Sunday 25 February 2018

Clueless owners in fantasy world

James Lawton

James Lawton

Here is a football fantasy script deserving nowhere better than the cutting room floor of a Bollywood film studio.

Fire Sam Allardyce, appoint an obscure successor for his desire and motivational potential, invest somewhere around £5m and then make room for Blackburn Rovers in the elite of English football as the Premier League flagship in the vast Indian sports market.

"You can see the success of cricket in India," announces Anuradha Desai, chairperson of the Venky's poultry firm who paid out £43m for Rovers and this dream somewhat waiting to be plucked by reality. "No one had ever heard of Blackburn in India. You heard of Arsenal, of Manchester United. But already Blackburn is big news."

You could, indeed, say that, in a manner of speaking, but what kind of news? Unfortunately it is the kind increasingly familiar to bemused consumers a little nearer to home.


It is news of another football club in the hands of those who come for profit or glory, or both, but with one crippling handicap: a total failure to understand the basics of success -- an ignorance compounded by the fanciful idea that you can run a football team as you might a call centre or an oil rig or, in this latest bizarre case, a chicken coup.

You can't, of course. You can't throw out Sam Allardyce, whatever you think of his football philosophy, and install someone like Steve Kean and not anticipate a critical loss of confidence.

You can't throw away the fundamentals of the football operation and expect Kean -- the former Celtic player who has a good record as a coach and assistant, but none at all as someone in the firing line -- to seamlessly take up the running.

It is football illiteracy of the highest order, but, sadly for the health of the English club game, it is hardly restricted to the likes of Blackburn and the perennially dysfunctional Newcastle United.

The most glaring case of all is still to be found at Stamford Bridge, where the word is hardening that the crude sacking of Carlo Ancelotti's trusty assistant Ray Wilkins has left the Italian so disenchanted that his departure at the end of the season, if not before, has become inevitable.

Owner Roman Abramovich's firing of Wilkins, and elevation of the obscure scout and former Nigerian international Michael Emenalo, happened to coincide with Chelsea's astonishing implosion. Increasingly, the sense is that the fall-out from the Wilkins affair not only brought pain and embarrassment to Ancelotti, but also cast a shadow over the entire team effort.

The shock of Abramovich's intervention over Wilkins, who according to one theory earned the oligarch's displeasure by suggesting that no amount of success in any other business equipped you to truly understand the mysteries and the truths of the football life, was that it had seemed that Ancelotti had finally strode beyond the days when a Chelsea manager was obliged to keep his ear cocked for the mood, and the whims, of the executive suite.

Ancelotti was, to all appearances, a master football man in charge of everything before him. He suffered the blow of defeat by Jose Mourinho's Internazionale in last season's Champions League with a resigned shrug of the shoulders and the resolve that his new team would grow stronger. He picked up Chelsea and coaxed them to a superb climax to the season.

"In football," said the Italian, "you can't always know what is around the next corner. It is normal to have days when things don't go so well. The secret is to learn from such days and not to make too much of a drama out of them."

What he didn't have in mind, it is clear now, is the usurping of a football man's right to have who he wants sitting next to him on the touchline bench.

A winning club is shaped not in the boardroom, but in the manager's office, and the vanities of an Abramovich, or an Anuradha Desai, are the necessary first victims of any serious surge forward.

For the latter, the reality is that if she did not like the style of Big Sam and his long-ball game, it was something to think, at least for a little, rather than say, and still less act upon. When you throw out an Allardyce you also jettison a whole way of thinking; a creation, right or wrong, of his making.

You make a football team piece by piece, but always under the leadership of a man who has proved that he knows what he is doing. First Mourinho, then Ancelotti proved this at Chelsea, but it didn't mean so much in the eyes of the man who owned the playpen and thought he knew best.

Nor did the achievement of Allardyce, his unlovely football and all, in rooting Blackburn in mid-league on slender resources register at all when the chicken people decided to flex their wings.

No one will win any prizes for guessing how quickly these particular birds will be obliged to sharpen their understanding of football -- or fly home to roost.

Irish Independent

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