Dad's Army of Chelsea on war footing
W HEN most people make a mistake in their workplace, the response is to keep the head down, work hard and wait until either you've been forgiven or somebody else messes up to let you off the hook. Not in the Chelsea dressing-room, however.
When Ashley Cole misses a penalty that knocks his team out of the FA Cup, he responds by bringing a .22 air rifle to training the next day and, while "larking about", shoots a student with a lead pellet because he didn't realise the gun was loaded.
Few players have suffered the sort of vitriol that has rained down upon Cole over the years, but when you consistently provide new material by either "almost crashing the car" because you were only offered £65,000-a-week, or cheating on your media darling wife or, as revealed yesterday, shooting a 21-year-old kid who is on work placement, it becomes difficult to make a case for defence.
The peculiar thing about Cole is that, for years, his superb ability didn't make the slightest bit of difference to his public image.
Most of Cole's England team-mates have threatened to leave their clubs only to be soothed by another digit on their weekly wage; several of them have cheated on their wives or girlfriends and while none, that we know of, have shot people in a changing room, neither have they provided the level of consistency among the world's elite that Cole has for the best part of a decade.
Yet in a club that's starting to resemble a bungling 'Dad's Army' episode, it somehow seems appropriate that one of them is in trouble for poor use of his rifle.
Chelsea started their season by winning 6-0, 6-0, 2-0, 3-1 and 4-0, but with a team of ageing players who have been allowed by the owner to become too powerful, there seemed little desire for change when things went wrong despite the soundbites which constantly emanate from the dressing-room.
Since Jose Mourinho left, the players have not so much nailed their colours to the new manager's mast than attached it with Velcro so that it could be quickly removed elsewhere.
In the weeks before Avram Grant and Felipe Scolari were sacked, the big hitters like John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba each insisted that the players were fully behind the under-fire manager.
Given the speed with which the manager was subsequently jettisoned, perhaps they meant they were behind him as he stood on the edge of the managerial cliff.
Alex Ferguson might have agreed with some of Roy Keane's infamous assessment of his Manchester United team-mates in the Corkman's final days at Old Trafford, but given the choice between an ageing star and a potential team of shooting ones, Ferguson had only one option and Keane was, rightly, gone.
At Chelsea, this could never have happened. For a while Mourinho thought he had similar levels of power until he was told that Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko were arriving because his boss wanted some new toys. From that point onwards, the chain of command went straight from owner to players, with managers the expendable ones.
The good news for Carlo Ancelotti is that victory tomorrow night against Manchester United coupled with a decent draw in the Champions League might just be enough to save him. The bad news is that he has already received the backing of the players.
Given his record of winning just one Serie A title during 15 years of managing in Italy, it's not surprising that Ancelotti seems incapable of rousing his team to perform better in the Premier League once the shine of last year's triumph had worn off.
But, as he had at Milan, Ancelotti currently has a group of players at his disposal capable of performing on a big stage to pull the wool over the eyes of the overbearing owner who cares far less about a domestic competition than the glamour of a European trophy.
Ancelotti's only Serie A title came in 2004 yet he was perceived as successful because of the Champions League triumphs in '03 and '07 and even managed not to become the fall-guy for the '05 capitulation against Liverpool. His resumé remains impressive but, at Milan, the culture of players looking after themselves as their careers progress has been handed down since the time of Ancelotti himself. It's hard to imagine Paolo Maldini arriving at the San Siro with an air rifle in his bag.
Tomorrow night, the backbone of Mourinho's team -- Petr Cech, Cole, Terry, Lampard and possibly Drogba -- will attempt to prove they still have something to offer against a United team who they now trail by 15 points, having led them by four just three months ago.
As usual, Terry made the right noises last week when suggesting that losing at Stamford Bridge could cause United to panic. As the Captain Mainwaring of the operation, only Terry will know who he thought he was kidding.