Saturday 23 September 2017

Surviving the mob's poison

Rafa Benitez's home truths are a wake-up call for insatiable fans, writes Dion Fanning

This is a man who, when he showed Jonjo Shelvey's family around Anfield, spent much of his time explaining to Shelvey's mother the best way to defend set-pieces against Stoke’
This is a man who, when he showed Jonjo Shelvey's family around Anfield, spent much of his time explaining to Shelvey's mother the best way to defend set-pieces against Stoke’

One of the questions the survivors of Stalin's purges would occasionally ask was why some were spared and others were shot. The British writer Humphrey Slater noted that it was "as if Stalin simultaneously demanded and hated the sycophancy of absolute obedience". A Russian writer said that Stalin could take something "akin to flashes of interest in people who were capable of taking risks, of expressing opinions which ran counter to his own opinions". Stalin would occasionally show some interest in these risk-takers and they would survive, but that was pretty unusual. Usually, they would be shot.

At the Riverside Stadium last Wednesday night, Rafa Benitez offered some opinion counter to the prudent opinion.

Last Wednesday night, he responded to the months of hostility in what was billed as a blistering assault but which was really just the marshalling of some truths. Underpinning it all may have been a simple reminder: Benitez doesn't see himself as others do. He certainly doesn't see himself as Chelsea fans do. He had put up with too much for too long. On Wednesday night, he listed his achievements in the game. He wanted to point out that he wasn't some hack manager, he was Rafael Benitez, a coach who had won most things there are to win.

It was as if he had decided that a man is due a minimum level of respect when he has won the Champions League with Djimi Traore.

On Thursday morning, it was expected that he would be moving out of the rented accommodation he has been living in near Chelsea's training ground. Instead, Benitez survived, an example of how to overcome a self-destructive act or, perhaps, it merely showed that he had been paying attention to those who demand attention at Chelsea.

Surviving as Chelsea manager in Roman Abramovich's world has always been a precarious business. The secrecy that surrounds Abramovich and his willingness to remove managers, occasionally with good reason, has created the frenzied atmosphere around each appointment.

Recently one of the men who is part of Abramovich's court, the former Chelsea manager Bobby Campbell, was asked about his friendship with the owner. He described him as a "wonderful" man. Then added jokingly, "I can't tell you much more about my relationship with Roman, other than to say if I did, I would have to kill you."

If Benitez disliked the instability the word 'interim' in his job title caused, he is now working on a day-to-day basis, although yesterday's victory means he can probably look forward to a couple of days without speculation.

Chelsea's next manager, the joke goes, will have a rolling week-to-week contract.

Sources close to Benitez were keen to stress that Abramovich was not the target when he complained about the title of 'interim' manager which he rightly felt had weakened his position. It was not Abramovich who gave Benitez that title. In fact, Benitez has worked hard to court those who are believed to have power, Michael Emenalo, the director of football, and Abramovich's PA Marina Granovskaia. Those who pointed out that Benitez had known about this title when he took the job were right, but he never anticipated the depth of the hostility from Chelsea supporters. Contrary to some suggestions, he never turned down an offer of an 18-month contract.

There have been moments when it looked like things could work for Benitez. When his side beat Aston Villa 8-0, then won away at Norwich and Everton over Christmas, they looked like a side with purpose. Then came the home defeat to QPR and since then it has been toil, struggle and abuse.

Benitez has been dealing with an irrational anger which makes it harder to figure out, even if he had a willingness to do so. Chelsea fans wanted him to apologise but they couldn't work out what they wanted him to apologise for. Their hatred was hung on a couple of comments – one entirely fabricated, one exaggerated – and it has grown from there. Benitez never said he would never manage Chelsea. It was a line invented by a 15-year-old Czech Liverpool fan on his Twitter page, picked up, never checked and printed as fact.

One Chelsea fan wrote last week that Benitez was always going to struggle because of "his past at Liverpool, functional football and infamous rotation policy". As a rap sheet, it's hardly the Massacre of Thessalonica.

Yet fans are prone to irrational hatreds. There was a time when some Liverpool fans would have rejected Jose Mourinho because he told them to be quiet during a League Cup final but diminished status might have altered minds. Chelsea supporters have yet to come to terms with how the world views them. They also pine for the man who won the European Cup for Chelsea, even if his limitations were clear to many.

Benitez may regret not taking the job ahead of Roberto Di Matteo last season. At that stage, he wouldn't have been following a club legend and he would have had the Champions League to compete in and mask failures in the league.

Chelsea have forgotten that last season they finished sixth and, despite the loss of Didier Drogba who was the man mainly responsible for winning the European Cup, they have progressed in the league this season.

Benitez was not the man to soothe the fans by making incremental progress. Instead there has been little to be encouraged by in a poisonous atmosphere.

On Friday, Benitez said he had been supported in private by a number of his squad and it is understood that some of the young players are eager to give their backing to the methods of the manager.

Their bind has been that no player wants to go against the fans and, of those who are said to be impressed by him, only one or two might have the authority to call for a change in the atmosphere.

They may have noted what happened to Fernando Torres. Perhaps it was just coincidence that Chelsea fans ran out of patience with the striker soon after the manager he is most associated with arrived. Again, Chelsea supporters have valid reasons for growing tired of Torres but the hostility has increased exponentially since Benitez arrived. There are others who are less supportive. "If you have 25 players in a squad, you'll obviously have one or two who aren't happy, but you can find that in every squad. Players want to play," Benitez said on Friday.

On Wednesday night, Benitez said he manages "players and not names". John Terry is a name who wants to play but has been left out because Benitez believes he's not fit enough. Yesterday Terry stayed on the bench and Benitez confirmed the captain is fit.

Benitez's view of managing Terry might be different to Terry's. The captain has struggled with the high-intensity training sessions but that is not to say he would struggle with matches. Benitez, rigid in his view that all players must produce the same level of effort, sees it another way.

Some close to Benitez have wondered if their man is at the club to allow the squad to be purged of some of the stalwarts before a new coach starts in August. Even if that is not Mourinho, he will be hailed simply for not being Rafa.

They might even applaud Avram Grant if he takes over until the end of the season.

It didn't take long for Benitez to realise that he wouldn't be staying at Chelsea beyond the summer. "We knew after the City game," a source close to the manager said last week. He wasn't talking about the City game at the Etihad last weekend. He was talking about the game last November, Benitez's first in charge.

Within a week, when Chelsea lost at West Ham, he was already being asked if he had taken the club as far as he could, if it was time for somebody with fresh ideas to move them forward.

Benitez would like to blame every failure since then on the atmosphere of the club but he has made made mistakes that demonstrate his stubbornness.

The Chelsea supporters will blame him for the results and Benitez will believe that things would have been different without the sour atmosphere, pointing out that they have won more often away from home than at Stamford Bridge since he arrived. The problem is they haven't won enough anywhere.

Benitez will see things his way only; like all managers, this is his strength and his weakness. He has needed this stubbornness wherever he goes. He can infuriate those closest to him even if the things that enrage them they also admire. Chelsea fans feel the same, without the admiration.

So he does it his way, continuing to believe that Chelsea will finish the season strongly, although he might not be there to see it.

People around Benitez have been encouraging him to say something for a few weeks but he insisted that it was best to keep quiet. He was aware of his reputation as a political animal and felt prospective employers would be put off if he again caused trouble. He was probably right.

Yet he has been wounded by the onslaught. Benitez comes across as a cold man but he is an obsessive and there's a difference. This is a man who, when he showed Jonjo Shelvey's family around Anfield, spent much of his time explaining to Shelvey's mother the best way to defend set-pieces against Stoke.

He took those close to him by surprise by his comments on Wednesday night. When friends talked to him after the press conference, he claimed to be startled by the reaction, saying he had only told the fans to support the team.

He said it in a way that guaranteed more hostility yesterday. Benitez offered independent opinion that damaged him, except not in the short-term. He may have believed he was in contention for the Manchester City and Real Madrid job but City would never have happened and Madrid looks unlikely now as well.

His survival as Chelsea manager depends on Abramovich's whim. The Chelsea supporters continue to offer independent opinion but they, too, have been careful in their targets. They have been enraged by the most enraging thing of all – apart from a infamous rotation policy – irrational fear.

The more rational fear is that they have realised their powerlessness. The Benitez appointment revealed how much Abramovich values their opinion. Occasionally they have been heard to chant, "We want our Chelsea back." After Benitez will they continue to express that opinion?

If Mourinho returns in the summer, will they be sated or will they view it as a wealthy man trying to buy off an indiscretion with some jewels?

Maybe they will still want their Chelsea back or they might accept another reality – that they are a body with the moral weight of Carmela Soprano, full of high ideals and sanctimony but willing to be silenced with a Porsche.

They know, too, that there is one thing more unpredictable than the whim of the mob and that it is the caprice of an oligarch.

"I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love," Frank O'Hara wrote. Abramovich is even less difficult. All he wants is to be happy.

Irish Independent

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