Monday, November 15, 2010

It's all your fault, Ray Wilkins.

Last Thursday, it made headlines across the football media that Chelsea FC CEO Ron Gourlay had asked assistant manager Ray Wilkins to "step into my office". Wilkins did, and stepped out with a stamped pink slip relieving him of all duties at Stamford Bridge. Wilkins was fired by the administrators despite a harmonious relationship with manager Carlo Ancelotti and with the players.

Allegedly, it was for a lack of ideas and an insufficient understanding of the tactics required to be Ancelotti's right-hand man. The Italian was - at least in the press - as surprised as any and spent the evening at Wilkins' home comforting his former lieutenant, who it seemed had paid the price for last week's defeat to Liverpool. It wasn't so much his dismissal that surprised but the guillotine-style in which it was executed that had the scribes typing so frantically.

You don't get to the top of the business world without having a heart of Siberian granite. It may be this trait which undoes so many successful businessmen who become involved in sports ownership: why is such a successful businessman able to screw things up so royally in another field? Well, sport is an emotional business: the most talent doesn't necessarily win the most matches, each player's headspace has to be considered. The team best able to combine the ability on hand with the correct mental attitude is best positioned to perform well. The dispassionate nature of the businessman doesn't always sit well with the emotional, artistic characteristics of the sportsman.

Is it so shocking then that after a popular club man's harsh dismissal - he was escorted by security immediately from club property - that the Blues turned out a dismal performance against Sunderland yesterday? This in no way should take away from the Mackems brilliance as they danced around a Chelsea lineup to smash home three goals against the reigning champs, but surely such a brutal termination must leave the players in a state of confusion and thinking "Who's next"?

This was swift, it was unexpected and it was perhaps aimed at the playing staff suggesting "No-one is safe: perform, or leave". How would any sane person react to such a stark message? By focusing more on getting the job done. Apparently, this reaction wasn't to their benefit. It is eminently possible to approach a match with too much, or the wrong kind, of intensity; often the intensity brought about by fear rather than by security results in a player who plays robotically and fearing failure rather than going about their business with the freedom that job security brings.

Perhaps there's something to this: Chelsea's weakest positions on the weekend were in the centre of the park in the form of Jon Obi Mikel and Yuri Zhirkov. These two are probably the most vulnerable players in the squad, the two most likely to be sold and replaced due to their relative lacking performances. They were given a torrid time by the Black Cats and if their form didn't put them under scrutiny before, surely it now will.

The de rigeur of the past may have previously comforted the players, where the final decision of "Will he stay or Will he go" was made by the manager. Not today, not any more. Because what this firing said about the Blues' hierarchy is that although Carlo Ancelotti may be the head coach, calling him the Manager now rings hollow. He was obviously uninvolved in the sacking: he said in his autobiography that Chelsea wouldn't have won the title without Wilkins last term. Further evidence can be found in the fact that had he had a say in the sacking, surely he wouldn't have been either welcome or inclined to visit Wilkins at his home.

All these facts cannot be lost on the players. Roman Abramovich has a habit of ensuring that he is the top dog at his football club and this habit is not always to the Blues' benefit. He was similarly brutal when he felt Jose Mourinho had outstayed his welcome - Jose was only able to contact his players by text message after he left. As with Mourinho, Wilkins will undoubtedly be replaced quite soon by the Chelsea cognoscenti, but this entire process has served as another wake-up call for Ancelotti and his men: Roman rules by fear.

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