While not exactly being two peas in a pod, Mike Ashley and Roman Abramovich do share a trait besides being very wealthy owners of football clubs. Both are extremely reticent when dealing with the media; curt would be a polite way of describing their attitude. And as Newcastle and Chelsea have been struggling recently, inevitably the spotlight has been focused on the managers.
There was an element of surprise surrounding Frank Lampard’s dismissal from Chelsea this week. The actual axing of yet another manager hardly registered on the Richter scale. After all Lampard was the twelfth casualty during Roman Abramovich’s 18-year reign and his 18 months is the average spell for those in charge at Stamford Bridge. As Jurgen Klopp commented “Mr Abramovich gives chances but is not the most patient in the world.” What did make this unusual was that the owner acknowledged the closeness of the relationship between himself and the man he dismissed. The Russian oligarch very rarely pops his head above the parapet so the following endorsement was a rare public outing.
“This was a very difficult decision for the club, not least because I have an excellent personal relationship with Frank and I have the utmost respect for him. He is a man of great integrity and has the highest of work ethics. However, under current circumstances we believe it is best to change managers. On behalf of everyone at the club, the board and personally, I would like to thank Frank for his work as head coach and wish him every success in the future.” No other departing Chelsea manager has received such a valediction.
Was this the first sighting of a newly discovered tinge of sentimentality on Abramovich’s behalf? Well, not exactly as it could be argued that the original appointment of Lampard was one based on sentimentality rather than hard-nosed business practice. Having spent just a year in charge of Championship club Derby, Lampard was a managerial novice compared to the impressive records Abramovich’s previous charges had enjoyed, many of whom had achieved multiple successes prior to joining Chelsea. Under Lampard, Derby finished 6th in the 2018/19 season, in exactly the same position they had the previous season. Even though they made it one step further by reaching the Play-Off Final, they still lost to Villa and so any progress was limited.
Abramovich would never have considered somebody with such limited experience if it had not been for Lampard’s highly successful playing career. Chelsea are not a club where you learn the tools of the trade and so it seemed a tad naive that Lampard should serve his apprenticeship there. His departure is more of an indictment of the club’s original decision to bring in a rookie than of Lampard’s potential. The overriding feeling from Chelsea fans has been one of disappointment that it did not work out but they could hardly complain at the ruthlessness of the decision as that ruthlessness has been the foundation on which sixteen trophies have been won since 2003.
Lampard inherited a difficult position as Chelsea faced a transfer embargo initially but in a perverse way this turned into a boon. As many as eight players were promoted from the youth ranks, including Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James, the majority of whom have made the transition to top-flight football seamlessly. According to Training Ground Guru over the eighteen years Abramovich has been in charge a total of 44 academy players have made their debut, at an average of just over two a year so Lampard has blooded four times as many in his short stay.
Ironically, when the transfer embargo was lifted, many of the expensive imports such as Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, have fallen well below the high expectations. Giving youth a chance always endears a manager to the fans who love seeing academy players making the grade. Significantly, in the first game after Lampard’s departure, Hudson-Odoi was the only one of this batch of academy graduates selected by new manager, Thomas Tuchel to make the starting line-up.
While Lampard’s popularity amongst the fans will only be marginally diminished by the last eighteen months, Steve Bruce’s star could hardly have taken a more desperate plunge. Replacing the ever-popular Rafa Benitez, Bruce was always going to struggle to win over the Newcastle fans and his spell at Sunderland would not have enamoured him to the supporters but his 18 months have been a salutary lesson in confrontation and friction. With the team faltering over the last month or so relations between the club hierarchy and the supporters have reached a new nadir. Bruce’s pragmatic, safety-first approach has lost any of its lustre as results are no longer being ground out. The end only justifies the means if there is a satisfactory end.
Tension reached a new level last week when Bruce cut his press conference short, leaving the assembled hacks frustrated and furious in equal measure. As the storm swirls around St. James’ Park Mike Ashley is nowhere to be seen or heard. Ashley prefers to keep his counsel and sees no benefit in getting involved in the increasingly fractious exchanges between his manger and the fanbase. One of the initial signs that Lampard’s time may be up was when he clashed with The Athletic journalistLiam Twomey at a press conference.
Picking fights with the media rarely turns out well with the notable exception of Alex Ferguson. Bruce was a stalwart of Ferguson’s team for a decade but he is no position to start taking on the media in the same way as his former boss did. By alienating them so brusquely he is heaping more pressure on himself. He may be on borrowed time but if the axe does fall unlike Lampard he should not expect any fond farewells from his chairman or the fans.