This season, Avram Grant has taken us to our first ever Champions League final and against all odds closed an 8 point gap with Utd to nothing more than goal difference in the Premier League. If you’d asked me on the day he was appointed (and for some months after if I’m honest) how I’d feel about him doing that, I’d have said I’d resent him doing anything remotely close. Madness I know, but here I was, in the position of cutting off my nose to spite my face – or being prepared to accept defeat as long as the manager was sacked – because I was so incensed at club politics. Of course, games like the Carling Cup final, Barnsley, Wigan, etc only added fuel to the already well stoked fire and the questionable substitutions along the way allowed some of us to feel smug in the knowledge we’d been right about him all along. But, looking at the facts, when the Israeli took an over-promoted step up into management in September, we were 7th in the table and had just seen a humiliating 1-1 draw against Rosenborg in the Champions League. Seven months on and we’re in a position only the most over-optimistic or completely deluded could have predicted.
So, here we are in an almost unbelievable, not to mention historic position, a totally new experience for us and yet there is one thing that remains all too familiar as the back pages concern themselves with who our next manager will be. Of any other club, this scenario would seem utterly ridiculous and yet with Chelsea, it’s as expected as a Drogba dive. It doesn’t seem to matter who our managers are or what they achieve, they’re about as safe as elderly patients in the hands of Harold Shipman. In fact, we even hold the unenviable honour of being the first club to sack a manager in the Premier League when Porterfield was shown the door in 1993.
A short spell by Hoddle followed, during which he established us as a bit of a force in cup competitions then unsurprisingly, having realised he’d already reached the customary 3-year management period at Chelsea, jumped before he was pushed, taking the England job on offer.
Gullit stepped up as the next player-manager, guiding us to an FA Cup win and our first major trophy in 26 years, during his first season and finishing up a respectable sixth place in the league. However, despite sitting 2nd in the table and heading to the quarter finals in two cup competitions the following season, Gullit’s services were dispensed with amid talk of boardroom battles.
Gullit’s departure in February 1998 saw the much loved Gianluca Vialli step into the ill-fated player-manager role and with Gullit already taking us to the quarter finals of the Coca Cola Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Vialli led us to victory in both finals as well as a 4th place finish in the Premier League. Vialli’s second season in charge saw a 1-0 win over Real Madrid secure the European Super Cup and our highest league finish since 1970 – 3rd place and a mere four points off the champions. Vialli went on to take us into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, losing out on aggregate to Barca but our 5th place finish heard the familiar rumblings in the press and despite an FA Cup victory over Villa and beating Utd to claim the FA Charity Shield, taking his tally to five trophies in less than 3 years, Vialli felt the axe fall just five games into the 2000-2001 season.
A very unwelcome Ranieri took over in September 2000 and didn’t do much during an inconsistent season to appease us. The following season didn’t endear him much more either, because despite signing the likes of Frank Lampard, Emmanuel Petit and William Gallas, he also sold Dennis Wise. Finishing 6th again and losing out to Arsenal in the FA Cup final didn’t help much either. The 2002-03 season however, finished on a high with a 2-1 win over Liverpool on the final day securing Champions League qualification despite the severe financial constraints he’d had to overcome. So, finally taken into Chelsea hearts, The Tinkerman then endured a season of speculation following the arrival of Abramovich. While the Russian threw his money around, Ranieri spent it wisely, building a squad capable of finishing second only to the unbeaten Arsenal. However, rather than waiting to see a return on his investment, Roman wanted an immediate return and Ranieri was ruthlessly relieved of his duties.
This saw the arrival of ‘The Special One’, a League Cup victory over Liverpool, countless records and our first top flight title in 50 years. The FA Community Shield produced a 2-1 win over Arsenal and at the end of the 2005-06 season, we were the proud owners of back to back titles. And yet, even after these successes and with us fighting on four fronts the following season, the rumour mill was in full force. A domestic cup double wasn’t to be enough to counteract the personality Abramovich found so abrasive, and following another semi final defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League and losing out on the title to Utd, rumour had it the Russian was not amused. A poor start to this season whipped the media into a frenzy, giving them the story they’d been having wet dreams about for months as Mourinho departed Chelsea as not only our most successful manager, winning six trophies in 3 years, but also our most loved.
So Grant’s management was always going to be an uphill battle to try to follow his predecessor’s success and win over the baying crowd. He’s been about as welcome as a fart in a lift since day one and as trusted as Nick Leeson with your bank account. But having seen many of us initially suggest a top four finish, qualification for the Champions League and maybe a domestic cup if we’re lucky, he’s confused us all with his apparent resilience to such unfavourable circumstances. Derided in the media, laughed at by the opposition and despised by the home crowd, he’s apparently risen above it – and our expectations. And yet, as we come towards our final two games of a very confusing Chelsea season the only familiar feeling is that of deja vu.