The arrival of the three men at Chelsea’s training ground was not, in itself, a cause for alarm. It was the expressions on their faces that suggested something was amiss, according to Times Online. Roman Abramovich was wearing the look that his associates call “the death mask”. It was a look that would very soon wipe the smile off the face of Luiz Felipe Scolari, albeit only briefly.
Flanked by Eugene Tenenbaum, his right-hand man, and Bruce Buck, the chairman, Abramovich marched towards the £20 million training complex that was built to his specification. On the three walked, past the pot plants, through the sliding doors and into the immaculate foyer, where the receptionists instinctively sat up even straighter than usual. The death mask continued on its way, heading for one of the meeting rooms, and an ominous message was sent out to Scolari to join the visiting party as a matter of urgency.
Scolari had not seen it coming, but, the moment he entered the room, at 3pm, he knew it was over. “This isn’t working,” he was told, the trusty expression that people use when they wish to terminate a moribund relationship.
They told Scolari that they appreciated everything he had done, but that, only seven months into a two-year contract with a year’s option to extend it, his position had become untenable. They told him that they had seen alarming signs of deterioration in the team and that the dire 0-0 draw at home to Hull City on Saturday had been the last straw.
Scolari smiled that Gene Hackman smile and accepted his fate. There were none of the fireworks that had accompanied José Mourinho’s dramatic departure 17 months earlier, when the Portuguese sealed his fate by walking out of an acrimonious meeting with Abramovich while challenging him to find someone who could do the job better. This time, the meeting ended with apologetic smiles and conciliatory handshakes all round, with Scolari accepting not only the decision but also the club’s remarkable offer to pay up the remaining 17 months of his contract. They thanked him and he thanked them.
As these things go, it was all remarkably civilised.
The executioners left Scolari behind at the training ground, where, as the news began to spread, he responded to the obvious questions with characteristic smiles and shrugs. In the meantime, Abramovich rang John Terry, the captain, to tell him the news.
Terry, 30 miles away at the England team hotel near Watford, could barely believe what he was hearing. Nor could Frank Lampard, who received the same call. Both players had been concerned by the dip in form and, privately, both had begun to have the odd concern about the direction that the team was taking under Scolari. But neither had been expecting this. At the end of the season, perhaps, if things did not pick up, but not now.
One thing that Terry, Lampard and everyone else at Stamford Bridge knows, though, is that what Abramovich says goes. In recent times he has said very little, his lack of visibility around the club and his lack of spending in the transfer market raising questions about his commitment to Chelsea at a time when his business interests have been hit by the global financial crisis. Both inside and outside the club, people had been waiting for some kind of sign that Abramovich was still interested in Chelsea, that he still cared. After the dramatic events of yesterday, he has, for better or worse, proved that he cares a lot.
Tenenbaum and Buck were both involved in the discussions that preceded Scolari’s dismissal — as was Peter Kenyon, the chief executive, who is on holiday in Barbados — but this was not a decision that was reached by committee. Abramovich simply decided that enough was enough. From the moment that his doubts about Scolari crystallised, the Brazilian’s tenure was over. There would be no reprieve, no stay of execution, no waiting until Kenyon returned from holiday. Even had anyone been inclined to give it a try, there was no chance that Abramovich could be talked around.
Five-and-a-half years after he bought Chelsea, Abramovich remains an enigma, but we do know that he is extravagant, capricious and ruthless in equal measure. Whether it was snapping up players in those early flurries of transfer activity, hiring and firing coaches or even his combined £61 million outlay on two pieces of art, Francis Bacon’s Triptych and Lucien Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping in the space of 48 hours last May, he has always gone about his business in the unflinching manner of someone who knows that he is right — and that, in the unlikely event that he is proved wrong, he has the one thing that can rectify any mistake: money.
A month or so ago, as speculation grew about Abramovich’s commitment to the club, one of his few associates tried to explain that his apparent loss of interest would prove temporary. “You need to understand what Roman is like,” the associate said. “He has many interests in his life. Chelsea is just one of them. But he is still interested in Chelsea. He is not trying to sell. He is not hiding. He will be back.”
Abramovich is back all right. Dispensing with the services of a highly paid coach, at great expense, is not the act of a man who is looking to sell a football club. The decision was made partly because he and the board were fearful of missing out on Champions League football next season and, while there is certainly a financial aspect to that reasoning as he looks to make the club self-sufficient, there is also a part of it that reflects his unwillingness to be associated with failure.
The past three years have not been easy for Abramovich, a man who is used to getting what he wants. Quite apart from his divorce from his wife, Irina, which is estimated to have cost him more than £1 billion, and the global financial crisis, which has cost him even more as the price of oil has tumbled, there has been the shame of seeing Chelsea’s aspirations of world dominance wrecked by a resurgent Manchester United. Do not underestimate how much that has hurt Abramovich, who bought the club not as an investment but as a plaything.
Having a team that finished second to United in the Premier League was not part of the plan. Nor was losing on penalties to the same team in the Champions League final — in Moscow of all places. Slipping to a distant fourth place in the Premier League table, having failed to overcome Hull at Stamford Bridge, was just another jolt to his pride as United, under the ownership of the unremarkable Glazer family, continue to sweep all before them.
Scolari was supposed to be the man who turned Chelsea into everything Abramovich wanted them to be — not just a winning team, as they had been under Mourinho, but a team who played beautiful football, like United or Real Madrid.
After an encouraging start, though, Chelsea ran into problems. As Hull joined the list of teams to come away from Chelsea undefeated in recent months — it also includes Southend United, in the FA Cup, and Burnley, in the Carling Cup — Abramovich concluded that action was needed.
And so it was that the death mask returned to Abramovich’s face as he prepared to carry out the executioner’s duties once more. Scolari accepted his fate with a smile. He is no fool. He knew it would come to this one day. It always does. It probably always will.