MARTIN SAMUEL: How Hiddink the winner has given Chelsea the blues
22 April 2009 12:01
How you going to keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Paree? sang Harry Fay, the music-hall comic, in the wake of America's entry into World War I. Similar questions will need to be asked at Chelsea if Guus Hiddink fulfils what appears to be his destiny and crams a lifetime of achievement for most managers into five short months at Stamford Bridge.
Hiddink has an outside chance of the Premier League title, an even chance in the Champions League and is odds-on favourite for the FA Cup, and whether he lands one, none, or all three, he is credited by just about every Chelsea player with turning around the season after Luiz Felipe Scolari became mired in inconsistency. Ironically, the biggest problem at Stamford Bridge is that Scolari's temporary successor has done too well.
His mission was to make Chelsea competitive and he arrived after the transfer window had closed, not as a catalyst but as damage limitation.
Hiddink was a fine appointment but he was not welcomed with bold pronouncements that Chelsea would now challenge for trophies again this season. He was viewed as a manager who would steady the ship rather than set sail for uncharted territory. He was there to ensure they did not fall out of the top four, to stop them getting knocked out of Europe and embarrassed by former manager Claudio Ranieri, at Juventus, to perhaps have a crack at the FA Cup after a close shave against Southend United.
It was the fear of falling too far behind that provoked the managerial change and few could have envisaged that the same group of players who performed poorly under Scolari would then kick on in such spectacular fashion.
And had Hiddink stuck to the remit there would have been no problem. Had he come along, steered Chelsea to a comfortable third or fourth place, got knocked out by Liverpool in the Champions League - as Jose Mourinho always did - and succumbed to Arsenal at Wembley on Saturday, then all would have been well. Hiddink would have achieved reasonable results in the circumstances and Roman Abramovich, the owner, could have packed him off to Russia, job done.
If the rumours are correct, that is what he is going to have to doanyway, regardless of results, the political pressure on Abramovichmaking it impossible to spirit away the national manager at a criticalpoint in the World Cup qualifying campaign. Abramovich is now torn,though, because Hiddink's impact at Stamford Bridge has been sofar-reaching, and potentially so incredible, that losing him will be agenuine issue for the team, and succeeding him a serious challenge forany manager.
What you've never had, you never miss, butChelsea's players have got to know Hiddink. They like his style the waythey liked Mourinho's style.
There is a reason for that. Mourinho learned his football with the Dutch school at Barcelona, particularly Louis Van Gaal, and his preferred system, 4-3-3, is the one used by the majority of Dutch managers. It was the way Chelsea played when they swept to two League titles in succession; the players loved him for it, and they loved 4-3-3, too.
Indeed, in the years following Mourinho's arrival, when speaking to a Chelsea player, one would have thought there was a single way to win a football match.
Scolari's method, 4-1-4-1, was simply a twist on another Dutch blueprint, 3-5-2, but the Chelsea players did not warm to it and one key player, Didier Drogba, appeared alienated. When Hiddink arrived with his Dutch ideas and Drogba, the loner, played as the sole striker with two wide forwards, everything clicked again.
It is just like old times now - except Chelsea beat Liverpool at Anfield and put one over on Arsenal when it mattered. No surprises, then, that the players have ignored recent speculation that Carlo Ancelotti is as good as installed as the next Chelsea manager in favour of speeches imploring Abramovich to persuade Hiddink to stay.
'Who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?' Fay went on to ask, and Ancelotti may find himself in the position of the unfortunate heifer if he is chosen to succeed a man who has left Chelsea with a first trophy since the 2007 FA Cup.
It was hard enough for Avram Grant to follow Mourinho, particularly when he was widely considered to be in situ only through his friendship with Abramovich, but if Hiddink goes even close to emulating Mourinho's success in less than half a season, it will be a nightmare for Ancelotti to then lead the players down a different path.
AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti is tipped to succeed Hiddink at Chelsea - but the Italian's style differs greatly from the Dutchman.
There is little Dutch influence in Ancelotti's methods and a limited command of the English language and one cannot help but think that the reason Hiddink finds it easy to express his ideas is that he is comfortable communicating in English.
Fabio Capello is the only manager who has contrived to pull off the lousy English/good football combination in this country and no title-winning boss has needed a translator (except Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers, but that was for us, not him).
Abramovich is now in a quandary because common sense would dictate that he breaks the bank to extract Hiddink from his contract with Russia, but this would be a hugely unpopular move and could even draw official disapproval. Abramovich has always been a man more defined by faith than nationality, but his business interests require government support and he will not risk offence.
Hiddink, too, seems good to his word and has, not once, given public encouragement that he could be enticed to walk out on his Russian employers. It would seem that while dallying with Grant last season, Abramovich missed out on a manager who could genuinely have revived Chelsea's fortunes.
Even if Hiddink wins nothing he will look a better bet to the players and supporters than whoever is coming in to replace him; and if he wins trophies and then departs, in victory the club will appear to have lost. And he will leave behind a group of players increasingly convinced that every time they get a good manager - and Mourinho winning the league at Inter Milan in his first season suggests he has not lost his touch - the club contrives to drive him away.
'Imagine Reuben when he meets his Pa, he'll kiss his cheek and holler ooh-la-la,' Fay concluded, although ooh-la-la won't be the half of it if Hiddink, like Mourinho before, is merely the latest Chelsea manager to leave them wanting more.
Alan Keen MP, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Football Group,is upset with my assessment of his lickspittle report which, ifimplemented, would kill English football overnight. 'He must be forcedto write stuff like that for money,' he sneered to a colleague. Do notflatter yourself, Mr Keen. Nobody forces me to write anything; andpeople like you I would do for free.
If you are an idiot like Itandje, history can mean nothingCharles Itandje had that dopey look. You know, like Steve Martin in The Jerk. It was instantly recognisable as the one he wore when keeping goal for Liverpool, which is probably why he was on the transfer list even before he managed to sully his reputation further by showing insufficient respect at the Hillsborough memorial service.
From the television evidence, Itandje's behaviour was inappropriate and unthinking, and showed so little feeling for his club that he can obviously have no future there, but he did appear to be mocking a particular song rather than the service itself (and credit to the team-mate Damien Plessis, who resisted the temptation to join in with Itandje's juvenile antics and, in doing so, saved his career at Anfield).
Liverpool, the club and the city, is associated with many powerfuland moving pieces of music and maybe Itandje took the view that thiswas not one of them. But it is still no excuse. Nobody starts a Mexicanwave at a funeral because he is bored with the hymns.
Itandje claims there has been an over-reaction, but surely everybody knows how to behave at a solemn occasion. Many folk go out to My Way and when one hears Frank Sinatra serenading a coffin with the words 'and now the end is near', there is plainly a temptation to throw out a punch line. But it must be resisted. And, yes, the atmosphere of the football club dressing room is one of constant banter and mickeytaking, but to be this insensitive, Itandje lacks intellect.
What he also lacks is a genuine connection to his club, a deficiency among a number of modern footballers. Fernando Torres sat in his city apartment devouring books and DVDs on the history of Liverpool after he signed, because he wanted to try to replicate the bond he felt with Atletico Madrid. But few players are like that.
Itandje is typical of the new breed in that he is passing through, from Lens to Liverpool and on again. It is the reason the appointment of local hero Alan Shearer has made scant impact on the cosmopolitan squad at Newcastle United and why a player like Nicolas Anelka has had eight clubs in 10 years.
It should not have been necessary for Liverpool to sit the players down and remind them of their responsibilities during the Hillsborough memorial service. Many would have thought it an insult.
Yet these days, when a player can be owned by one side and play for another, when shirts are swapped sometimes three times in one season, as happened to Javier Mascherano, nothing can be taken for granted. Maybe it needed to be pointed out that, for many, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy in a fitting manner was the most important duty of LiverpooI's season.
Itandje was six years old and living in Bobigny, a north-eastern suburb of Paris, when 96 died at Hillsborough. His parents were Cameroonian immigrants, so it does not follow that he will appreciate the significance of the event, even after several years in Liverpool.
How many English players could tell you which teams were playing when 15 died at a football match in Corsica in 1992? Who were the Ivory Coast's opponents when tragedy struck their World Cup campaign last month? And what happened at Burnden Park during an FA Cup tie between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City in 1946? (Answers at the bottom of the page).
Not so long ago, a number of England Under 21 players were reprimanded by their coach for joking and messing about as they toured the Auschwitz concentration camp. This is what we are up against.
It is not to offer mitigation for Itandje because a man so selfish and self-absorbed does not deserve to be part of a club as great as Liverpool, and his contempt for their history demonstrates an absence of passion that could explain why he is yet to make a first-team appearance this season.
Even so, considering there have been 90 signings since Rafael Benitez became manager, with the revolving door spinning so furiously this was an insult waiting to be delivered. It only needed one idiot and, on a law of averages, eventually Liverpool were going to find him.
Answers: (a) Bastia and Marseille. (b) Malawi. (c) 33 people died when a wall collapsed; no, me neither.
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