Wilkins sacked in Abramovich show of power
The shock sacking of Ray Wilkins by Chelsea yesterday was sanctioned by owner Roman Abramovich and was carried out above the authority of manager Carlo Ancelotti -- who was told that changes had to be made at the club.
The decision took many at the club by surprise with its suddenness and ferocity. Wilkins (54) was watching a reserves game at the club's Cobham training ground when the news was announced yesterday. Those at the game said that Wilkins spoke with reserve-team coach Steve Holland during the match against Bayern Munich, telling him that he would be leaving the club after the game.
The move is being interpreted by some at Chelsea as another instance of Abramovich exerting his authority in order to give everyone at the club a stark reminder of who is in charge. The decision is understood to have its roots in the single most significant failure of last season when Ancelotti's side were eliminated from the Champions League by Jose Mourinho's Inter.
That result was a great source of disappointment to the club's Russian owner. When Wilkins' contract as assistant manager came up for renewal in the last two months, the decision was made at the very top of the club that there should be changes among Ancelotti's coaching staff, with the Italian just one part of the consultation process.
Ancelotti was told that the decision was being made but was not given the power to veto it. It is not clear how hard the Italian fought for Wilkins to stay in the job. It is understood that Ancelotti was with Wilkins at the training ground when he was told of the club's decision over the phone by chief executive Ron Gourlay.
The sacking of Wilkins was not quite as dramatic as Abramovich's unilateral dismissal of Luiz Felipe Scolari in February last year, but it was a huge surprise given his popularity at the club with staff and fans.
It also came in what is a relatively smooth period in the club's history with Chelsea top of the Premier League by four points and poised to qualify easily for the Champions League knockout rounds.
Gourlay was instructed to wield the axe yesterday, telling Wilkins that he would not be offered a new contract and that he would be allowed to leave straight away. Gourlay was not the instigator of the decision and it is not even being presented as a cost-cutting measure, because a replacement is expected to be recruited from outside the club.
Ancelotti will go ahead with his usual Friday press conference this afternoon at Cobham. Ever the pragmatist, he is expected to react philosophically to the decision and project it as simply "one of those things" that happen in football. Any public sign of defiance towards Abramovich will go down very badly with the club's hierarchy.
Having won the league and FA Cup Double last year, Ancelotti has proved on the surface to be a model of restraint, especially in refusing to engage in the more public recriminations that were a regular feature of Mourinho's time at the club. How he deals with this decision will be fundamental to his relationship with the key people in the club's hierarchy.
Ancelotti has no option but to back the decision on Wilkins in public but it also came as a shock to him. In his recent autobiography he described his assistant as an integral part of Chelsea's success in breaking the grip that Manchester United had on the Premier League for the previous three seasons.
Ancelotti said: "Ray is one of those select few, always present, noble in spirit, a real blue-blood, Chelsea flows in his veins. His heart beats in two languages, and that helped me. Without him, we couldn't have won a thing, and in particular we would not have started the year at supersonic speed."
It is understood that Chelsea staff are being told that the reason for Wilkins leaving is because he had outlived his initial role following the departure of Steve Clarke to West Ham two years ago. Then the club needed an Englishman who knew the club, the players, the Premier League and was comfortable with the press to help Scolari, who was manager at the time, find his feet in English football.
When Ancelotti arrived in the summer of last year with the minimum of Italian staff -- his assistant Bruno Demichelis is his sole major appointment -- Wilkins, who played at Milan and spoke Italian, was an easy fit. It is understood that Chelsea staff are now being told that Wilkins' original brief, to help Ancelotti settle in and learn English, has now passed and it is time for a new approach.
Wilkins is believed to be sufficiently financially well-off not to have to seek another job in football. A smooth performer in front of the cameras, he will be in demand for punditry work.
However, as someone with a long-running affinity with the club -- he was made captain at the age of 18 -- it will no doubt hurt this popular figure.
Chelsea released a brief statement which did little to explain the decision. Gourlay said: "On behalf of everyone at the club I would like to thank Ray for everything he has done for Chelsea football club. We all wish him well for the future." (© Independent News Service)