It used to be that Chelsea succeeded because of Roman Abramovich. Now, if they win, it is despite him. Everything seemed to be going well enough. Champions, comfortably top of the Premier League, handily progressing in the Champions League, playing good football, without a league goal conceded at home since March 27, even the beginnings of wider popularity.
So Abramovich did what any owner would do in those circumstances. He sacked the assistant coach, against the wishes of the manager, and was instantly rewarded with the worst home defeat of his tenure.
Chelsea lost at home to Sunderland yesterday, their first league defeat at Stamford Bridge since the visit of Manchester City on February 27 and their biggest in the Premier League since April 20, 2002, against Manchester United. And, yes, this is probably more to do with an outstanding Sunderland performance and the absence of John Terry, Michael Essien and Frank Lampard than the departure of Ray Wilkins, but the prospect of more senseless upheaval will not have helped morale.
The Chelsea players have been around this particular block before. They know what is coming. It is as if Abramovich becomes jealous if a manager appears settled or is receiving too much credit for success.
Carlo Ancelotti is a popular figure, and the attractive football that Chelsea played to win the league in his first season is rightly well regarded. Yet Abramovich wishes to demonstrate he is still important, too. He wants to be revealed as the puppet master, only with each clumsy pull of the strings, he ruins the performance.
Wilkins, sacked on Wednesday, had a surprise visitor to his home on Friday. Ancelotti popped round for tea and sympathy and, as he was welcomed over the threshold, we can assume he is not blamed for the decision.
Ancelotti is not the boss, you see. Ostensibly, yes, Wilkins was answerable to him, but now we have been reminded who really runs Chelsea. The brazen nature of Wilkins’s dismissal shows that a point was being proved rather than best interests served.
Wilkins heard his contract would not be renewed in a telephone call from an underling during half-time of a reserve match. He left the club that day, much to Ancelotti’s frustration.
If Chelsea were floundering one might understand it but, in the circumstances, why meddle? Abramovich’s investment has dwindled from its lavish beginnings, but his demands have stayed at a premium. Ancelotti is a philosophical sort. He has told friends that when working for Silvio Berlusconi at AC Milan he came to realise there were some battles it was impossible to win.
All a man could do was shake his head at the madness of it all and carry on. In this case, he drove around to the house of his friend in the hope there were no hard feelings. No doubt Ancelotti will put a word in for Wilkins at another club, if he wishes. At his own, sadly, he is powerless.
Great music, great cinema, can be the result of creative tension. Brian Clough, it was said, used it too, although other factors may explain his more random moments. Yet what did Abramovich hope to achieve by removing Wilkins? What is the benefit of alienating Ancelotti or disturbing his players, even a little? This is how it began with Jose Mourinho and we all know where it ended.
Owners have the power, managers get the glory. That is the way football has always worked. People look at this Chelsea team and they applaud Ancelotti, for his decent nature, his success and his open, attacking football.
Maybe Abramovich is irked by this. Maybe he did not like Mourinho getting credit, either. There is scant explanation otherwise. Ancelotti’s regime is meeting quite a long list of demands, with minimum fuss. At least Abramovich waited for Mourinho to have an ordinary season, by his standards, before their relationship soured. Ancelotti, by contrast, is at the top of his game.
There are any number of grapevine stories circulating, including one that Wilkins took public issue with Abramovich when he voiced criticisms of the team in the dressing room after Champions League defeat to Inter Milan last season. His days were numbered after that.
Yet if the owner was not in the team management area at such a sensitive time, altercations could not happen. No doubt Ancelotti will endure another inquest after yesterday’s defeat. If Abramovich was dissatisfied already this season, imagine his mood now.
Maybe this restlessness is how a man gets to be worth £6billion; or equally, maybe it is how he loses one of the greatest coaches of all time and surrenders the title to Manchester United for three straight years. Don’t think it could not happen again. In Abramovich’s mind, there has only ever been one Special One at Chelsea and he does not sit on the bench