the arrival of a man perceived as a relative nobody in their eyes was insulting appointment from a board they felt had hounded their Portuguese cult hero out. The popular consensus amongst the fans was that Grant got the top job purely on the basis of being friends with club owner Roman Abramovich. Rarely did anyone in The Shed or The Mathew Harding Stand mutter that the new man had in fact managed at international level for six years or that he had won four league titles in his native Israel.
He was lambasted for Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup Final in February. A game that, for whatever reason, their opponents simply seemed to want to win more than the Blues. He was roundly booed by the vast majority at Stamford Bridge after going just a goal down to Arsenal in a home match Chelsea would ultimately go on to win 2-1. He has even had to suffer the indignity of fans singing Jose Mourinho’s name and waving flags with their ex-boss’ name while Grant’s side are playing. Worse still, anti-semitic abuse from a small section of Chelsea’s support.
Grant has secured 26 victories in 37 games as Chelsea boss, losing just three games – a results ratio (70.3%) almost identical to Jose Mourinho’s at Stamford Bridge. He has engineered the resurgence of Michael Ballack and to a lesser extend, Andrei Shevchenko, into top Premiership players. And whatever the purists might like to say, his side play with substance and purpose as great as any achieved by Mourinho. His managerial qualities are surely therefore not in doubt, yet his immediate future is.
Should Avram Grant go on to lift the Champions League on Wednesday, maybe, just maybe, the farcical questions of his worth and the relentless comparisons with Mourinho may go away. But judging on everything that has gone before, even then Grant may find that ‘The Special One’ is ultimately Chelsea’s Irreplaceable One.