Proud Man Walking
PROUD MAN WALKING
I’ve always stood in front of the dugout during the match. It’s been a habit now for many years; I couldn’t even tell you how many. From that position I enjoyed the best possible view of the goal.
Gronkjaer had the ball wide on the right. With his trademark change of pace – in all honesty, something few others in the modern game are capable of – he cut in towards the middle, hit an inswinger with his left foot and found an incredible angle. Dudek couldn’t get to the ball. Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1, and this after having been a goal down from Sami Hyypia’s opener and then levelling through Marcel Desailly. We had stepped on the gas and overtaken our rivals in what was effectively a play-off, contested fortunately for us at Stamford Bridge. No small advantage this, coupled with the fact that of the three results possible on the day, either a win or a draw would have taken us into the Champions League.
Perhaps this is a little unusual for an Italian but I do not like playing percentages or speculating on the outcome of fixtures. This was never my way even as manager of Napoli and Fiorentina in Serie A, when we had to face the likes of Inter and Milan at the San Siro, or Juventus in Turin. I always prepare my team to win. I want to play for the highest stakes, every time. It was the same during my time as manager at Valencia, when playing away to Barcelona or Real Madrid, so it could hardly be otherwise in the Premiership.
This particular game on 11 May 2003 was one we all wanted to win. Why? Because there was something important on the line in terms of our future; because Liverpool had turned us over at Anfield in the last couple of seasons with performances that hardly justified the results; and because we wanted to show we were capable of achieving something together as a close-knit unit, with no help from anyone else, and without any possibility whatever of spending on the transfer market, especially as the state of the club’s finances had been well known for a year or so following their exposure on all the front pages. In short, a mixture of pride and determination, competitive spirit and tactical skill was required. It was just the kind of situation I enjoy.
Running across the pitch and screaming, Jesper was celebrating a great goal. And we were all happy, because we knew it was a really important one, although at that particular moment, none of us realized just how important.
I loaded everything into the car. Alongside me was my wife Rosanna, and in the back, a few suitcases filled with summer clothes (and here’s another myth that needs to be put to rest – the idea Italians and other Europeans have about the British summer. It really does exist, and can be as warm and enchanting as in Mediterranean countries). And there was ‘Shark’, my Alsatian, whose name was chosen by my daughter from the map of Australia in the atlas – perhaps it was Shark Bay that took her fancy – as a replacement for ‘Boss’, the name he had been christened with, and which could not work. There would have been too many of us around: me on the touchline, my wife, the dog …
On that trip back to London after a short break at the end of the season, I was carrying from Italy all my hopes and convictions for another season as manager of Chelsea. I knew I would not be able to ask for anything from the club in terms of buying new players, but knowing the squad I had got together, I was sure I could count on them to make certain we would enjoy our Champions League adventure and maybe even take a few important scalps during the season. After all, these would be the same players we had when we qualified for Europe in 2003, and the same who took us to the FA Cup Final in 2002. Frankly, as we approached Strasbourg on the motorway, I was wondering whether the club would be able to resist the temptation to sell Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and William Gallas, for the sake of the fans more than my own. I was aware that we had received good offers for both players and the money would help to give the books a healthier look. Knowing the situation, I would not have objected, but they were two extremely important pieces in the Chelsea chess set. And what about Gianfranco Zola? Sadly, I knew I would be losing him, and through nobody’s fault. I would have liked to have kept him on and so would the club, and he wanted nothing more than to sign and finish up his career with the No 25 shirt on his back, but it was obvious he would not be able to accept the only credible offer the club could possibly manage at that moment – a one-year contract with a cut in salary of 45%. This was never meant to be an insult in exchange for all the great things he had done for the Blues, not least the superb performances and 14 goals of this last season, but was intended rather as a heartfelt attempt to keep him. An offer made by a club that could not really afford the luxury. And so, I knew he would make the big decision: return home, play for Cagliari (his childhood dream) and, after so many years, be near his parents once again.
As I was thinking about all this, the mobile rang. It was Trevor Birch calling to tell me – at 11.30 pm – that Chelsea Football Club had been sold to a Russian business organization.
‘What does this mean for us?’ I asked. At that particular moment there were a thousand thoughts and a thousand images running through my mind, though in truth I was unable to picture any real scenario.
‘No Claudio, don’t worry,’ he replied, ‘from the little I’ve been able to find out about the new owner and the few words I’ve had with him, it seems clear he’s someone who wants to achieve great things.’
Trevor’s words sounded believable straight away, even if I could not yet form any impression of Mr Abramovich in my mind, much less of his enthusiasm and his potential to lead the club to better things. At any rate, I was reassured. Then, in a flash, a thought occurred.
Suddenly I realized that the loss I assumed inevitable might still be retrieved.
‘Is there anything we can do?’
I had spoken to him two days earlier and he had said then that the time had come to make up his mind. Massimo Cellino, the chairman of Cagliari, was pressing him and he could not put off the decision any longer; besides there were family matters to take care of, like moving house and schools for the children. So the next day he signed for Cagliari.
It was too late to change things. Although Gianfranco had not yet put pen to paper, he had given his word, and for him that was as good as a signature. About a month later, Cellino was a studio guest on ‘Domenica Sportiva’, a Sunday sports programme on RAI (the Italian state television), and I was speaking on a link from my country home in the Sienese hills of Tuscany. It was then that I learned all about the backstage activity that had accompanied Zola’s signing. Cellino admitted that, having got wind of the extraordinary events happening at Stamford Bridge, he feared he could be in danger of losing Zola even before he had landed him. For Cellino and for all Sardinia, this meant much more than simply acquiring a great player. Zola was a national symbol, a returning hero. He summoned Gianfranco to the club and proceeded to have all mobile phones and fax machines switched off. Once he had secured the player’s signature, he admitted to the ‘manoeuvres’ and offered his apologies. Zola simply smiled, put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a fax he had just received from Chelsea, making him an offer hard to refuse. But, torn as he was between two great loves, he had already given his word. So yet again he had shown fantastic character, although it meant I was losing an exceptional person (quite apart from losing a footballer whose worth everyone knows). I probably never told him as much directly, but I was always genuinely proud to travel the world as Chelsea manager with a standard-bearer like Gianfranco. On the pitch, he enchanted and he scored sublime goals, but he was also our ambassador, our calling card, and an example on and off the field.
A few days layer, on 8 July, I was called into the office. I was to meet Mr Abramovich for the first time and I did not know what to expect. We met in the boardroom at Stamford Bridge. I went up alone in the lift but I was perfectly relaxed, even on this day that was going to change my life, although who could say in what direction? The Chelsea boardroom has no windows, but there is a certain light that emanates from the history in the pictures of the stadium that hang on the wall, showing how the place has evolved over the years. And we who wear the Chelsea jersey, in whatever capacity, are the ones who must keep the story going. It was precisely for this that we were meeting in that room.
Those present were Mr Abramovich with three close associates, me, and Trevor Birch. Instinctively, I spoke up first because I felt I had to make a clear statement concerning my own situation. I said that I had been around long enough in the world of football to realize that a change of ownership might mean a change in approach, or different objectives, and the direct consequence can be the decision to replace the coach. I would not have been upset; in fact I must admit I had already mentioned on the phone to a friend holidaying in Miami that, although I hoped otherwise, I sensed that my time as manager of Chelsea might even be over already.
‘Tell me straight away,’ I insisted, ‘or else you risk wasting your time and money, and I could be wasting time as well.’ Calmly and with the greatest sincerity, I had presented him with an opening, a perfect assist, to end my contract painlessly. No answer. Instead, he began to ask for my opinions on the team, and I saw immediately that he was fully informed as to how we were placed. For my part, I pointed out that even in our financial circumstances, we had already come a long way without buying players. What we had was an optimum basis for a team, but it needed strengthening. With the conversation now moving along more freely, he told me that he had seen the Champions League match between Manchester United and Real Madrid, and while watching it he had got to like the game of football so much that he had decided to buy a team. He admitted he had chosen Chelsea not because he was a supporter (at least not at the time, though he has since become a genuine fan, well beyond any level his business interests might warrant), but because when considering the list of clubs he could have purchased, ours presented the most favourable package. First and foremost, there was our history and the attraction of Champions League competition. I must confess, at this moment I suddenly thought about that goal of Gronkjaer’s, a gratifying snapshot passing through my mind.
‘What do you think this team needs to be able to step up a level?’ he asked, perhaps simply to confirm what he was already thinking.
‘Well,’ I answered, ‘considering that this is Chelsea and we have to contest the Premiership, the Champions League and two national Cup competitions, and try to win them all, I need two players to cover every position. If ambitions are going to be raised, we can’t have a repeat of all the troubles we endured last year, when we started off brilliantly but then, what with injuries and bans, our prospects changed so drastically.’
I spoke on impulse, saying what I thought would be best for the club. He then looked at me, and stressed that he wanted to turn Chelsea into one of the top clubs in Europe – like Juventus, Real Madrid or AC Milan – adding also that he fully agreed with me on the need to have two top-class players for every position. At this point it was inevitable I would ask the question again.
‘Tell me now,’ I repeated, inviting a statement on the coaching position, ‘or you risk wasting your time and money, and I could be wasting my time too.’ I was happy where I was and I wanted to finish the job, but in these situations, things needed to be made clear.
‘No,’ he said firmly, ‘I want you to go on managing the team.’
For me, that simple declaration was enough. As of that moment it was possible to start working for the future. I told him I wanted young players who would show promise as future championship-winning material and who could also be mixed in with experienced players, because I wanted a Chelsea that would be capable of winning things right away, but also equipped to stay at the top level over time. The names I mentioned immediately afterwards also gave clear notice of another aspect I considered fundamental. Above all, I wanted players from the home nations capable of giving a heart, soul and spirit to the squad that would be essentially English in nature. I believed strongly in this. The backbone of a team should reflect the characteristics of the championship it plays in. Equally clear, and demonstrated by the arrival of Hernan Crespo, Adrian Mutu and Claude Makelele, was the importance of including star players from abroad – vital for making the step up in quality – but there should always be a strong local contingent, not least because the fans can identify with them more easily. After all, Manchester United and Alex Ferguson did this very same thing in the 1990s, though with a slight difference. What they did well was to bring up star performers through their own development structure – home-grown talent like Beckham, Scholes, Gary Neville, Giggs and Brown – and bring in players such as Kanchelskis, Stam, and, most recently, Van Nistelrooy from abroad to create a winning formula.
From that day onwards throughout the entire duration of the transfer window, I was in daily contact with Mr Abramovich by telephone, directly or through his associates, and the results were there for all to see. I have to say that we landed almost all the players we dreamed of signing. When making plans with an owner like this, everything is certainly much easier. It was a real novelty for me when considering all the chairmen I had worked under previously in Italy and Spain. While no less passionate, it must be said that none of these had shown the same readiness to back up my technical wishes with actions. Let’s just say that in the past, the players taken from me and sold always outnumbered the players who were bought for me.
Having made our plans for the future at that first meeting and before the buying programme we discussed was so satisfactorily under way, I invited our new owner down to the training ground (a facility not exactly up to the standard befitting a club with a name like Chelsea) so that he could see it at first hand and get to know the group of players who were already preparing for the new season. I was very pleased when he took up the invitation immediately. When we arrived at Harlington, just a short distance from Heathrow Airport, I called the squad together on the pitch and presented all the players and members of my staff to Mr Abramovich, one by one. Beyond the exchange of a handshake and the usual pleasantries, I do not recall any of the players or staff saying or doing anything in particular – apart from Roberto Sassi, that is. Roberto is the little man you see taking the players through their warm-up routine on the pitch before every match, the one who prepares them meticulously every day in training. He has been with me since I was manager at Fiorentina, and in my book he is an outstanding professional, a great worker and a keen student of all the new fitness methods, whatever their origin. He became famous twenty years ago in Italy as the first to see the importance and exploit the possibilities of the computer in our work. At all events, Roberto is not only a friend, and for me an irreplaceable colleague, but also an incredible personality when you get to know him. Just consider the way he introduced himself on that day in July to Mr Abramovich.
‘Pleased to meet you. I’m the second-best fitness coach in the world. The first is dead.’
His standing joke, of course, but remarkable that he came out with it in the presence of such an important new owner. And he has never told me who No 1 might be!
The first of the new players to sign contracts were the two goalkeepers Marco Ambrosio and Jurgen Macho, who had been bought with the limited finances available to the ‘old’ Chelsea, but were still quality players. They put pen to paper on 2 July, which coincidentally was not only the same day that John Terry signed a four-year extension to his contract, to my great delight, but also the day that Ken Bates and Roman Abramovich formally completed the sale of the club and the share transaction with a handshake in the centre-circle of Stamford Bridge football pitch. Recorded for posterity by the photographers, that day changed the history of our club. And a few days later, the face of the squad also began to change, taking on the look I had in mind. The first actual deal under the new regime was made official on 10 July with the acquisition of full-back Glen Johnson. He and Wayne Bridge were two players I wanted desperately, because every time we had played West Ham and Southampton they had really impressed me. Both had given Jesper Gronkjaer a very difficult time and this had attracted my attention. A second point not to be forgotten is that both signings filled another requirement of primary importance to me: they were young and English. In short, they were the ideal first two pieces of the jigsaw that I, or rather we, had in mind.
Transfer negotiations took their course, and as the press threw out a new name every day on the front pages and the fans began to dream, we got on with our preseason training, which we had decided to start on 2 July with the opening Champions League fixture less than six weeks away. The first few days were spent doing nothing more than exercising muscles in readiness for a more strenuous workout later. Right from the start of my coaching career, I have always combined fitness with work with the ball because I feel certain that the players will be more interested and more involved, and so they train better. This is an important stage of the season because you are storing up physical energy and laying the foundations for what is to come. This is all the more important in the Premiership, where the competitive side of things is absolutely fundamental. Many of my colleagues in Italy still keep faith with the ideology of exercise only at first, for a few days. My response is that you can do it all with a smile, simply by adding the ball. The programme for that first week, unlike the usual routine during the season, was based on two sessions with a break for lunch and a couple of hours’ rest at the nearby Holiday Inn. Pre-season is a time that I particularly enjoy. Everyone is meeting up again after the summer, working together, talking about their holidays (perhaps telling one another about their successes with the fair sex – though not when I’m around!) and dreaming about what ambitions might be achieved in the year ahead. This year was a little bit different for Chelsea, with fresh topics being generated daily by the new direction the club was taking.
Unfortunately, it often happens that even before the first pre-season friendly someone in the squad will pick up an injury. On this occasion, the ill fortune suffered by our keeper Macho really was cruel. Not even a week had gone by since the Austrian had started training with us when, during the morning session, he was hurt while making a clearance. We realized immediately that the injury was serious, even before an MRI scan confirmed he had ruptured cruciate ligaments and torn a cartilage in his right knee. That evening I went home very upset because although no-one was to blame, it was a severe blow for the youngster, who would now also have to face an operation and thereafter a long period of rehabilitation. I had not lost a regular first-team player, because my first-choice goalkeeper was Carlo Cudicini, but in these cases it is distressing quite simply from a human point of view.
Having received the official news of Johnson’s signing on 10 July, we set off the day after for Roccaporena in Umbria for the second part of our training camp. During my time with Cagliari and Fiorentina, I had regularly held training sessions there. The place was quiet and consequently restful, and not too hot, so that useful work could be done. No less important, the food was good, and this the lads appreciated. Here the group could really come together, in a place where individuals are a long way from London and therefore able to make friends more easily. The first time I went to Roccaporena it was practically a picnic site and nothing else. There was just one hotel with no television and only two telephone lines. Now things were very different. A local charity, the Opera Pia di Santa Rita (Roccaporena is very near the Sanctuary of St Rita of Cascia) had built and opened a new hotel with all modern conveniences. The food taken by the players was drawn up by the medical staff so as to ensure that whatever the players ate would be easily digestible and at the same time give them the nourishment they needed. For over a year now I had been Zone dieting, this involves sticking to a balanced intake of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, eating less but more often, which meant a few sacrifices. Fortunately the results have been good as I managed to lose 10kg or so, but when I was with the team I never ate anything different to them. It seemed to me only right and proper, since we were a team.
There was plenty of sweat and toil at Roccaporena, as this was the second week of training and the workloads were increased, but there were a lot of laughs too. The new arrivals had to go through their ‘initiation ceremony’, standing up on a chair and singing to the entire assembly during dinner. The proceedings were organized by John Terry and Frank Lampard, usually we would start throwing paper napkins, and finally everyone would clap. Traditionally, one of our massage team, Billy, would also stand up on a chair and entertain everyone, not by singing but by doing a bit of stand-up comedy. I must admit I didn’t understand a word of it (it was only afterwards I found out I was not the only one) but I laughed fit to burst just the same at the way he told the jokes and the way he himself was laughing at the end. This was a wonderful bonding experience, which kept morale high and brought the squad together.
Obviously I do not get as physically tired as my players during the training camp, and so it generally happens that when they flop into bed exhausted (at least, I hope they do) I have a bit of time to myself. The usual phone call home, the usual scribbles in my notebook, jotting down plans and formations, and a chat with my staff, perhaps to find out how work is going with a specific player or more generally with the squad as a whole. All this and more, because after dinner, in the cool evening air, thoughts turn inevitably to what the coming season will, or at least might, hold in store. But this year had been different. There had been no time to think because, fortunately for us and thanks to the efforts of the club, the reality had materialized simultaneously with the dreams. I was in touch continuously with London, both in my mind and on the phone, as there was something important happening every day.
We had still not played our first friendly, a fixture against Lazio in Rome set for 18 July, when a second great piece of news arrived from Stamford Bridge. The Cameroon midfielder Geremi had been signed from Real Madrid for £7 million. I must say that I had had my eye on him for some years. In fact he could almost be considered a fixation of mine. I have always liked players who are tactically flexible, individuals with character who never give up and know how to defend. From what I had seen, before having him at my disposal on a daily basis, Geremi combined all of these qualities. It had been a blow to me when John Toshack, then the Real Madrid coach, plucked him from the Turkish club Glencler-birligi, and I freely admit I had already asked Chelsea to sign him the year before. Now that the resources were finally available to acquire him, he was one of the names I had put on my list. He signed for Chelsea on 16 July, straight after Johnson and on the same day that Eidur Gudjohnsen also renewed for three more seasons. This was a pleasing coincidence for me, as it served to underscore what I had always thought and said. The squad that had taken us into the Champions League needed to be improved if it was going to aim for yet higher things, but not discarded.
Just a few hours later, before sitting down to lunch the next day, I received another important telephone call. I was told that the Blackburn winger Damien Duff had flown to London to begin serious talks with Chelsea and to undergo a medical. In reality the deal was not looking quite so much of a certainty the next day, as we prepared to play our first game of the season. Understandably, Duff had wanted a little time to consider his future carefully. The papers put out the news that Manchester United were stepping up their interest in him, and all we could do was wait for him to make up his mind, confident that we had offered him an attractive deal and the prospect of an equally exciting adventure at the highest level. Damien is a player with many qualities. Tenacious, fast, always ready to shoot, a good crosser of the ball. He was the classic footballer, with something extra. When up against Blackburn Rovers in the past, my main problem had always been to keep him in check, and I had greatly admired him during the World Cup in Japan and Korea – in this instance without the anguish of being on the opposing side – when for me he was the one who shone for the Republic of Ireland team. Damien is highly inventive, and in addition, although he prefers to play on the left, he has the great capacity of being effective in more than one position. From the opposite wing, for instance, he can cut in and shoot dangerously at goal left-footed, curling the ball much in the same way as Chris Waddle used to do back in the 1980s. And this was not all. Soon after having him in the side, I found that by playing him in the hole just behind the forwards, where he had never been used before, he could deliver assists of pinpoint accuracy to the strikers – just like the best playmakers in the NBA.
There’s also a little secret I can reveal about Damien Duff. He is my mother Renata’s favourite footballer. She is forever telling me so on the phone, and if this were not enough, she also said so when interviewed on Sky Italia. She described him as Chelsea’s Nedved, and given that Juventus’s Czech international won the European Footballer of the Year award this season, it seemed an auspicious comparison. It meant I’d have to think twice before I substituted him, otherwise she would have something to say! But even my mother, just like Duff and all my other players, must understand not only that every decision taken is strictly in the interest of the team – this goes without saying – but also that in such an important season we cannot afford to wear anyone down physically, because at the crucial moment, everyone must be at their best. They need to be ready both physically and mentally.
This was one of my concerns when we were drawing up our prestigious and well-stocked player roster. Everyone wants to play and always to have a great game. This is nice, and this is how it should be, but I am there simply to take the decisions that can help Chelsea lift as many trophies as possible. Sometimes the choices are not easy to make, but if there is one thing I have always done it is to shoulder my responsibilities, and I knew I would do the same this time around, except that every decision would attract more commotion.
Waking up on the morning of 18 July, I thought straight away it was probably no accident that the most important season of my career would be starting with a match, albeit a friendly, in my native Rome. It was neither an advantage nor a disadvantage, simply a question of fate. Thinking about it, all the big events in my life have had their beginnings within sight of the Dome of St Peter’s. I was born in Rome, began my schooling there, and naturally my life in football began there too. I saw my first football match at the Stadio Olimpico, as a Roma supporter, and it was in that same stadium that I made my debut in Serie A, wearing the red and gold jersey. Now another important adventure was beginning for me, again in Rome, this time at the Stadio Flaminio, which is smaller than the Olimpico and decidedly seedier. It is attractive and has its own little history, but there is practically no football played there nowadays and it could do with rather more attention, although it has had something of a new lease of life in recent years since Italy began playing Six Nations rugby. The Flaminio also happens to be the sports ground nearest my current home in Rome, a nice apartment in the heart of the Parioli district, just a short walk away.
That game against Lazio was our first of the season, but precisely for this reason I was interested in just about everything bar the result. In any case this was not the real Chelsea, considering that of the new signings for the team we were building, only Johnson was playing and even he had only trained with us for two days. Nonetheless, the friendly in Rome confirmed to me that the eyes of the world were on our club, since as a result of the very fact that so much had been said about us, the stadium was full. Everyone had come to see puffed-up and ambitious Chelsea. We played as well as we could at that particular moment – in other words, not very well – and it was no surprise that we lost 2-0. Not that Lazio had outplayed us or shown themselves to be a stronger side, but they were at full strength and further ahead with their preparation, a factor which at this stage of the season makes all the difference in the world. We were still heavy-legged, whereas they were almost in top form and unquestionably brighter. Mr Abramovich was also in Rome to see the game, and I remember telling him not to be too concerned about what he had seen.
‘Not to worry, Mr Chairman, I’m sure we’ll come up against this side again in the Champions League, and then it will be a totally different story.’
I was ultimately proved right, though I would certainly not consider myself clairvoyant because of this. It was something I said, not in trying to justify the defeat, but because I genuinely felt it. I never like to lose, but in all honesty, even though it had happened in my home town and in our first match, I was neither disappointed nor annoyed. Certainly I was not worried, as I am old enough to be part of a generation that considered preseason friendlies as a way of easing into competition, with no weight attached to the results. These attitudes have changed rather in recent years, with television involved. Now there is pressure to win everything, instantly, and it is no accident that early games are contested between teams qualified for the Champions League, rather than amateur sides. I knew this was only a first semi-competitive outing, and played without most of the team we would be putting together.
The next day it was back to London for a short break before taking part in a fairly important tournament in Malaysia. The Asia Cup was organized directly by the Football Association, with entry determined by final placings in the 2002/03 Premier League table. Four teams were involved: the Malaysian national side, ourselves, Newcastle and Birmingham.
We had problems with the trip back, as there was a strike on at Heathrow and so some time was lost before a flight could be found to take the party to Gatwick. Nothing too serious of course, but because we had only two days’ rest I did feel a bit sorry for the players who were going home – I would be flying out straight from Rome – although I have to admit my mind was on other things, and above all on the transfer market. Duff had still not signed and the rumours linking him to Old Trafford continued to make the headlines, but I knew about the commitment and determination of our new owner, and when I happened to notice a girl leafing through one such paper at the airport, I had to smile.
Taking off at noon on Monday 21 July, we honestly did not know that this particular day would be potentially one of the most important in the club’s history. If not the most important, then certainly the most expensive. As we slipped across the skies on our way to Malaysia, two more players signed contracts with us: Wayne Bridge in the morning, and Damien Duff in the afternoon. A total cost of £24 million to the club, and a great double present for me and all the fans.
The flight lasted twelve hours and when we arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 7 am local time, aside from the good news, we were all a bit weary. Time for Professor Sassi to take charge of things. Tiredness and the need to get the body moving have to be balanced against the temptation to give in to jet lag and flake out on a bed. The lads did some stretching and a few exercises in the hotel, so that we at least avoided going straight out into the heat. I had taken my family along, certainly not with any intention of belittling the tournament, but because I felt that visiting the Far East would be a nice experience for them. Ultimately, no-one was disappointed because it was a genuinely constructive trip, from all points of view. The members of the squad began to get to know each other better, it was in Malaysia that the work done previously began to be put into practice, and while we were getting on with our job, my wife Rosanna and my daughter Claudia also enjoyed themselves, as I expected. I too was satisfied with the outcome, for all of the technical reasons mentioned, though in all honesty I never like going to such far-off places during the pre-season period. I worry about the effect of long hours in flight on the players’ legs and, especially in this particular case, the impact of a climate where the heat makes proper recovery impossible. I was afraid we might start off badly and that it could then have taken us more than a month to get back into optimum condition. We could not avoid the heat, as in any case it was sweaty even standing still, but on the other hand Sassi as usual had done his homework very carefully and we organized ourselves accordingly. We did a lot of stretching, and when training on the pitch we worked a great deal on ball possession.
It was also a pleasant experience from a social perspective, because all the teams stayed in the same hotel and this was a nice way for players and staff to meet, spend time and eat together; in other words, a chance even for opponents to enjoy each other’s company.
After a delay of twenty-four hours, Duff and Bridge also joined the party, accompanied by club doctor Neale Fraser who had completed their medicals. The jigsaw was not finished yet, but it was beginning to take shape.
That Wednesday there was also a highly enjoyable official reception with a banquet at the British High Commission, given in honour of the three teams, who naturally were present. The next day was a match day, but before the early training session (8.30 am was the only time of day to beat the climate), we received the news that we had been drawn in Geneva to face the winners of the clash between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Zilina in our qualifying round of the Champions League competition. Decidedly not the kind of tie one would have asked from a benevolent Hand of Fortune, but we did not pay too much attention. In the evening we were due to play, and we did so in front of 20,000 enthusiastic spectators.
As the highest placed of the three Premier League teams at the end of the last season, our first match in the tournament was against the Malaysian national team, and on paper it should have been easy. Looking at the scoreline afterwards, there had in effect been a difference between the sides, although we had to sweat to make the final – in the true sense of the word! The heat was stifling and the opposition, being used to it, were extremely quick on their feet. We went ahead through Forssell after 35 minutes and they equalized four minutes later. Then in the second half we stretched away with goals by Hasselbaink, Gudjohnsen and Johnson. In addition to the goals and the win, I made a record in my notebook of two assists by Duff.
The next day was Saturday and I left the players free to do as they pleased, not as reward for a victory that might have been taken for granted and which clearly had no great significance, but because recharging the batteries is always very important. As for me, I took the opportunity to dedicate some time to Rosanna and Claudia. I don’t want to sound precious and in any case I am simply not the type, but obviously they are the most important part of my life and to have them there made me very happy. And their presence perhaps forced me to take a break mentally, as I needed to, otherwise I know I would have spent my time on more plans, deals and ideas for next season. Taking the mind off the job at that moment would be good for me as well. We went to see the Butterfly Park and the Bird Park, which were beautiful and relaxing. Then when the time came for lunch we sought out a typical Malaysian restaurant. In London, which is a wonderful city from this point of view and with so much to offer, Rosanna and I try out every kind of cuisine possible and imaginable (Claudia lives mostly in Rome where she is studying Political Sciences at university). So what better occasion to enjoy a good meal than this? Fortunately we did the rounds of the market after eating, because on one of the stalls we saw something – my daughter and I didn’t have the courage to ask what animal it might be – that looked rather like a chopped up rat.
A little shopping next, and for my daughter this is very rare, but to round off the day we went to try a Thai massage. The best place, they told us, was in a hotel situated on the other side of a lake from our own. Getting out of the boat, we also walked across a golf course, which at sunset was a truly enchanting spectacle even for me, although (don’t hold it against me) I never play the game at all. Once they had shown us into the special rooms we were curious to see how it was all done, and with what kind of ceremony, who we might meet … European managers? Local politicians? Then the doors opened wide and who did we find? Of course! Some of my very own players, including the inseparable Bridge and Johnson who, quite rightly I must say, had had the same idea as us. It was both an experience and a way to relax.
On Sunday, with news arriving from London that the negotiations with Manchester United to bring Seba Veron to Stamford Bridge that had started a while back were still deadlocked, we took the field for the final. This time there were nearly 42,000 spectators on the terraces, and what is more, we had Newcastle as our opponents. In this match we definitely played well, even if the score remained 0 – 0 after 90 minutes. And there was a good performance from Alexis Nicolas, who had a start in this game. The young Cypriot midfielder regularly captains our reserve side trained by Mick McGiven, a man of great importance to our club. To decide the destination of the trophy we had to go to penalties, and at 3 – 2 we really thought we had it won, because next up was Jimmy, and he had never missed from the spot for us. But their keeper Given surpassed himself by diverting the ball onto the post, and after Bellamy then scored it was down to sudden death. John Terry (JT) put away his kick and at that point it was the turn of Jermaine Jenas. He tried to chip the keeper, but incredibly sent the ball right over the bar. Instinctively I looked at Bobby Robson, realizing in the same instant that we had won our first trophy. He was furious, and still fuming in the dressing room, so I believe. Terry was captain and it was he who lifted the Cup, which I trusted would not be the last of the season. It was also my first trophy with Chelsea, and, hoping it would be the first of a big collection, back in the dressing room I picked up JT’s jersey, which had the Asia Cup emblem blazoned on the arm (like the Premiership emblem on our regular jerseys). I got John to autograph it subsequently at Stamford Bridge. And so we left Malaysia decidedly wealthier in practical experience and memories, and with one indelible image – our fitness coach, Roberto Sassi, naked on the table in the middle of the dressing room (a good thing he’s small …) dancing with the Cup tight in his grasp. One thing I could be sure of: I already had the makings of my squad.
Back in London and immediately there was the media to face. The first of August was the day of our presentation press conference. Everyone sun-tanned and looking relaxed, this was always an enjoyable time, although this year there was so much to talk about. The presentations alone took up an enormous amount of time, almost two hours, and, as I expected, the attendance was massive. There was no Macho unfortunately, due to his injury, but all the other new signings were present: Geremi, Johnson, Bridge, Duff and Ambrosio. This was a day, I would say, when we had definite confirmation that our squad would be the cover story of the season. No pressure as far as I was concerned, simply an exciting situation.
To be honest, the nice part was that the presentation was a foretaste of more to come, though at the time there was no certainty about the next move. Well actually, I did have an idea or two …
In fact, there would be another red-letter day just four days later. Two new purchases. And not just any two players, but Seba Veron from Manchester United and Joe Cole from West Ham. And in one shot! Brilliant. Really and truly, a manager could hardly ask more of a club. For most of my counterparts in the league, even one from a possible two would be a dream, let alone getting both. On the other hand, a club with big ambitions needs high-quality players, and these two were at the very top of my list. The great thing was that Chelsea had managed to keep me happy, bearing in mind the value of the players and their importance to our plans. First it had been Bridge and Duff, and now another brace of top players had arrived at Stamford Bridge on the very same day.
Joe Cole is an investment for the future, but he will be useful in the present too. He really is a natural talent like few others, and has a Latin streak, with his unpredictability and imagination. But this is not all. In my opinion he has incredible potential for improvement. He needs to develop a little self-control, precisely because he is so eager, always wanting to dribble, using up too much energy in the middle of the park. He can and must learn to do all this in the final third of the pitch, where such skill can be deadly. For the good of the team and especially for his own, I hope to be able to contribute to his improvement as he gains experience by playing. He could be an important factor in my plans to open up opposition defences on days – and who can say why, but even now I sensed there could be quite a few – when we happen to find them packed tight.
As for Veron, obviously there is nothing I want to teach him. He is already one of the world’s best midfielders, in my opinion. He failed to hit top form at Manchester United for a number of reasons, but with us I feel sure it will be a very different story. I will certainly be looking to exploit his desire for the chance to shine again. The desire all great players have. And then again, I am used to working with Argentinian players, having coached Gabriel Batistuta at Fiorentina and Claudio Lopez at Valencia, to name just two.
If encouraged and given free rein to show his class, Seba can change the face of our team. The thing I liked immediately, in addition to everything I already knew about him, was his personal approach. When we spoke for the first time after his contract had been signed, he showed a tactical flexibility and an appetite for work that will help us make great strides, I feel sure.
Having got over our jet lag, training was again fully underway and we were ready to resume our schedule of pre-season friendlies, fortunately all in and around the London area this time, so we would avoid the burden of travelling. I cannot really speak for my English colleagues, but where pre-season games are concerned, I certainly hold with the Italian school of thought. Friendlies are simply the best way of measuring workloads. Our usual practice is to work especially hard on the pre-season training camp, and the first few matches then serve to put the players under a little extra competitive stress. That is the usefulness of these games, rather than the results themselves.
The first was against Crystal Palace, at Selhurst Park, where we quickly went 1 – 0 up through Mikael Forssell, who really does continue to fulfil his promise. He has a remarkable strike rate, obviously a factor to keep strongly in consideration, along with the unqualified admiration I have for him. He has a goal-scoring instinct typical of the great strikers, and I know he has a great future in store. Mika is a fighter on the pitch, but he has the right attitude in training too. It has happened more than once that I have had to get him out of the gym or off the pitch, for fear of him overdoing his training. He always has the right outlook, and this I like. Clearly, he will need time to make a full recovery after the serious knee injury that has sidelined him for almost a year, and for his own good this means plenty of games – something we cannot guarantee here at Stamford Bridge, particularly given the number of star forwards in the squad. In the interests of everyone concerned, we need to find him somewhere to play. He has admirers in several leagues – in Serie A, in La Liga in Spain and above all in the Bundesliga where he has already played on two occasions – but I would prefer him to go and play in a Premiership side so we can keep a close eye on him and measure his progress against our own standards.
We ended up winning the game against Palace 2 – 1, thanks to a Geremi free-kick at the end of the first half. For me this was nothing new, but with the trajectory he conjured up to beat the wall, many eyes were probably opened to the abilities of this young man, not least his shooting power. Perhaps a friendly against Crystal Palace on their own ground was not the ideal place for Geremi’s prowess at free-kicks to emerge, but now we all knew that this was one more weapon we could count on.
If anything surprised me at all, it was the number of people who had come out on a hot August afternoon to watch a friendly. There were over twenty thousand spectators in the stands. On the other hand, there were two factors at work here: the huge support given by Chelsea supporters anywhere and everywhere, which I was already familiar with, and the interest in our team shown by football fans generally, which I was coming to appreciate.
Three days later, and we had another friendly at Watford. Another win, and in terms of the scoreline an even more convincing one since we put four past them: Forssell, Hasselbaink, an own goal, and, finally, Duff. The boys were understandably a little tired after the work we had been doing, having trained twice the day before, morning and afternoon, but generally speaking their physical condition was very good, and the squad was taking shape as I wanted – indeed as we had all hoped, me and my staff, and the management. One particularly important aspect of the game against Watford was that we had Manu Petit back too, after the operation he underwent during the summer. Here is a player few can match for character, and for his influence on the field. He has won so much in his career, always leading from the front, and I know that if he stays fit, if I make the best use of him physically and psychologically, he can make a difference to this team. He only came on for 20 minutes to replace Lampard, but it was a significant return nonetheless.
For me and for the team, all this was a stimulus to be converted into success. For the press, it was a pressure situation. Pressure? Pressure is what I had at the start of my career with Campania Puteolana, when there was not enough money to pay wages, and unsavoury-looking types would be seen hovering around the ground. Pressure is something the Italian press know how to generate, when thirty or so journalists from newspapers, radio, commercial and network TV turn up at the training ground every day. When the fans are heavily opposed to what you are doing. When you are expected to get results while your club chairman is selling players instead of buying them. All this is pressure, but there is no pressure in having a team full of medal winners at your disposal and a chairman like Roman Abramovich who (on the basis of everything that had happened so far, obviously) always had a positive attitude and continued to bring in fabulous players. In any event, I knew well enough that a good start was needed, especially if we were to avoid idle rumours springing up from outside. And a good start meant doing well in our first two away games: the Champions League qualifying round, and the opening Premiership fixture at Anfield.
We knew our objectives, the difficulties we would face in pursuing them, and how we intended to go about things. We knew all our Premiership opponents. What we did not know yet was who we would be facing in our first Champions League fixture. So, because I prefer to leave nothing – but nothing – to chance, the next day I went over to Budapest to watch the match between Zilina and Maccabi Tel Aviv. The Israelis had more to their game, but allowed their opponents too much space. The Slovaks were better organized and quick on the counterattack. The fixture was being played at a neutral venue and this probably helped Zilina, who in securing a draw were the surprise winners of the tie. So now we knew who our opponents would be. For my part, and with all due respect, I had seen enough to know that if we avoided doing anything silly we would go through to the group stages. This was the same day that the signings of Joe Cole and Seba Veron were announced. Could I sleep more easily now?
More training, and then I was off on another trip. That Saturday, Liverpool were entertaining Valencia, and for me this was an occasion not to be missed. The excuse – a perfect one – was to take a look at the Reds, who we would be playing the week afterwards in the first fixture of the new Premiership season. In reality I was killing two birds with one stone, as they say, since it was also a chance to see my former club Valencia again. Ah yes, the best wish I can make for myself is that when looking back some day, the memories of my time in London will be as happy as those of the time spent at the Mestalla Stadium. The Valencia job was something that happened almost by chance, when I rather set off into the unknown to replace Jorge Valdano, who had been sacked (and who now, of course, is general manager at Real Madrid and one of the most influential men in football). It turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences of my career, and of my life. The club, but more especially the people of Valencia, captured my heart. Life can be magically unpredictable and irrational, but for whatever reason, they took to me straight away (and perhaps it was fate that led me to return to them). True enough, we won only a Spanish Cup while I was there for my first spell, but for a footballing town that had won nothing for so long, it was a significant success. I initiated the policy of loaning young players out to pick up experience in the lower divisions, just as I ended up doing at Chelsea. I did this, for example, with youngsters like Albelda, Gerard and Curro Torres, who were to return a few years later as key components of the subsequent La Liga-winning side. They appreciated at Valencia that I had laid the foundations for a new era at the club, and I have always regretted not having stayed longer the first time to reap what I had sown. I left because of a misunderstanding with the club. I had the feeling that Valencia did not want to invest in the squad. To win a La Liga title, two or three more players were needed to make the step up in quality, and at that particular time the club could not spend.
And so I found myself going to Atletico Madrid. This was a difficult experience as Atletico had hit a sticky patch at the time, but there were absolutely no regrets as I enjoyed working with the colourful and eccentric Jesus Gil and his family, even if I never finished the job I went there to do. As far as Valencia is concerned, perhaps in a certain sense I was happy to have been wrong, because they went on to some great achievements, winning a La Liga title and a Spanish Super Cup, and have appeared in no less than two Champions League finals, and as a supporter of theirs I was delighted. I am sure there are many in Valencia who support Chelsea too.
I was able to meet up again at the Liverpool game with, among others, Dr Jorge Candel, who is not only one of the best doctors I have ever come across in my career but also a wonderful person, and with Amedeo Carboni, a player who should be an example for any professional to follow. He’s nearing 40 now, but has always been one of the best defenders in the game and is absolutely indispensable. Not only on the field but, as the saying goes, for his influence in the dressing room as well. Off the pitch, he is surrounded by marvellous women – no lie, this, because besides having a special partner in his wife Giacinta, he can also boast four adorable daughters!
Valencia won the match against Liverpool 2 – 0, and I was happy for a number of reasons. Among other things, I received a splendid piece of news the same day. We had completed our purchase of Adrian Mutu from Parma. Maybe Adrian was not particularly well known in England at the time, but in Italy people were well aware of his worth. In my eyes, he was just the man we needed: a forward, though without being an out-and-out striker. I was looking for a fast and tough player who would never stand still; a player with superior ability to score goals, but equally, one who knows how to deliver the final pass. He had all these qualities, what we in Italy call a ‘second striker’. He had just had a good year with Parma, for whom he also scored plenty of goals, but now we were offering him the chance to make a big leap in quality with us. We paid a lot for him, almost £16 million, but I know he was also worth a lot. A thought occurred to me on the way back to London. We were in Italy when Glen Johnson was signed. I was on a flight to Malaysia when they told me that the negotiations with Duff and Bridge had been concluded. I was in Budapest to watch the Zilina game when Veron and Cole were brought in, and now here I was at Liverpool when the Mutu signing was agreed. And remembering that I had received a call in France, on my way from Rome to London, telling me that Chelsea Football Club had been bought by Abramovich, I can only come to the conclusion that I ought to travel much more in this life!
My little joke, of course. These must just be coincidences.
In my mind, I was already thinking about the formation I would put out against Liverpool the following Saturday, though without realizing that in the case of Mutu, who in the line-up of my thoughts would be one of the starting eleven, it was going to be a race against the clock from that moment on. Everything was squared with the British authorities in three days, and a work permit secured. At the Italian end, things were a little more complicated on the transfer front. Problems with faxes, a public holiday in mid-August (can it really be true that we Italians are always on holiday?), red tape … anyway, it was not long before I realized I would probably not be picking Mutu to play at Anfield.
Before Liverpool though, we had to start thinking seriously about Europe, because at last, after all the transfers, the friendlies, the fine words and the expectations, this was the start of the real business.
We set off very early on the Tuesday morning. Rendezvous at Harlington 7.10 am, then on to Gatwick to take a flight for Slovakia at 11 am. Two hours’ flying time followed by a coach ride of nearly three hours, and we were at Zilina. Arriving at five in the afternoon, we were soon on the field for the customary final pre-match training session. We found the temperature quite pleasant. Hot, but not suffocating. The match was the important thing, but no less important to me was the general attitude of the squad. For the first time here, I would be sending star players to sit out the game up in the stands, and it was only right that I should make things clear. Since I had brought everyone along with me, and this was our official debut, it was the best time. And so, I gathered all the players together the evening before the match to say a few words, especially to the older campaigners, as I had already spoken plainly to the newcomers before they signed.
To build a team, matches must be lived to the full. Not only wins, but defeats too, as these help to shape the character of the squad. In the end, a team is like a family and the hard moments should serve to bring everyone together. A defeat provides an important moment in which to take stock, and a base on which to build the wins that will come later. I wanted them to reflect on this as well, before we went into the first real competitive fixture of our season.
‘Boys,’ I said, ‘one way or another, on the park or on the bench, you all knew where you were. But now you’ll have to take on board the fact that it all starts from scratch. You’ve got to get used to the idea of having another manager.
‘Imagine this is Eriksson speaking, or another international team manager. Then it won’t be too difficult for you. What would you do? Try and put yourself about a bit so as to get noticed? I don’t want you to show me anything I already know about. What you’re worth, I mean. But remember that when I put you on the bench or in the stand – and it’s something that will happen to all of you – it doesn’t mean you’re out of favour.
‘The squad has changed just as the aims of the club have changed, and rotation is going to be a fact of life. Bear in mind that if you’re here, new or old, it’s because I want you along, so we can accomplish something big. If you all understand this, it will be the first step on the road to achieving the targets we’ve set ourselves.’
I had given them straight talking and I knew they had all understood, and that they all appreciated the situation. And I knew they would all pull faces when left out. Unfortunate … but they would simply have to get used to a new reality. Football has moved into a new era, and anyone who fails to grasp the situation will not have a great future. This is the time to lay foundations for a big structure, and there can be no question of those foundations being shaky.
MSK Zilina v Chelsea, Champions League Qualifier, 1st Leg, Pod Dubnom, 13 August 2003
I decided to play 4 – 4 – 2, but in particular, to start Veron on the right. Zilina took the field adopting a cautious approach, with a lone striker up front and little appetite for attack. They were obviously wary of us even with home advantage, more so than against Maccabi, their opponents in the previous round, but hoped to repeat the upset by exploiting space on the break. As it turned out, they had one chance at the beginning, when after just three minutes Desailly was forced to make a rather scrambled clearance, but after that little or nothing else. We played the match as we should have, deservedly running out as 2 – 0 winners with a goal by Eidur Gudjhonsen and an own goal also resulting from a move of his. Getting off on the right foot is always important, and even more so for us, with all the talk that Chelsea generated during the summer. But besides the result, I was happy about the attitude of the squad and the tactical flexibility I had sensed.
The Liverpool date was already near, but the transfer window had not yet closed and I was hoping not only that the players I had asked for would materialize, but also that they would be available as soon as possible, with preparation of the squad in mind. The bigger the names, the more complicated the negotiations turn out. In discussions with the management we had agreed to look for a holding midfielder and a forward. However, they had to be players who could make a difference to our squad, and, given the top-class players we already had, the circle was now closing on possible targets. For the midfielder, I was very keen on Claude Makelele, not least in view of the fact that he was unsettled at Real Madrid; and for the forward, I liked the look of Hernan Crespo, or, alternatively, Fernando Morientes. Inter wanted to sell the Argentinian as they needed cash, but they were asking too much, whereas in the case of the Frenchman at Real the situation was more complex, diplomatically in particular. My plan, as I had explained clearly to Abramovich right from our first meeting, was to cover every position with two players, both of whom I could consider as first choices. I needed another two pieces for the jigsaw, just like these.
In the meantime, the great day had arrived. No Mutu unfortunately, since, as I had feared, the transfer documentation from the Italian Football Federation did not come through in time, and we were at the airport ready to board for Liverpool. Ready for the biggest and most exciting adventure of our career. The 2003/04 Premiership campaign was about to get underway.
Liverpool v Chelsea, Anfield, 17 August 2003
We were taking up more or less where we had left off at the end of last season. A token of continuity that produced a positive feeling inside, though needless to say, Jesper Gronkjaer had scored that famous goal at Stamford Bridge three months ago, whereas now at Liverpool we were about to embark on a new era. It was a match like any other against top-level opposition, and simplicity itself to prepare for from the psychological standpoint. It practically prepares itself. The wait is exciting for everybody. Everyone is on edge, and in fact my job sometimes is to lower the tension. The problem was, I would be missing not only Mutu, but the injured Petit as well.
So I decided – keeping faith with my nickname ‘the Tinkerman’ – that I would field a completely new lineup. Yes, even though this was such an important match, I had no doubts about my decision to pick what I saw as the side that would give us the best result. I was putting the maturity of my team to the test, straight away. On paper it was a 4 – 1 – 4 – 1. In practice, I had Geremi in front of the back four, Johnson, Terry, Desailly and Bridge, then two central playmakers in Lampard and Veron, a lone striker up front, Gudjhonsen, and two out wide ready to cut in from the wings, Duff on the right and Gronkjaer on the left. An odd sort of formation in the eyes of the press, but I saw it as giving them both the chance to get themselves into shooting positions on their preferred foot.
Houllier had his usual 4 – 4 – 2 with Owen up front and Heskey and Kewell (wonderful footballer) playing off him on either side, plus the threat of Murphy able to score or provide from further back. They were playing a diamond midfield, frequently changing the point man to upset our plans.
A good game and at the end a great result, though it was certainly not easy. In recent years we had always been undone at Anfield and punished well beyond what we deserved, and this time we all wanted it to finish differently to ensure a good start to our new adventure.
Liverpool started strongly, with Carlo saving well in the first few minutes from Murphy and coming out to deny Owen, but after that, everyone began to discover the new Chelsea: a team with the right balance, attitude, character and top players. Qualities summed up in our first goal, scored appropriately enough by Veron who, with perfect timing, finished off a splendid build-up involving Johnson, Desailly and Lampard, with the final surge and cross coming from Gronkjaer.
Perhaps it was the importance of an eagerly awaited match, or the names of the players and teams involved, but it hardly seemed like a season opener. High tempo, a lively atmosphere, the feeling of something already being at stake. I had made my three substitutions, introducing Gallas, Cole and Hasselbaink without changing the plan, and we seemed to be controlling the game without too much trouble. Then a mistake. Bridge was surprised by Kewell on the left-hand edge of the area, and knocked him over. Whistle. Penalty. The way the match was going, a draw would have been an injustice, and when I saw Owen send his spot-kick wide I was thinking almost that we had earned the mistake. But hardly had the thought occurred when, incredibly, the referee ordered the kick to be retaken because Carlo had moved. He judged that the half-step forward made by Carlo to launch his dive was illegal. Absurd! Unfair both in a sporting sense and from the standpoint of the rules as well, because on this basis every penalty awarded would have to be retaken or repeated ad infinitum. There was nothing I could do, but I was furious inside. I must have said something to the fourth official, though I cannot really remember what. And to think I am sometimes accused of being impassive, hiding my feelings! Frankly this was too much, but all I could do was watch as Owen converted. Back to square one, and in my mind I was already battling the demons of the last two encounters we had played and lost at Anfield. Legendary temple of football it might be, but precisely for this reason I did not want it to become a permanent jinx for us.
But then, three minutes from time, Jimmy latched on perfectly to one of Lampard’s splendid passes and scored, releasing all of our anger (and his too, I imagine, as he had started the game on the bench). Off came the shirt, and as he paraded his muscles, he was symbolically showing off the muscle of the entire team. Yes, we really had carried on from where we left off, with a win against Liverpool. But in different conditions. Different players and different perspectives, but the same aim: to be a team with big ambitions. In this sense we had just passed a test of no mean importance, athletically and mentally, and I was obviously very happy.
Hardly any time to celebrate, though, and I soon had other situations to address. We had still not wrapped up the negotiations for Makelele and Crespo, but I was optimistic for a successful outcome on both deals.
Unfortunately, having top-class players also means having to do without them when their national teams are playing, and indeed after the win at Liverpool I had to witness what I knew all too well would happen. Harlington was almost deserted, with nearly all the likely candidates being called up either to the Under-21s or to the senior international squads. This is an impossible situation and there is no solution. We simply have to make the best of it, hoping that no-one gets hurt, although injuries are not the only risk. There are long journeys, jet lag, and above all it is practically impossible to plan any kind of physical training that will be the same for everybody. Sassi does his excellent best on the fitness side, but he certainly cannot work miracles. I never complain, because this is a problem common to many of my counterparts. And in any case, if you want to coach a top-flight team it is inevitable.
The following Wednesday, Carlton Cole accepted the idea of going on loan to another Premiership club. I was keen to secure this kind of arrangement for the same reasons as applied to Forssell, except that instead of going to Southampton as we originally thought, there was no need for him even to move house, as he went to Charlton. I know the surroundings are good over there. Alan Curbishley is a first-rate manager and there is also Paolo Di Canio, who can teach a young player plenty, most of all in terms of professional attitude and love for the game. Paolo possesses an in-born talent and has a big personality, but commendable passion too. Carlton needs to mature, but if with his extraordinary potential he can learn from Paolo, he will come back to be an important player for our club.
I had wanted to travel up to Ipswich to see the England-Croatia game, but instead I decided to go to Upton Park where Carlton Cole and Glen Johnson were playing in the Under-21s. Unfortunately, the result was a resounding 3 – 0 defeat for David Piatt’s team. I met up with Sven-Goran Eriksson in the VIP stand and exchanged a few words in Spanish with Sammy Lee, a Liverpool legend and one of the England coaches, who I imagine must have picked up the language in his playing days at Osasuna. It was a pleasant chat with Sven – and who knows what the press would make of that! But this was the least of my worries.
Chelsea v Leicester, Stamford Bridge, 23 August 2003
The first home game of the season had arrived. Always an important occasion. There are positive vibes in the air that give the team a special boost. This year of course, the importance of everything is double or even greater. The team was introduced to the strains of Kalinka, that best-known of all Russian songs, and it seemed to me an engaging, clever, almost ironic way to present the official opening of a new page in the history of the club at Stamford Bridge. It has since become an entertaining ritual. I am always in the dressing room with the team when the announcements are made, but I see from television recordings that Roman Abramovich enjoys the idea too, undemonstrative as he is, standing up and clapping in time with the music.
On the pitch though, it is our job to dictate the tempo, and despite the setback of having Geremi sent off for a second yellow card, we picked up the three points against Leicester too. A foregone conclusion perhaps, but only on paper. We played 4 – 4 – 2 because being at home, naturally, I wanted a more attacking line-up right from the start, with Mutu and Hasselbaink up front. I knew it would not be the goal-fest some might have expected, because our opponents had nothing to lose and they would defend any way they could, so at the end I was pleased on two counts: the result, and the fact that Mutu had scored a great goal on his debut. He struck a free-kick right-footed from about 25 yards, and when the rebound came back off the wall, proceeded to despatch the ball into the net with his left. In the space of a minute, to people in England who knew nothing about him, he showed himself to be a winner, a player with an eye for goal capable of shooting accurately and powerfully with both feet. He was eager to make an impression and I was pleased he managed to do just that.
A couple of days later, one of the two pending transfer deals was nicely wrapped up at last. Crespo was now a Chelsea player, and even if the financial commitment was considerable at £17 million, the news was certainly something to celebrate. Hernan has lots of experience although he is still relatively young. Above all, he is a player with 109 goals to his name in Serie A, effectively a harder league for a striker than most others, which means he comes with a solid pedigree. He’s a clever footballer, the classic opportunist in the penalty area, with fine anticipation and good in the air. In short, he’s the complete forward. I tell you, a manager will always do a few sums before the start of a season. He tries to assess how many goals are likely to come from individual players, or rather from the various field positions. Say, 5 or 6 from defenders, at least 10 if not 15 from midfielders, and then a good haul from the forwards. So, if I had done my forecast again on the day Crespo arrived, I would easily be thinking in terms of another twenty or so coming from the Argentinian. The hope will be that he can justify our confidence in him by scoring them.
Chelsea v M&K Zilina, Champions League Qualifier, 2nd Leg, Stamford Bridge, 26 August 2003
On the same day the Crespo transfer was confirmed, we played the return leg of our Champions League tie with Zilina. With a 2 – 0 result from the away leg and the superiority over the opposition that the scoreline suggested, this honestly was the comfort zone, but I was by no means going to make wholesale changes simply in the name of squad rotation, not wanting to send any wrong messages to the team. I gave Joe Cole a start and reintroduced Celestine Babayaro. Nothing sensational. I also brought on Robert Huth in the second half, and the German showed straight away that he was worth his place on the pitch. A nice headed goal and a free-kick that hit the post proved to me there were points to mark on his card. All plus. Armed with a genuinely dangerous long-range shot, he is also good in the air and has fine defensive qualities. Okay, these are things I had already seen from him in training and friendlies, but to have them confirmed in an official fixture, and a Champions League tie at that, was better still. Typically German, he has character and a strong physique. I am sure he will have a future in the team even if, like Forssell, it may be best if he goes out on loan somewhere next season. With his goal and two more from Johnson and Hasselbaink, we managed to win 3 – 0 and I was delighted, since we had achieved our main short-term objective of making it to the Champions League group stage. If anything, I was a little surprised by our opponents, in a negative sense; they came apparently looking to defend at all costs, even after having lost their home tie. I found this inexplicable. After the first-leg defeat, their chances of qualifying had perhaps already gone, but they could have at least used this occasion to put in a good performance. Instead they lost, and their refusal to play football contributed nothing to the show.
Two days later, the draw for the group stage was made in Monte Carlo. I watched it live on television, sitting on the couch at home before lunch, and it did not spoil my appetite in the least. I work on the principle that all teams are tough until you play them, although I must admit that some of the groups looked trickier than ours, at least on paper. We drew Lazio, Besiktas and Sparta Prague. True, it could have been much worse, but equally the widespread optimism I sensed on the day seemed to me to be premature on the one hand, and dangerous on the other. I guessed the mobile would start ringing because there would be journalists wanting to get my first impressions, but I suspect they were getting the busy tone, what with all the relatives and friends who were already organizing themselves for the double-header with Lazio. I recalled what I had said to Abramovich in the dressing room at the Flaminio after our defeat there in the friendly. My intuition had been right. Now we had to add the result. Still, I could not help marvelling at my own magical powers of prediction … and no black wizard’s hat!
Chelsea v Blackburn, Stamford Bridge, 30 August 2003
We closed out the month with another home fixture, this time against Blackburn. A game I was wary of, because they are a solid side, and at the time we were to play them I was thinking that they were in for an excellent season. They have good players, an expert and strong-willed coach, and a big enthusiasm that runs right through the organization. Blackburn are the club where Damien Duff came to maturity, in every sense, and naturally I had plenty of questions to face about him during the Friday press conference at Harlington. This gave me the chance to reiterate how I see him, in my plans, as a fundamentally important piece on the Chelsea chessboard.
We had barely kicked off when Desailly made an elementary mistake on the touchline, uncharacteristic for a player of his stature. So it was that after just 19 seconds we were already chasing a goal by that man Andy Cole. If this were not enough to convince me of the way things were going, on the half-hour we had a Mutu goal disallowed. And although I never like to criticize the referee and his assistants, it looked good to me. But Mutu stepped up again soon after, swerving around Brad Friedel after good work by Hasselbaink and Veron and netting the equalizer. A great goal at a really critical moment. In the meantime I had made a change in midfield, as I soon realized that Veron would be struggling out wide on the left. I put Geremi on the right, Lampard in the middle, Duff on the left and brought Seba into the middle too, but further forward. In practice, he was now playing just behind the strikers. One minute into the second half, and Cudicini delighted everybody by spectacularly tipping over a David Thompson drive from around 25 yards out, but then misjudged the ensuing corner and unwittingly allowed the visitors to take the advantage again through Cole. From where I stood, I was unable to see exactly whether or not Petit, jumping in front of him, had touched the ball (I saw later on the TV that he did not actually get a touch) but no matter. The important thing at that moment was to equalize, not worry about mistakes. And even if Carlo had got it wrong coming off his line in that particular situation, too bad. It happens, and these are the moments when we all do better to remember how many times a goalkeeper has claimed the ball successfully. I had put Petit on to replace Duff so I could deploy a midfield diamond with the right balance. Manu in front of the defence, Veron behind the strikers, Geremi on the left and Frank on the right. I know Duff would have liked to stay on against his old club right to the end, but I had to take what I thought was the best decisions for the team, and at that stage, this was the best solution as I saw it. Ten minutes later we had our equalizer, a penalty converted by Hasselbaink, and even if this was the first time in the campaign we had not won, in the end I was satisfied. I have seen enough football to know that when things start to go wrong as they did right from the kick-off of that game, salvaging a point qualifies as a success.
Another remarkable day to mention before turning the page of the calendar. Right at the last minute, before the transfer window was due to close, the final piece fell into place. Claude Makelele. A player remarkable for his ability as a ball winner and an organizer in defence, and special for his experience of wearing the jersey of a winning side like Real Madrid. Really and truly, I could not be more convinced of this buy. If Real have been at the top in recent years and dominated in Spain and Europe, between the defence and the halfway line they owe it to this man. Of course it is the players like Zidane, Raul, Figo and Ronaldo who make the headlines, but the trophies have come no less by virtue of Makelele’s efforts. To have his winner’s mentality and competitiveness at the heart of my midfield made me breathe more easily. The jigsaw was now complete and for this I could only thank the club and praise the enthusiasm of Roman Abramovich. I had searched out all the components that could link up with the others. Not just tactically but in view of whatever I could learn about each one, directly or indirectly, even with regard to their character. Assembling a team with so many new players takes time. No-one was going to give us too much of that commodity, I knew, but at that point I was also aware that the core of the squad was made up of high-class players, and this should reassure us. I say ‘us’ because everyone would be under pressure and at the same time eager to succeed in a great undertaking.
At least two covering each position. All first-choice players. All medal winners. Now we were on the right track. It would be up to us to show that this was the squad to deliver the goods to our chairman, who had made it all possible, and to our fans whose affection for the team deserved to be repaid.
I liked to change my formations, because I knew I had players with the tactical flexibility to be able to do it, but listing them for the sake of convenience as a conventional 4 – 4 – 2 below, for the season to date, creates an impressive picture. What’s more, it’s a pleasant dose of responsibility.
I repeat, if everyone can see that they are all in-distinguishably indispensable to the success of a common purpose, then we really might achieve the great aims set for ourselves. All the elements are in place, but I also know very well that it can be difficult for a player to accept the decisions of the coach, even though we are all professionals. Maybe there will be a few long faces now and again, but I still feel that, content or otherwise, everyone will know my decisions are taken in good faith. I am confident that our relationships will be frank and open, and I would like to have the same confidence, even at this early stage of the season, that we will be putting new silverware in the cabinet.
Taking a good look at the calendar during the summer, it was the month of September that appeared the most complicated, even if – or perhaps precisely because – it is the month with the fewest fixtures. September, of course, sees the start of the Champions League group stage and the long break from club football when internationals are played.
Perhaps one day in my career I will be offered the chance to coach a national team, and to be honest, in another ten years or so I would quite like to do it. Then I will see the problem from the other point of view, but from where I stand at the moment, these breaks are a burden on the club. Of course the needs of the national teams cannot be ignored, but it is a heavy imposition to have my players going off in numbers to all parts of the globe at this critical time. Certainly, if you want world-class footballers in your side then you know beforehand what to expect, because obviously they all represent their countries, but even knowing this, it is a situation fraught with difficulties. Especially in this instance, because of how quickly it comes around, after only a few Premiership fixtures. You start and then stop again, and this is not good for any kind of group endeavour. It is the same for all clubs, but because Chelsea have so many new players and we need more than other teams to find the right mix, it is worse for us. Being together at this stage is fundamentally important for team spirit, familiarization with plans, physical training, relationships in the dressing room … But there is no way around it, and all a manager can do is concentrate on the players he still has. There may not be many, and none are too fortunate either, since their efforts and attitude come under even closer scrutiny.
I gathered together the players available to me at our semi-deserted Harlington ground and, with the help of my staff, took the opportunity to put them through a few basics – physical mainly, but technical too, why not? It is actually rather an odd sensation seeing the dressing rooms half empty, and though it is nice to be able to park the car without a major struggle, there are problems with the organization of training matches too. To make up the numbers, I asked Mick McGiven (our invaluable reserve-team coach) to bring a few youngsters along, so that they could get the chance to test themselves at a higher level, and I had the opportunity to see them at close quarters. Whenever commitments with the first team allow, I always go along to see youth- or reserve-team games, and not only because it is a part of my ‘duties’. I love the Chelsea jersey whatever the level of the player who wears it, and quite apart from the professional obligation involved in hearing the day-to-day reports that Mick and youth coach Steve Clarke pass on in our dressing room, and finding out if there are one or two youngsters who have been making good progress. Steve Clarke was a defender in his playing days, a Chelsea stalwart from the 1997 FA Cup-winning side. In addition to his coaching duries he would often scout for me, and provide written reports on opponents.
I enjoy simply standing on the terraces and cheering. There is the risk sometimes in these games at Harlington that the younger ones may get pumped up and overdo things a little. Fortunately no-one has ever been overcompetitive to the point of hurting a first-team player, which can happen in football from time to time. Some years ago in Rome, just to give an example, Paul Gascoigne was dealt a serious injury by a very young Alessandro Nesta – who went on to become one of the best central defenders in the world.
It was also a month that opened with an important announcement regarding the history of the club. At the season’s first meeting of the Chairman’s Supper Club, Ken Bates stated officially that he would be stepping down in 2005 to become Life President. It is certainly not my place to remind Blues supporters of how important Ken has been to Chelsea, as his name will always be written large in the history of the club, but I would just like to include a word or two about our personal relationship. It’s a surprisingly ‘beautiful friendship’, in a certain sense. Surprising, because it is confined almost exclusively to the time spent in flights to and from away games. I rarely go into the office, he never visits the dressing rooms, and so our meetings are in reality somewhat sporadic. Something must have clicked between us – who knows what? – because I’m sure he has fondness for me just as I feel affection for him. I was amazed when, still with a year and a half left on my contract, he wanted me to sign up for another five years with the club. This was a huge offer, not least considering the current economic situation in professional football in general, and at the club in particular. It was a decision that made me extremely proud too, because it was a gesture made by someone who can be seen always to have acted wisely in the interests of the club. Prior to the renewal, I had worked with commitment, and extremely hard. I had taken the club to an FA Cup Final, though we had still not laid our hands on a trophy. So in all sincerity, what had persuaded him to offer me this important extension? I think he must have appreciated the way I work, and the way I am. He understood that I was taking on the job enthusiastically, even though it was a difficult time for the club. Bates was the right man in charge during an extremely complex period in the history of the club. Thanks to his foresight, his total devotion to the cause and his courageous decisions – unpopular sometimes, but necessary – Chelsea FC have been able to keep the respect due to a club in the very top flight of the game. He made sure a collapse was avoided in the 1980s and opened the door to a new era that promises to be even more exciting and, I hope, full of success under the new owner, Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea v Tottenham, Stamford Bridge, 13 September 2003
We had had to wait a couple of weeks for the resumption of the Premiership, but finding our concentration and the right level of determination was no problem at all, with Tottenham waiting for us. In fact, I soon learned from the fans during my first year in London that of the various derbies played in the course of a season, the biggest for the Blues is the one against Spurs. The atmosphere is awesome even to me, and I have been involved in some big local derbies too, in Rome as a player, and in Madrid as a coach. The great thing for us ‘non-English’ is to see how the fans can display passion, fervour and pride for their teams without it spilling over into violence. I know there was a problem during the 1970s and part of the 1980s, but now it has all but disappeared. As an Italian it is something I can only admire, and even envy in some measure, as things are very different back home. Obviously I do not want to point the finger at anyone in Italy, but really one has to applaud the police and the clubs for the work that they have done in this country, and the civilized behaviour of fans everywhere. It was so good to see supporters mingling outside and inside the stadium with their different coloured shirts and scarves, knowing that many of them travelled on the Underground and walked together from Fulham Broadway station with no quarrels and no problems.
The occasion was extraordinary not only for the atmosphere created by the supporters, but also for the brilliant sun shining down on London, ready to light up this big, big derby. We started off with a classic 4 – 4 – 2, with Petit in midfield and Mutu and Jimmy up front. I was especially happy at being able to give Manu a start for the first time after a long injury spell. For me, he is a world champion in the true sense of the word: unbelievable determination and leadership, and footballing skills that everyone has admired down the years. At the beginning of the season, when we sat down with Abramovich and the new management to discuss the individual players we already had in the squad, I explained at length just how important Petit was to our cause. A player who has the ability to be decisive in so many ways on the field, and whose return, even in a side full of medal winners, was of absolutely fundamental importance. To see him in the middle of the park in the biggest derby of the season was hugely satisfying for all of us.
After twenty minutes or so Tottenham went 1 – 0 up – Frederic Kanouté the scorer – and I decided straight away to change things around, playing three at the back with Melchiot alongside Terry and Desailly. I needed to restore the balance tactically. I knew even beforehand that with Hoddle normally playing a back line of three and a playmaker (Jamie Redknapp in this instance) between the defenders and the midfield, we might run into difficulty, but this is precisely the reason I often make changes during the course of a game. First I want to see if my team can adapt to situations as they arise on the pitch, then, if necessary, I make adjustments. It is a way of helping my players to develop, to show their tactical maturity, but obviously, getting the result must come first. Having found the right setup, and with the determination we had, I felt sure we could win the game. And indeed after just a few minutes we equalized, thanks to a nice collective effort rounded off with a header by Lampard from Gronkjaer’s cross. A few seconds later and we were ahead, Mutu scoring from an assist provided by the ever-dependable Duff. This is how a great team responds: forceful, showing character and determination but staying clear-headed. Another moment of significance for the season came in the second half, when I decided to bring on Makelele. He had been on the bench at the start, as I wanted him to get a good look at his new surroundings before taking part. Claude was the last player we had bought, but certainly not the least in terms of importance. He would be the balancing element in midfield. I have always believed that top teams should have a key midfielder playing deep. Besides being quick, Claude had the knack of always being on hand to help out his fellow players, and positioning himself in the right place at the right time. So, could I have picked a better match than the Chelsea-Tottenham derby to introduce him to the atmosphere of the English game?
Still echoing in our ears was the cry of ‘Muuuuu-tuuuuu …’ that always goes up when Adrian scores. Running onto a brilliant through ball from Joe Cole, he made the result completely safe. It ended 4 – 2, and this was a very important game in several ways. It was a good performance following the break, albeit with minimal preparation; the debut of Makelele; the ability to come from behind; the win; and some nice goals and assists.
There had been a few concerns certainly. These were early days with the new look Chelsea, but the players seemed to be putting themselves under pressure needlessly. It was irritating that we only seemed to get into our stride after going behind, and that having worked to put things right and opened up a two-goal lead, we then allowed our opponents to pull one back. The boys had to work on their concentration, and I said as much at the post-match press conference. But it was a win, and with three points in the bag I was not about to start losing sleep over things I knew we could put right.
It was good to have the memory of the derby win to take with us into that other big adventure we were about to embark on: the Champions League, now more than ever the competition everyone dreams of winning. Myself included, naturally. As a player I never even came close, but as a coach I knew that the European stage was the one of the best places to ‘discover’ a player or see particular game plans being put into practice.
Sparta Prague v Chelsea, Champions League, Group G, Toyota Arena, 16 September 2003
The calendar had us making our Champions League debut not only in a wonderful city, Prague, but also against a particularly well-balanced team, Sparta. The first surprise I had on the trip was when I walked into my hotel room. They had given me an incredible suite. I had never seen anything like it before in my career, and probably never will again. It had four en suite bathrooms and even a billiards table! I doubted whether I’d even have time to explore it all in the two days we were there, but it was so big we could have trained in there with the entire team.
Playing in the Champions League is not exactly the same as playing in international competitions, however good these may be. It was for this reason I decided to leave Duff and Lampard on the bench initially. I wanted to avoid loading them with too much responsibility, and instead chose a starting line-up with players who already had this kind of international experience. It was a decision I had no regrets about, regardless of the way the match turned out, though I was persuaded by what happened on the field to put both players on at the beginning of the second half. We started with a diamond midfield: Makelele in his usual position, Petit on the left, Geremi on the right and Veron behind the two strikers. Sparta were looking almost exclusively to defend, and we had to try and open up the game and create chances for ourselves. As it transpired we created many in the first half, but Mutu and Crespo – whom I had selected precisely on the basis of their previous experience – were unable to capitalize. With the introduction of Damien and Frank I changed the entire formation completely, pulling the diamond back into a line across midfield and bringing Veron deeper behind Crespo to give him more space. In the end we deserved to win with a goal by Gallas and it was an important strike, because getting off on the right foot is crucial in this type of competition, especially away from home. Scoring goals is not such a rare occurrence for Willie, and in fact he had won a bet the year before among the French members of the team (Petit and Desailly being the others) as to which one of them would score the most goals by the end of the season. He is good in attack because he is always ready to exploit even the slightest advantage in dead-ball situations. It was very nice to start off our Champions League campaign with a victory, and I like these wins that come late in the game. Wins secured with a struggle are the best. They show the team is battling right to the end to get the result it wants. And it was nice to share the success with the more than 1,200 Chelsea fans who made the trip to the Czech Republic. Addressing the post-match press conference, I quipped, ‘Well, I’m still in my job, contrary to what some people in the press are predicting. Maybe I should sack myself and do them a favour.’ Controversial statements are generally not my style and the delivery was light-hearted, not least because I genuinely had no reason to doubt the soundness of my relationship with the new management. On the other hand, with all the dreary negative comments that contrasted with the results, I had felt obliged to make a point in some way.
Back in London, we needed to look after a few players who had picked up injuries on the trip: Mutu and Desailly had ankle problems, Veron was complaining of a troublesome Achilles. Nothing too serious, fortunately, with an away game at Wolverhampton next up.
Before going up to the Midlands, the club made an announcement that would be highly significant for the future of Chelsea. Paul Smith, advisor and trusted associate of Peter Kenyon, was appointed as consultant to the board of directors. This was obviously to fill in the statutory period before Stamford Bridge could welcome Peter Kenyon himself, a figure of such importance in managing the strategies – especially financial – that have guided the fortunes of Manchester United worldwide in recent years. This was the first real sign that things in the structure of the club were indeed about to change. I had never met either of them, even if Peter Kenyon was familiar to me by way of the remarkable results achieved at Old Trafford, but it was obvious that on the marketing and corporate image front, Chelsea had scored a big point in the world business arena. Clearly, when a person of this standing arrives it is normal that each one of us will have had a few private thoughts about what kind of relationship we are likely to have with the new man, and what impact he will have on our situation within Chelsea FC, but on a less selfish note, one can hardly fail to note the decisiveness with which Roman Abramovich acts in the interests of expanding the club.
Shortly after the announcement, I heard from Spanish friends that Peter Kenyon had been a target of Real Madrid, if indeed there were any need for an endorsement of the professional status of the man and the esteem he enjoys worldwide in the top echelons of football. Over the coming weeks, as far as Paul Smith was concerned, and the coming months in the case of Mr Kenyon, I would find out what kind of rapport might develop between us, although it was not the kind of thing that ever worried me. As a manager I am not very accomplished – as my daughter Claudia good-naturedly reminds me sometimes – at political or diplomatic relations. I tend to be interested in substance, not very much in form. I am probably a little out of step with the times in this sense, but essentially I like my business to be on the pitch. I concern myself with the good of my team and doing my job well, and beyond that I look after my family and my own interests, without going after or taking particular care over special relationships that might help my career. I let the results speak for themselves. In this instance, given the fact that these are people chosen by Mr Abramovich, with whom I see eye to eye, and that their respective track records are sufficient guarantee in themselves, it is reasonable to suppose, at least as far as I am concerned, that there will be no problems with the relationship.
Wolves v Chelsea, Molineux, 20 September 2003
An easy game on paper, but experience tells me there is no bigger mistake anyone can make, especially here in England, than to take a result for granted. The determination and competitive spirit we see in the Premiership are not only ingredients that guarantee a great spectacle, but just as much a constant reminder to more technical teams like ours that they can never drop their guard. Wolves, for their part, are a team combining the experience of Dennis Irwin and Paul Ince with the dynamism of players like Shaun Newton and Henri Camara who are able to inject a change of pace. Despite a number of injury problems, the Norwegian forward Steffan Iversen is no slouch either, given the goals he has scored for Spurs and for his country. In the event, I decided to face them with a flat midfield, using two genuine wingers out wide – Gronkjaer and Duff – and a forward pairing of Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen.
In the end, the match turned out to be a comfortable win, and indeed the only real problem we had was before even arriving at the ground. A few miles after leaving the usual hotel on the outskirts of Birmingham where we always stay when playing in the area, we realized we had left Gallas behind. To be honest, it is quite easy to forget Willie; let’s just say that when he is on the bus, then you can be pretty sure everyone else will be on it too! At any rate we could not go on without him (not least because he was in my starting eleven), so we turned back. Everything turned out well in the end, as we won 5 – 0 after a fine team performance. It was a marvellous display of one- and two-touch football with depth, and the boys played as if attached by a fine thread one to another, so perfect was their movement. Towards the end, with the game more or less safe, we saw two goals from Hernan Crespo, his first in the Premiership, which made me especially pleased, both for him and for us. I know how important it is for a forward to find the net, and how even more important that is for a player coming in from a completely different environment. Not that a player like Crespo needs to score a brace against Wolves to prove his worth, but I can assure anyone that he too was extremely happy with his afternoon in the Midlands. This is a predatory striker, ready to exploit any error made by the opposition defence. He is already renowned the world over for this predatory style of his, but it is good that he should open his goal-scoring account in England too.
The only unpleasant aspect of the afternoon occurred in the post-match press conference. The first question directed at me was: ‘Mr. Ranieri, how come you didn’t use Wayne Bridge, an English player, in this match?’
What? We win 5 – 0 away from home, even if it is against a team having a bit of a difficult start to life in the Premiership, and the first thing they ask me is why I didn’t play Bridge? Is this a joke? I hope so, because otherwise I would have to think that someone is so biased as to find something negative to say even when there’s absolutely nothing to find. The result and the quality of our play would certainly not have suggested a controversial first question. And to make the observation that I left an Englishman out of the team, when surely my intention to build the Chelsea of the future with an English backbone has been both stated in words and proven by deeds, seems almost spiteful.
Happily there is always a positive side to everything, and I must say that not even that silly question could spoil an afternoon I will remember for a long time. For the win, certainly. And obviously the score. But this time the reader must allow me a little ‘moment’ of my own. To see the entire lower part of the stand opposite the dugout occupied by Chelsea supporters was wonderful, and a magnificent sight. A truly handsome splash of blue and white. And to hear the fans chant for me during the match was really quite touching. As my English is still improving, the things that supporters sing and shout in the stadium can sometimes be difficult to make out, but even I could not mistake the one declaring that this is Ranieri’s team and we don’t want Eriksson. I have nothing against Sven or any other fellow manager, and I want to keep my job only as long as I can produce the results that prove I still deserve to hold down the position of coach to a big club like Chelsea. I have never looked for help from the fans, or the players, or the press. Ingratiation is not my style, and I would rather give up coaching than start pandering for support. But to hear those words being chanted spontaneously did touch my feelings in a special way. I swear I did not know how to respond at that particular moment. Give a wave? A gesture of thanks? I hope no-one was offended, but staying concentrated on the game and simply doing nothing was my way of getting over a minute or two of embarrassment, though I was happy to have experienced it. I have continued to hear the chants ever since that afternoon and this has increased my sense of gratitude toward our fans – the ones who clearly appreciate what I am doing, and whom I hope to repay with big results. The results we all want. If I have never said thank you from the touchline, I do so now on these pages, because this is the way I know best.
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.