Not too long ago, one of Mark Hughes's signings for Queens Park Rangers went to see the manager in his office and decided to lay it on the line.
He was sorry, he said, but he'd never worked in a more poisonous dressing room. Then he started to reel off who had grudges with whom, why player A disliked player B and so on. Hughes and his staff had no idea it had deteriorated to this point.
Harry Redknapp is inheriting a mess. One of the senior players confided recently about a considerable divide existing between some of the English pros and the foreign signings. After one defeat, he was shocked there were so many players – "dressing-room terrorists" – laughing on the coach, seemingly without a care in the world. Joey Barton, twisting a very sharp knife, revealed recently that, for all the money QPR have splurged on new players, the Premier League's bottom club never had any plugs for the baths in the dressing room. "The players – at a Premier League club – were plugging them with tissue paper," Barton said. "Tinpot stuff."
Tottenham were bottom, too, when Redknapp took over in 2008 and set in motion their transformation into a top-four club. Redknapp's restorative powers were evident in both his spells at Portsmouth. Southampton, sandwiched in between, was a pretty dismal time. Yet it is the one blemish on his CV and, if anything, it is surprising QPR have taken so long effecting this change when, a short distance across west London, football has reminded us what a hard-faced business it can be. Compared with Roman Abramovich, QPR's owner, Tony Fernandes, has shown the patience of a saint.
Perhaps the comparison is a little unfair given that Chelsea work to a different set of priorities but, goodness knows, they make it easy to criticise them sometimes as they sledgehammer their way through one PR disaster after another, while Abramovich increasingly appears hell-bent on becoming some kind of modern-day Jesús Gil or George Steinbrenner. Gil was the Atlético Madrid president who sacked 39 coaches in 16 years, including 15 in one dizzy three-year period. Steinbrenner was a little more restrained, but still got through 19 in 17 years with the New York Yankees. One guy was hired and fired five times. Not to mention the five presidents, 15 pitching coaches and 13 general managers he also sacked.
Abramovich still has some way to go to catch up and, to be fair, has never banned players from having beards, as Steinbrenner did. But Roberto Di Matteo's sacking was ruthless even by Chelsea's standards. What a glorious turn of events it would be if, on 7 January, the Italian wins the Ballon d'Or award as the outstanding coach of 2012. Sacked or not, he has to be in with a decent shout when his eight months in the job includes the Champions League and FA Cup.
The flipside is that, if you can remove some of the emotion and just look at it coldly, Abramovich's thinking is not greatly different to what you might find in other forms of high-end business. It might not appeal to you, or me, or anyone else who follows the sport, but for him it is not about loyalty, or trust, or any of the other traits that people generally like to believe form part of the relationship between a manager and an owner. It is not even whether Di Matteo deserved to be sacked. It is about whether there is someone else who represents an upgrade. And it boils down to one thing: change your staff when you think you can get someone superior.
The bottom line, rightly or wrongly, is that Chelsea's owner regards Rafael Benítez as an upgrade. So Di Matteo was axed and, if Pep Guardiola gives the nod next summer, then Benítez will be, too. We all know the script by now. Benítez has not even taken his first game and there is already a website – until-rafa-goes.co.uk – ticking down the seconds until his contract expires on 30 June next year.
Abramovich's way is very different from the system of continuity at Manchester United that now has Philip Jackson's statue of Sir Alex Ferguson – arms folded, long overcoat, business face on – positioned outside Old Trafford as a monument to his quarter of a century at the club. Chelsea have had as many managers in the past decade as United have had since 1945. Abramovich, on his ninth manager in as many years, has forked out £85m in compensation, which is more than the combined net transfer spend of Everton and Arsenal since the Premier League began 20 years ago. And hypothetical, perhaps, but if Abramovich were in charge at Manchester City, we probably all know what would have happened by now.
Roberto Mancini is fortunate that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and his colleagues in Abu Dhabi appear to be more understanding about his three victories from 11 Champions League games with the club – two against Villarreal who went on to be relegated in Spain last season, one against a Bayern Munich team largely made up of reserves, and zero this season.
Sitting in the City pressroom after the draw against Real Madrid, there was a slightly edgy moment when Mancini was asked whether he had any concerns it could eventually contribute to him losing his job. "Why?" he wanted to know. "Why say this?" Until now, he had been spared that question and there are many City supporters, I strongly suspect, who would find it both distasteful and incongruous. Yet even before José Mourinho popped up, smirking knowingly and pointing out he would be sacked on the spot if it were Madrid, it was a legitimate question bearing in mind the pressures that now exist for Mancini to deliver an emphatic Premier League campaign.
The alternative is a whole load of scrutiny and Mancini – streetwise, hardened to his profession – knows it, too. Why else did he spend the best part of four months setting up a deal to take over at Monaco at the end of last season? City had fallen eight points behind United when he flew to Rome in April to finalise the contract. He thought he was toast and, if it were not for the culmination of events leading to that historic kick of Sergio Agüero's right foot on the final day of the season, maybe he would have been proven right.
For now, it is a story for another day. Mancini's team will return to the top of the league if they spoil Benítez's first game with Chelsea and, for what it is worth, there is little appetite among supporters to contemplate that anything but a successful title defence makes him vulnerable.
Hughes, in stark contrast, was facing open mutiny from QPR's supporters and there is good logic in Redknapp's appointment. Yes, he can be a divisive figure, certainly not quite the "people's choice" as it was portrayed during the selection process for the England job. A few find his personality rubs like sandpaper – the white lies he tells in press conferences, the interviews leaning out of his car window and the widespread sense, misguided as it happens, that he breaks bread and clinks wine glasses with half of Fleet Street. All the same, Redknapp has had a pretty good managerial career. Being accessible and media-friendly is a strange thing for so many people to get worked up about and the default line used by his critics, that his FA Cup with Portsmouth is his solitary trophy, tends to ignore the fact that silverware is not the only gauge of success in his line of work. He strikes me as an obvious fit for QPR.
The same, unfortunately for Benítez, cannot really be said of Chelsea's appointment and this is when it feels increasingly difficult to decipher what is going on inside Abramovich's mind. "Another day at the office," as André Villas-Boas put it when asked about Di Matteo's sacking. If, that is, you work in an office where you can have a record year and still be marched off the premises. Buddy Ackerman, the volatile boss played by Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks, ruled with that kind of fear. "My bathmat means more to me than you," he would tell his staff.
Uefa fiddles while Rome churns the stomach
How much longer must English football supporters live in fear of being slashed, mutilated and beaten senseless when they travel to Rome before anyone in a position of power actually seeks to do anything about it?
Yes, that is not to forget there was once a time when the same authorities were under pressure to do something about the behaviour of English fans on foreign excursions. But just imagine the outrage if it had been a group of 10 Italians drinking in a London bar when a mob of four or five times that number turned up, wearing balaclavas and motorcycle helmets and armed with machetes, knives, knuckle-dusters, baseball bats, lumps of wood and other assorted weapons.
What happened to those Spurs fans inside the Drunken Ship pub is becoming a recurring theme before Lazio or Roma host English teams. This was the same pub where Middlesbrough supporters were ambushed in 2006. Liverpool fans have encountered serial problems in Rome dating back to the 1984 European Cup final and there were knife attacks on Manchester United fans in 2007 and 2009. United were so worried about their supporters before the 2007 tie they produced leaflets pointing out the areas to avoid. Walter Veltroni, the city's mayor, was so outraged he went on television to protest and complained to the British Embassy. The following night, 18 supporters were taken to hospital, 10 with stab wounds.
The latest ambush is the worst yet, judging by the photographs and personal accounts, and has left one fan in hospital for at least two more weeks after apparently taking a machete to the skull, full on. He is lucky to be alive.
Two Roma fans have been charged with attempted murder. Yet the people running the competition – with their crackdowns on teams arriving a few seconds late for kick-off or supporters throwing paper airplanes – remain strangely quiet. At least the Italian FA has apologised. Are Uefa's bigwigs waiting for someone to be killed before they remove their hands from in front of their eyes?
Peter Ridsdale is like a fish out of water
Peter Ridsdale is seven weeks into a seven-and-a-half year ban from holding board positions at football clubs and other companies because of financial irregularities during his time as Cardiff chairman.
Ridsdale and his wife, Sophie, who has been banned until 2016, were co-directors of the management firm WH Sports Group when it went into liquidation in 2009 owing more than £440,000 in unpaid taxes. Before that, he was the chairman at Leeds during the period of money-no-object extravagance that left the club £78m in debt and on the way to the spiral that eventually brought them to the point of ruin.
Leeds spent £600,000 a year on a fleet of more than 70 company cars and £70,000 on private jets for the directors. They also gave £300,000 to charity despite announcing annual losses of £33m and there was the £20-a-month bill for the goldfish in the chairman's office.
On Thursday, the University of Central Lancashire had a seminar about financial fair play in football. So go on, guess who was booked in as the guest speaker? Seriously, it is difficult not to admire that kind of front.
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image: © etyek