THERE’S a passage in Fever Pitch which I wonder if, given the chance to update the book for 2009, Nick Hornby might consider revising. It concerns George Graham.
In the passage, Hornby wrote about Arsenal celebrating their 1991 First Division title win by beating Manchester United at Highbury. In the West Stand, there was a banner draped over the edge of the upper tier which simply stated: ‘George Knows.’
He suggested that he looked up to Graham in a way a little boy might look up to his father, as someone to trust implicitly, as someone who is always right, even when their decisions may initially seem unfathomable. George did know, Hornby asserted.
The book came out in 1992, when Arsenal were in the process of losing their champions status to Leeds United, before John Jensen, Rune Hauge and the year-long FA ban, before the spell at Tottenham.
Hornby’s uncritical lauding of Graham is the one thing that dates a book which is otherwise as fresh as it was 17 years ago. And yet the point behind it could not be more topical.
Hornby suggested that football can provide the flawless father figure, the manager who brings ever-lasting success. But it can’t; not really. Maybe those who run Chelsea should think about that.
The solution to the growing crisis at Stamford Bridge (the team third in the Premier League, still in the FA Cup and the Champions League) caught many by surprise when it became public yesterday afternoon.
Sure, people suggested that Luiz Felipe Scolari was facing the sack when Chelsea trailed 1-0 at Southend in an FA Cup third-round replay. And he may have looked a forlorn figure on the touchline during defeats against Manchester United and Liverpool, during a 0-0 home draw against Hull.
But then barely a week goes by these days without one manager or another apparently heading for a meeting with his P45. And how many people expected the axe to fall on Scolari on a late Monday afternoon in February, with so much still to play for?
Many fans at Stamford Bridge on Saturday felt that Big Phil didn’t know, and they said so. But if a World Cup-winning manager doesn’t know, then does anybody?
Paul Hayward, writing in the Guardian, suggested that Scolari’s misfortune may have been to inherit a team at the end of a winning cycle without the funds to rebuild it. There is, I feel, an element of truth in that. It’s hard to see how Scolari’s replacement is going to put that right.
Five-and-a-half years after buying Chelsea, Roman Abramovich is still looking for his George Graham. Guus Hiddink is the favourite to take over – but is only likely to do so on a short-term basis, combining the Chelsea job with his role as coach of Russia, making him not so much a father figure as a surrogate uncle.
Those Chelsea fans who have congregated on message boards, or sent texts to radio and TV stations, or been waylaid by vox-popping reporters near Stamford Bridge, have reeled off a list of former players whose managerial reputations have not yet been tarnished by a bad season or a trigger-happy chairman. Zola? Di Matteo? Are you sure?
The idea that a change of manager will magically make everything all right again has gained too much currency in football. Certain owners, certain fans, certain sections of the media have come to resemble the dippy heroine in a chick-lit novel, convinced her whole life will be sorted out if only she can find The One. Or in Chelsea’s case, The Special One.
Look at Tottenham. Juande Ramos, sacked in October with the club floundering in the relegation zone, was replaced by Harry Redknapp. Was it the answer to all of Tottenham’s ills? It may be in the long-term. Then again, Spurs might still be relegated.
And so might Blackburn, who jettisoned Paul Ince after six months to bring in Sam Allardyce. And so might Portsmouth, who sacked Tony Adams after three months. If these managers didn’t know what they were doing, then what does it say about the people who appointed them?
Yes, the financial repercussions of failing to hit Premier League targets – whether that be reaching the Champions League or just avoiding relegation – are huge. But no club ever achieved lasting success by changing the manager twice a season. Scolari couldn’t bring success to Chelsea in eight months. Maybe, though, he wasn’t the problem.