Diametrically opposed in every way to his predecessor Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, aided and abetted by a run of form that has seen Chelsea thrive in the league, surge into the Carling Cup Final, secure a berth in the second phase of the Champions League and romp into the 5th Round of the FA Cup, has slowly but surely begun to earn the respect of even his sternest critics.
The statistics speak for themselves. Two defeats, albeit against Manchester United and Arsenal, in 29 matches provide evidence enough that the oft maligned Grant-factor must count for something. It’s ascertaining what that ‘something’ is that remains the focussed topic of discussion amongst the Chelsea flock and an increasingly puzzled media. ‘I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.’ The words of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, speaking in a radio broadcast back in 1939 have a prophetic quality to them when applied to the 21st century Chelsea that belongs to Mr Abramovich and his amicable association with Mr Grant.
‘Avram Grant’s blue and white army … Avram Grant’s blue and white army’. I recall leaping out of my Gate 17 seat when the Blues went 3-0 up on their way to obliterating Manchester City 6-0 earlier in the season. Jokingly, I’d chanted Avram’s name. ‘Are you sure Marco?’, Young Dave had quipped, his leathery face cracking into a broad smile. ‘You won’t get much support for that chant son.’ Young Dave was right of course. At the time, the Stamford Bridge congregation, me included, were still mourning the sudden untimely departure of the Special One. It is a well documented fact that Jose’s sacking was an ill-timed PR disaster which destabilised the foundations of the club that had thus-far been laid with such purpose and integrity by Roman Abramovich and the board of directors.
‘Some mothers do Avram’, quipped the tabloid hacks, drawing unfounded but entertaining parallels between Grant and Frank Spencer, the well-meaning and optimistic, but naive, clueless and accident-prone tank top-wearing character from the ‘70s sitcom ‘Some mothers do ‘av ‘em’. Frank regularly got himself into situations that usually spiraled ridiculously out of control, frequently resulting in someone else’s nervous breakdown or some unlikely destructive catastrophe, and there were plenty of people expecting and dare I say hoping that the seemingly under-qualified Grant would fall flat on his rubbery face.
‘You don’t know what you’re doing’. On the odd occasion this little ditty raised its unsupportive head it was swiftly muted by resounding unified chants of ‘Chelsea … Chelsea!’ I did wonder if that chant would have best been directed at Mr Abramovich, the man responsible for appointing his personal friend as manager rather than the man himself, who’d cut a forlorn figure shuffling around the technical area with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, a doe-eyed rabbit caught in the glare of the headlights of adverse publicity whose first home game in charge of the Blues against Fulham ended in stalemate and controversy.
Avram Grant’s pedigree as a coach came in for some close scrutiny. Several domestic pots and a stint in charge of the Israeli national side did not breed much in the way of confidence especially when it was suggested by his critics back home in Tel Aviv that he was a ‘lucky manager’. ‘Hatachat shel Avram’ … ‘Avrams arse’ they’d squawked, a Hebrew reference coined especially to refer to the amount of luck that seemed to follow Grant wherever he went. He came to Chelsea with the reputation of being a shrewd man who knew which side of the bread the butter was on. His apparent chutzpah, charm and verbal ability have enabled him to befriend the right people at the right time, be they footballers, journalists, diplomats, or Russian billionaires.
A man with an encyclopedic knowledge of football tactics, systems, developments and history, Grant has devoted his life to studying the training methods employed by a diverse range of respected coaches across the globe. But despite all this, his appointment to the Chelsea hot-seat was deemed a despicable act of cronyism. How could this mediocre professional ever step out of the Machiavellian shadow of the arch polemicist Jose Mourinho, the man who’d done it all?
Thankfully when it comes to his dealings with the media he hasn’t even tried. The verbal spats with opposing coaches, the histrionics and the dramas are a thing of the past. It’s all about Chelsea Football Club now, unity under the Blue flag, from Stamford Bridge to Wembley, we’ll keep it flying high.
Avram Grants profile is so low, it’s almost underground. There is something quintessentially English about the dour self-deprecating manner in which he conducts himself. No dramas. I like it, it’s refreshing. His hands-off approach to managing football affairs has led many to suggest that the team is playing for itself, an easy assumption to make given the plethora of talent Mr Grant inherited from his predecessor. Training is conducted by Stevie Clarke and Henk ten Cate, as are most of the pre-match and half-time team talks. Every one is well aware that it was Clarke and not Grant who meted out the bollocking during the lemon break in the New Years Day derby with Fulham at Craven Cottage. The Blues turned that game around in the second half, playing with gusto and aplomb when coming from behind to win 2-1.
‘Avram Grant’s blue and white army … Avram Grant’s blue and white army’. Chelsea are playing with renewed vim and vigour, despite being without the so-called spine of the team, Terry, Lampard and Drogba, can this in anyway be attributed to Avram Grant, the newly dubbed Normal One? Mourinho liked to be in control of every single aspect of running the football club, Grant delegates. Under Grant, players like Wright-Philips and Joey Cole have flourished. There is a swaggering style to their play that comes with being given the freedom of expression, it’s reminiscent in some ways of old-school Chelsea. Docherty’s diamonds, the Doc was a master tactician and so Grant is proving himself to be also. In Avram’s world there are no untouchables. Selection appears to be merit and/or tactics based, although injuries and the African Cup of Nations have whittled the managers options to the bone. Terry, Lampard, Drogba, Michael Essien and Mikel Jon Obi will return and Anelka will surely open what should be a prolific goal-scoring account soon, it’s a mouth-watering prospect isn’t it?
‘Wait till you play someone decent like Man U, ‘the’ Arsenal or Real Madrid,’ quip the wise guys in my local drinker. ‘Bring them on,’ is my riposte. Avram Grant will face a stern examination of his credentials as a coach and manager in the coming weeks and months. ‘Hatachat shel Avram’. So what if he is a lucky man? You can never be too lucky in my book.
‘Avram Grant’s blue and white army … Avram Grant’s blue and white army’. Will the chant be chorused around Wembley Stadium in several weeks time? Don’t be surprised, remember how long it took the Blue brethren to accept Claudio Ranieri? Exactly! Yet the man soon became a folk hero, despite winning nothing.
‘Avram Grant’s blue and white army … Avram Grant’s blue and white army’. You still think I’m joking don’t you? Remember though, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
See you at the game!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’, his new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ will is published on January 15th 2008. Copies, signed if you so wish, are available to buy with a discount of up to 30% and free postage within the UK at http://www.overlandandsea.net