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Saturday 23 August 2014

Excess baggage will ground Benitez's flight of fancy

Richard Sadlier

Published 25/11/2012 | 17:00

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Billy Bonds was appointed boss at Millwall two years after I signed for the club. There was huge respect for him within the dressing room for what he had achieved in the past and that increased as soon as we met him. He had all the qualities to be an instant hero among the fans but he was tainted by one issue which most just couldn't overlook. He had spent 25 years at West Ham as player and manager.

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Some hurdles are too great to overcome in the world of football fandom. He never stood a chance.

Within the club it was hoped his past would not be used against him and the fans would give him time, the premise being that managers are judged solely on performances and on results. But it's never that straightforward with supporters. Too often he was treated as an ex- West Ham manager rather than a current Millwall one. If there was a way of blaming him for anything the fans found it. It was too convenient and too obvious, and it suited the wider agenda to get rid of him.

When dishonest players were cutting corners in games (and there were quite a few in that squad), Bonds was blamed for selecting them. He became the focal point of everyone's frustration and rage. And almost every time he was abused by fans his links with West Ham were thrown in for good measure. Not surprisingly, it didn't go well for him and he didn't last. I can't see it going any other way for Rafa Benitez at Chelsea.

Presenting a rational argument in support of the appointment will be wasted on many Chelsea fans. They are not interested in his record in the transfer market or the trophies he has won in the past. The merits of his tactical approach or his footballing philosophies don't matter either. Pretty much any point that could be made in support of his arrival would be shouted down by quoting Benitez's remarks about the club during his spell at Anfield. They were brought up many times last week, and none of them help his cause in any way.

Try as he might, explaining the context in which he dismissed the support of Chelsea fans in the past will do him no good. That those words are printed on the walls of the Liverpool training ground do him no favours either. His CV is impressive and his time at Liverpool was a success, but that's just one of the reasons why he'll be unwelcome. Lifting trophies with a rival is seen as baggage, but particularly when they came at your expense.

There are other reasons that make this appointment an unpopular one, but I can't find many that make it a wise one.

Playing to a crowd that are not behind you is an experience I've had many times, but I've watched several managers try to perform in the same conditions just as often. Every misplaced pass is blamed on the dugout and every substitution is greeted with derision. It's what the press ask you about, the fans talk to you about, and even in team-talks it's never far from your mind. If it lasts for any length of time, the manager is seen as a liability in the dressing room by those who really care, but a convenient scapegoat by others who are less committed. It's too big an issue not to affect everyone, but it generally only ends one way.

I would be surprised if Benitez gets booed or jeered when he first takes his place in the Chelsea dugout, but the applause won't be too enthusiastic either. It's one of the biggest jobs in the Premier League but it's hard to imagine a worse set of conditions under

which to take it. It's only a seven-month deal and his successor is already being courted. Not exactly the ideal terms to gain credibility in the eyes of the players, the media or the fans.

And just to add to his task, his opening game is at home to the reigning champions.

He won't be there beyond this season so discussions about his successor will remain in the news. While this will obviously undermine his efforts, so too will the lack of support from the Chelsea crowd. The players know it's not him they need to impress long-term so he is unlikely to get the full backing of the squad either. It's rare that so many factors are against a manager before a ball is kicked.

Decisions and results go against teams all the time. However, if there is one man within the club who is seen as an outsider, he will instantly take the brunt of the abuse. It's only an interim appointment, but it's bizarre, ill-judged and doomed to fail. Mind you, that's exactly what I thought when Roberto Di Matteo took over.

rsadlier@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Sport

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