N Abramovich’s decision to dismiss Roberto di Matteo, barely six months after his coach won him the European Champions’ League for the first time in Chelsea’s history, has been roundly criticised by many who follow football.
Commentators deplore the oligarch’s inability to settle on a manager and give his club stability. Di Matteo is the eighth manager to have taken (and lost) the Stamford Bridge hot seat in nine years. There is also criticism about the savage way Abramovich treats the club as his plaything; that, in short, he is unsuitable to own a football club.
As a Chelsea supporter since childhood, however, I’m a fan of Abramovich’s reign. This judgement doesn’t come without reservations and I have more than a few of those about last night’s appointment of Rafa Benitez. But in life, and especially in football-supporting (through thick and thin, and all that), nothing is perfect. Of course, things could always be done better at an institution that has to serve as many interests as a football club – especially under intense media scrutiny.
But few can deny that Abramovich has revolutionised Chelsea. He has ploughed millions into playing staff and training facilities, exploited its potential overseas, and employed commercial executives, like Peter Kenyon (since departed), who have adopted sensible admission pricing policies that have mostly ensured a full stadium. There is even a forum that takes into account the views of the club’s fans.
What a contrast to the previous owner Ken Bates. He bought the club for £1, but struggled to give it the investment it needed, leading to a period of relative underperformance, relatively high admission prices and often a half-empty stadium.
Bates used to sack managers with some rapidity. The difference is that few outside of the club’s then modest fan-base used to care. Now events like these, or players’ misdemeanours, make headlines across the world. Captain John Terry’s recent tribulations, for example, warranted an article spread over several pages in the New York Times.
When experts criticise the Russian’s impatience with managers, they ignore his success. If changing managers on a regular basis was such a bad thing, then Chelsea’s consistency over the past decade has proven that theory wrong.
Of course, some might prefer the club to adopt a more stable management tenure, like Manchester United has enjoyed with Sir Alex Ferguson. But this is an anomalous situation in the world of football and not the norm. And, as far as owners go, I would rather have one with Abramovich’s obvious ambitions for on-field success, than be saddled with United’s Glazer family, which appears more interested in the bottom-line.
Abramovich is not trying to harm or hurt the club by sacking di Matteo. As much as I respect the club’s former coach for being such a decent guy and winning the trophy Chelsea fans have craved for the last decade, the owner is right to do what he thinks will keep the recent run of incredible success going.
David Hellier is deputy editor of City A.M.