New man on the Bridge
Published 30/06/2011 | 05:00
For somebody who hails from Portuguese nobility, Luis Andre de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas can hardly be described as upwardly mobile, but he certainly is in the footballing firmament -- spectacularly so.
He's 33, has never coached in the Champions League and now he's in charge of Chelsea. Too much, too young? Or something special?
Jose Mourinho comparisons are patently premature, but this latest adrenalin shot from Porto exudes all the hallmarks of a comet that will mature into a permanent star of the managerial galaxy.
The composed, attentive figure encountered at the Bridge yesterday was immediately, undeniably, unforgettably impressive.
Forget the good looks that will have 'Tatler,' 'Vogue' and 'Hello!' scrambling their 'Portuguese Man Of Phwoar' headline-writers.
The Noble One seems an intelligent football man going places without feeling a need to trample on those moving less quickly. No arrogance. No ego.
Chelsea, too often the club of crass, have bought some dignity in Villas-Boas. A certain grace defines his words and deeds. Those hoping for fireworks yesterday, perhaps the odd rocket aimed at Mourinho or Alex Ferguson, found the vapour trails emanating only from the pipe of peace.
On first impressions -- and everybody knows the Premier League battleground can turn charmers into madmen -- Villas-Boas seems a classy guy.
Shrewd too. His appointment of Roberto di Matteo as No 2 is a master-stroke, instantly endearing him to Shed and squad alike while giving him access to the wise counsel of a savvy, recent occupant of a Premier League dugout.
Tieless, affable, self-deprecating and -- as they say in the corporate world -- very big on detail, Villas-Boas' introduction to life at Chelsea yesterday was the slick debut we might have expected.
The club's new manager has just enough stubble to mask his youth but there was no mistaking the sharpest of minds.
Only time, and results, will tell if this 33-year-old really has what it takes but, as starts go, his introduction to life in one of the most demanding jobs in the Premier League was impressive.
Answering questions about Chelsea can be a minefield at the best of times. Answering them honestly is even harder. Yet amid the politics and the endless comparisons with Mourinho, Villas-Boas pulled it off.
Perhaps most crucially for a club that is on its seventh manager in seven years, he accepted the fragile nature of the job with good grace and the acknowledgement that he had to win to survive.
Villas-Boas put it as bluntly as anyone when he asked: "Who expects to stay as Chelsea manager if they don't win anything?"
He was wise enough to realise that he does not possess the stagecraft to match Mourinho's spectacular self-coronation as the 'Special One' seven years ago, so he did not attempt it.
Instead he suggested, with a hint of embarrassment, that he be known as "the Group One" because of the importance he placed on the collective.
No sooner had he uttered it than he realised it was a crap line and avoided sound bites from then on in. On a yacht somewhere hot and expensive, you could imagine Roman Abramovich nodding his approval.
His new man might be young, but he understands the rules of engagement perfectly.
The owner of Chelsea was, as ever, absent yesterday but his influence is still felt everywhere at Stamford Bridge.
You could detect it in the anxious expression on the face of Ron Gourlay, the club's chief executive, to the care with which Villas-Boas handled questions about the man he referred to simply as "the boss."
Only once while on the subject of Abramovich did Villas-Boas permit himself a smile.
Asked when he was first called by the Russian about the new job, Chelsea's new manager grinned at the innocence of such a question. "The boss," he replied, "doesn't speak on the phone."
Villas-Boas has that sure-footedness of a bright corporate type who has read widely on modern management techniques, but there are other qualities too. He deflects compliments without signposting that he is being magnanimous. He addresses people by their first names without sounding insincere.
And, because he was never a player himself, he does not retreat behind that trusted old defence beloved of football people that, because they played the game, they must automatically be right at all times.
There is an energy about Villas-Boas and freshness of purpose -- and he will need that as he rebuilds a team that, for all his optimism yesterday, is in decline.
On the question of whom he might be selling or signing, Villas-Boas was cautious. At one point he seemed to be saying that he might review John Terry's position as captain -- a brave stance from which he eventually retreated.
Nevertheless, he gave the players no assurances either that they could expect life to go on unchanged.
There is clearly a hard side to him too, even if he kept it well hidden yesterday.
Villas-Boas has already dismissed two senior coaches and the club doctor and, if one was to draw conclusions from yesterday, at least one more high-profile departure before Chelsea start the season against Stoke on August 13 is on the cards -- most likely among the players.
Villas-Boas politely refused to answer questions in his native tongue but that did not stop Portuguese reporters questioning him robustly over what they regard as a betrayal.
Physically, he is not an imposing figure and he does not have the benefit of seniority or a famous playing career to fall back on.
So what tactic will Villas-Boas resort to when he walks into the senior dressing room at Chelsea's Cobham training ground when pre-season starts on July 6?
The answer yesterday appeared to be that he will treat his players as mature, balanced adults and expect it to be reciprocated.
It is a novel concept to bring to an English football club -- but will it work?
On the question of his relative youth, Villas-Boas said he foresaw no problems.
"The players are responsible and professional enough to respect the position of the manager. If they lose that respect, something is wrong. I've never had problems of that sort," he said.
"I was 31 when I took over at Academica and it was never a problem, even with some of the players older than me. And it won't be this time either."
There is a refreshing lack of cynicism about a manager who is also big on unlocking hidden potential in players.
"We like to exploit talent a lot and, by freeing their decision-making, we can find things in their talent that they thought they didn't have.
"Most of them are experienced and think their talent is their talent. But we think there's something extra we can get out of them, so that is why we focus on ambition and motivation. That is the philosophy we have from top to bottom."
Not for the first time, he didn't sound a lot like a football manager.
Villas-Boas said that he has no hard and fast plans in the transfer market and will first assess the resources at his disposal but he also did not rule out going back to Porto to poach the best talent from his Europa League-winning team.
Chelsea's new manager certainly established himself as his own man.
But as he knows, the hard part is yet to come. (©Daily Telegraph, London)