I’d finished my match report of Chelsea’s match with Middlesbrough within a few minutes of the final whistle. It had been a fairly drab, mundane affair. All I needed was a few quotes from the managers and so I’d included the, in retrospect, rather hopeful line: “par of Benitez quotes in here” fairly high up.
The first I knew that one paragraph of Benitez quotes might not quite be enough was when Henry Winter, a very amiable chap by the way, plonked his MacBookPro on the table beside me and started telling no one in particular that some Chelsea fans were Tweeting that Benitez had had a go at them.
Then the Chelsea manager walked into the Press room and the rest, as they say is history. Or is it? What he said was variously described by some of the writers present as a “rant”; a “meltdown” or Benitez “losing it spectacularly”. They must have been at a different press conference because, while it was obviously fairly incendiary stuff, what I saw and heard was a calm and measured critique of the behaviour of a small section of Chelsea fans; the undeniably chaotic way the club is run and behaviour of some players.
This was not a finger-jabbing Keegan-esque breakdown. His comments weren’t littered with expletives like Joe Kinnear’s first meeting with the Press as Newcastle boss (52 “f**ks” in five minutes) and Benitez didn’t tell anyone to f**k off like Harry Redknapp did when Sky’s Rob Palmerby called him a “wheeler-dealer” (the truth hurts, perhaps?). In fact the Spanniard didn’t even raise his voice. Nor was this a long-winded ramble. Watching the edited version on Sky gave that impression but crucially the questions were edited out. Benitez repeated himself a lot but merely in response to what was in effect the same set of questions asked in slightly different ways by various different people.
That’s his demeanour out of the way; but what did he actually say? Firstly that he’s an experienced coach. True. Like him or loath him, The European Cup, the UEFA Cup, titles in Spain and cups in Italy and England are not the trinkets collected by a manager who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
“I’ll be gone at the end of the season, so the fans are wasting their time.” Self-explanatory. Benitez was also very careful to repeatedly point out that his comments were only directed at a minority of the fans - something widely ignored.
“We were already out of the Champions League before I arrived.” Again, spot on. Despite the 6-1 win over Nordsjælland in November in his first European game, the club failed to qualify due to results before he arrived and despite the criticism they’re still in Europe.
“If we reach the Champions League I’ll be the happiest man in the world but if we only have Europa League football the fans will have to take responsibility.” Again, a valid point. There’s no evidence that Benitez is trying to sabotage Chelsea’s form but the constant chanting, even though directed at Benitez and not the team, will be having some detrimental effect. It’s now become a battle of wills between the manager and the fans and results could become collateral damage. As Benitez pointed out, he’ll be gone at the end of the season and the fans will still facing the situation that is left - whatever that may be.
“I want to manage players, not names.” A reference to his supposed bust up with John Terry? (Incidentally, is there any manager England’s finest hasn’t had a run-in with?). After Mourinho left, again with suggestions it had something to do with player power, the managers who had the most success at Stamford Bridge were the ones who didn’t try and alter the playing staff too much or the way they played, such as Guus Hiddink, Di Matteo and Ancelotti. Remember the fuss when Andre Villas-Boas tried to fulfil the brief he’s been given to change the team and dropped the ageing Frank Lampard?
Is it Benitez’s fault that the Chelsea managerial sausage machine has chewed up and spat out a World Cup winner (Felipe Scolari); three European cup winners (Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Di Matteo); a UEFA Cup winner (Andre Villas Boas); oh, and Avram Grant? Benitez is just the latest grist to the mill.
“It was a mistake to call me interim manager. I am the manager; I pick the team.” Again, a valid point. It doesn’t matter how long his contract is, he is the manager. Calling him interim manager simply creates instability. Just like when Ray Wilkins was sacked without Ancelotti’s knowledge. There are cracks at Chelsea - big ones. It’s just they’re covered with some of the best, most expensive wall paper money can buy but that’s not a long-term fix.
He went on to point out that there’s nothing he can do about the fact he managed Liverpool in the past. Now this is the real bone of contention and to an extent I can understand why some Chelsea fans are p***ed off with Benitez but Benitez again also makes a fair point: There’s nothing he can do about that. Instead, perhaps the Chelsea fans should be asking why Abramovich gave so little thought to the way they felt about the new manager. Perhaps they should be asking why Abramovich’s long-term target Pep Guardiola has signed up to manage Bayern Munich the stable, well organised team Chelsea squeezed past in the Champions League final last season. Perhaps their banners, or some of them at least, should be saying “Roman Out”. That they don’t, suggests the fans realise that when you dance with the devil you have to wait for the music to stop.
So, far from being a meltdown, Benitez nailed the situation point by point. However, for the media, obsessed with individuals and short-term headlines it’s much easier to paint him as a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown than to analyse the situation in any depth.