Roman’s sack race makes no sense
So, it wasn’t all about winning the Champions League for Roman Abramovich then? There must be another reason that causes Chelsea’s billionaire owner to dispense with seven managers in five years. In the wake of Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking, I’ll admit, it is difficult to understand what that reason could be.
Certainly, nobody who I have spoken to this week has come up with a printable answer. And, believe me, I have spoken to players, managers and chairmen, hardly any of whom wanted to go on record as saying what they really think. Whenever a story in football breaks, everybody who has even a passing interest in the game will have an opinion and anybody can hold any other person to a conversation about football because it’s a universal topic. But it’s what you talk about that determines how long that conversation lasts.
For some reason, the owners of nearly every club who I have played for have tended to make time for me when discussing all things football, probably because I’m the only player that has never said to them: “How much money do you really have?” (Though I did once witness our captain do that). You don’t have to be a genius to work out that wealthy owners would prefer not to talk about their money, either how they came in to it or what they they intend to do with it.
My curiosity is instead piqued by the things that go on behind the scenes, which probably goes a fair way to explaining why I began writing “The Secret Footballer columns. Things like: “How do you actually interview a prospective manager? What do you ask him? How does the board agree on the best man for the job?
Fortunately, I have stayed in touch with many of the owners who I have played for and, indeed, chief executives and boards of directors. I’ve also met some new ones by sheer coincidence. But there is one owner who has always remained “close”, to the point where I can pick up the phone and ask him how things really work at boardroom level.
“Choosing a manager is not about picking the candidate with the biggest reputation,” began my friend. “When we were looking last summer, we sat down in the boardroom and set out the concerns that threatened the club’s immediate financial stability. We knew that we had a lot of older players who were past their best and we also knew that we had to replace them with free transfers and up-and-coming players on a third of the wages if the club was to avert a financial crisis.
“When my chief executive and I conducted the interviews, we only had one point on the agenda: ‘How many of the older players can you move on and what players can you bring in with the budget that we have this year?’ We didn’t ask any of the managers who we interviewed how they will play or what tactics they will employ.
“Many of them had only ever worked at clubs where these responsibilities are not their concern but, at our club, we needed a manager who had the right contacts to offload players and a wide enough support network to bring in new talent. He needed to have a handle on the finances, too; so many of them don’t.
“The manager who got the job talked at length about the way he had moved players on at other clubs and exactly what works and what doesn’t. In short, he knew exactly how to sell it to these players. As you know, he has worked wonders.”
When the conversation took a topical turn, we dissected the recent sacking of Di Matteo.
“It’s crazy isn’t it?” he told me. “Nothing surprises me down there any more. They had the most successful manager in their history and sacked him (Jose Mourinho), a World Cup winner (Luiz Felipe Scolari) and sacked him, a Champions League winner (Carlo Ancelotti) and one of their own, who actually wins them this bloody trophy they’ve all been after … and, lo and behold, they sack him, too (Di Matteo).”
It is fair to say that Abramovich is not a stupid man. Anybody that amasses a fortune estimated at $12.1bn clearly has a bit about them and is probably able to put the right people around themselves without making many mistakes. So there must be another answer for these sackings.
It was reported that Chelsea spent £13.3 million buying Andre Villas-Boas out of his Porto contract. Less than a season later, they sacked the Portuguese and paid him compensation rumoured to be around £10 million. According to Chelsea’s financial results, the combined cost of sacking Ancelotti and replacing him with Villas-Boas was £28 million.
In the last four years alone, Abramovich has shelled out £64 million hiring and firing managers. Now, any businessperson will tell you that even if you are a billionaire, a black hole like that makes no business sense whatsoever. But this is a sharp man, so there must be another answer as to why the sackings continue.
Thankfully for future recruits, Uefa’s financial fair play (FFP) rules may soon put a stop to the lunacy at Stamford Bridge, not that I have ever heard any one of the sacked Chelsea managers complain. Even the great Mourinho, whose ego must be bursting to tell the world what really went on, has never complained.
The most likely reason for that will be that they have all signed their own confidentiality agreement, which, if it is anything like the one I signed at one club I played for, is about as thick as the Yellow Pages and covers specific incidents that a person has witnessed in their time at the club.
Namely, abuse, bullying, violence and details of a player’s own transfer, which, of course, are nearly always done outside of the law through contacting agents first, rather than the selling club. The bulk of these contracts, however, talk at length about what the compensated party can’t say about the club; there is to be no criticism of individuals and no criticism of how things are done.
But a manager has to be happy to sign the agreement and accept the pay off, which they always are. And, money aside, there seems to be an acceptance that this is the normal routine at Chelsea and that the inevitable sacking was always expected. Why else would a succession of world-class managers, in danger of soiling their reputation, continue to be a party to all this? It is almost as if taking the Chelsea job is seen by everybody else in football as the manager in question taking a year or two out of the game, awaiting a return to the real world after a pay-off.
Not until the last part of my conversation with my old employer did the penny finally drop. “Hiring managers on long-term, well-paid contracts,” he said, “and then firing them six months or a year into the deal, achieves only one thing – a heavy loss on the club’s balance sheet. It would be the easiest way possible to lose hard-earned money. Why on earth would I want do that?”
Why, indeed? Perhaps Abramovich has the answer.