In defence of Avram Grant at Chelsea: a victim of circumstance, anti-Semitism and gargantuan expectations 

In defence of Avram Grant at Chelsea: a victim of circumstance, anti-Semitism and gargantuan expectations 

Modern football’s memory can be ruthlessly short. In this climate, a manager’s good work is quickly discarded and forgotten in the face of a poor run of results, or a failure to live up to a club’s enormous demands. 

Since buying Chelsea in June 2003, Roman Abramovich has grown synonymous with this trigger-happy approach to hiring and firing managers, with no less than 13 bosses taking the reins over the course of the Russian’s whirlwind premiership. This tactic has, of course, brought the multi-billionaire vast riches. In 15 years, Chelsea have collected 17 trophies – a return of five Premier League titles, five FA Cups and a Champions League firmly placing the club amongst Europe’s elite. 

In this time, many great names have graced the Stamford Bridge dugout and are warmly remembered by the Blues faithful today. Of this illustrious list, the name Avram Grant rarely – if ever – receives mention. At first glance, the Israeli’s eight trophyless months in charge between September 2007 and May 2008 appear nothing more than a drab hiccup in the otherwise hugely successful Abramovich project. 

Alas, it all could have ended so differently for the man dubbed ‘The Unknown One’. Brought in from nowhere and tasked with the impossible job of replacing José Mourinho, it’s often forgotten that Grant brought Chelsea to the cusp of a treble – albeit including the League Cup rather than the FA Cup – a feat achieved only Sir Alex Ferguson and Jock Stein on British shores, only to end the season with nothing but the sack.

Regardless of the initial shock and confusion that surrounded Grant’s appointment, one thing a newly appointed manager should never have to content with is racial abuse. When delving deeper into Grant’s tenure, his accomplishments become more astounding when dissecting a spate of anti-Semitic abuse that followed the Premier League’s first Jewish manager, which went largely unnoticed and unpunished by the press and the authorities.

With a merciless media and fan-base baying for blood from the very beginning, Grant became Abramovich’s cruellest casualty, sacked just days after John Terry’s fatal slip in Moscow. Today he remains the Premier League’s greatest bridesmaid and a sad reminder of an ugly side to the game that we are still yet to shake. 

On 20 September 2007, Stamford Bridge was left in a state of bewilderment and mourning when it’s press office announced the departure of José Mourinho by mutual consent just six games into the new campaign. This had followed a summer fraught with rumours of a breakdown in manager-owner relationship, centring on demands for a new striker, and a stuttering start that had seen defeat to Aston Villa and a home draw against Rosenberg in the Champions League. 

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The “Special One” had achieved unprecedented success at the club, returning two Premier League titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup in just three seasons. The reported £20m payout was as much a display of the owner’s enormously deep pockets as it was a reflection of the cold-blooded and callous response to failure that would define the club for years to come. 

The club’s fans were left equally astounded by his replacement. A known associate of the owner, Avram Grant was only two months into his role as director of football upon taking the job. Having never managed outside Israel, and without even the adequate UEFA qualifications to manage in the Premier League, many were right to angrily turn to Grant’s close ties with Abramovich for answers. The two had been introduced in 2001 by Israeli super-agent Pini Zahavi.  

“On the day he was appointed, I told Avram ‘You are either mentally ill or extremely courageous’,” Zahavi later told the Telegraph. “We’re talking about an Israeli who’s never coached outside Israel, which is less than a cockroach in world football. It was clear that the media reaction would be terrible.”

Grant’s four Israeli Premier League titles and four years in charge of the national team did little to convince the media that this was anything more than a blatant ploy for the owner to exert total control over the club. “Avram Grant is going to be as welcome as Camilla at Diana’s memorial,” Pat Nevin told BBC 5Live. “This guy is not well-loved at Chelsea. He is not going to last.” 

In an age before Financial Fair Play, a theme of foreign suspicion was developing with concern for the rising power wielded by a new breed of football club owner – the overseas billionaire investor. Attracted to the bright lights of the Premier League, who were quickly breaking the Jack Walker self-made local businessman mould so entrenched in British football culture, Abramovic was cast the main villain. Questions were continually asked of the Russian’s true motives for taking over the club, with his supposed desire to pick the team regularly making the back pages. 

“It’s a shame it has come to this. But given the mixture of people in power, something like this could have happened at any time,” bemoaned former Chelsea midfielder Gavin Peacock following Mourinho’s sacking. Chris Waddle added, “It seems everybody wants to run the team there, and eventually this was going to come to a head.” In this hostile environment, Grant was quickly dismissed as the oligarch’s puppet. 

His public persona and media handling did little to win over the initial critics. Whilst any room Mourinho entered was engulfed by the sheer ferocity of his personality, Grant cut a quiet and reserved figure, rarely providing the soundbites so craved by the media in an era where managers’ oratory skills were thrust so unscrupulously under the microscope.  

In direct contrast to his predecessor, Grant even labelled himself the “normal one” during his first press conference. This would not do for a press and fan base so accustomed to euphoric tirades both in the dugout and post-match press office. Quietness and subtlety would be characteristics that would define Grant’s tenure, confining him to Mourinho’s shadow. 

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Thrown in at the deep end, the Israeli’s first game came just three days later at Old Trafford. With a result befitting of the chaos the club found itself in, goals from Carlos Tevez and Louis Saha saw Chelsea comfortably beaten 2-0 after an early John Obi Mikel red card had killed the game for the visitors. 

This disappointment wouldn’t have prepared Grant for the welcome waiting at his first home game against Fulham. A 0-0 draw only worked to further fuel the anger of the Chelsea crowd, who sang Mourinho’s name throughout. Disgustingly, calls of “I’d rather have Mourinho than a Jew” were reported in some sections of the ground, to such a degree that the club was later forced to release a statement condemning the “unacceptable” actions of its own supporters. 

This behaviour only becomes more unsettling when delving further into Grant’s recent family history. Aged just 13, Avram’s father Meir was forced to flee Poland with his extended family in fear of Nazi invasion in 1937. Following a three-year trek, the family were eventually forced to hide in the remote forests of Komi, Russia, where the majority perished. “In total, my father dug a grave for his father, his mother, and five other members of his family – all with his own hands,” Grant recently revealed in an interview.

Grant’s resilience to carry on in the face of this treatment was a testament to the strength of character that he supposedly lacked. 

Pushing through the early setbacks, Grant oversaw a 16-game unbeaten run in all competitions carrying Chelsea well into December, shipping just six goals in the process (half of which coming in a second-string 4-3 win against Leicester in the League Cup). This included an emphatic 6-0 drubbing of Manchester City in late October, showing the true extent to which the previous regime’s watertight defence and devastating counter-attacking philosophy were still feverishly present in the players’ psyche. 

The early promise saw Grant offered a new four-year contract following victory over Sunderland in December – a bold statement from Abramovic that this was his man to lead the club forward for the foreseeable future. 

The biggest post-United challenge came in the form of high-flying league leaders Arsenal on 16 December, with Grant still chasing his first victory against top four opposition. Chelsea got off to the worst possible start when a full-blooded challenge from Emmanuel Eboué forced captain John Terry off after just 38 minutes. Things went from bad to worse when William Gallas capitalised on a rare mistake from Petr Čech to score from a corner just minutes later. Having never beaten Chelsea under Mourinho, Arsène Wenger’s men dug in to scrape a 1-0 victory, refuelling the Grant hate train.  

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The result itself would pale in insignificance. Scans later revealed Terry would be out for two months with ankle ligament damage. This added to an already swollen Chelsea treatment room, housing vital first-team regulars like Čech and Frank Lampard. Furthermore, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien would be jetting off to the Africa Cup of Nations in a matter of weeks. Without his star names for the coming winter months, Grant’s task of maintaining Chelsea’s title push looked insurmountable. 

It was during this period that Grant’s true managerial guile was put to the test. Setting injury woes and notable absentees aside, Chelsea went undefeated throughout January, wringing the most from a threadbare squad to muster eight wins from eight in all competitions. Outstanding squad performances led the Guardian’s Andy Hunter to suggest Chelsea were holding a “monopoly on defiance” over their opponents after a gruelling 1-0 aggregate victory against Everton in the semi-final of the League Cup.

Where Mourinho had looked to bask in the limelight of his major victories, whilst relentlessly pushing publicly for new signings in the transfer market, Grant sat firmly in the back seat, directing praise at the great work of the players already at his disposal. “I didn’t imagine we’d have so many injuries but you can go one or two ways,” he stated following the Everton victory. “You can trust your squad or you can bring in six or seven players. It’s not easy to find better because the ones here are quality players.”

As David Hytner said, Grant was proving effective in succeeding quietly where Mourinho had “failed loudly” towards the end of his reign.  

The quiet approach was paying dividends. By February, Chelsea had closed the gap on joint-leaders Manchester United and Arsenal and were still competing on all fronts with confidence high. “Chelsea are the team to fear now,” insisted Čech. “With everything that has happened this season, we have got through with great character. Winning all four competitions is possible.”

Despite his critics, Grant had won 23 of his first 30 games in charge, losing just twice. “Come on, Chelsea fans. Why can’t you give Avram Grant even the tiniest amount of credit?” questioned Martin Lipton following victory against Reading on 31 January.   

And what reward was waiting after such a miraculous post-Christmas turnaround? Further anti-Semitic abuse, this time with a direct threat to Grant’s life. In the week leading up to the League Cup final against Spurs, preparations were dashed when a mysterious package containing white powder was addressed to the Chelsea manager, with the message, “You back-stabbing Jewish bastard. When you open this letter you will die a very slow and painful death”. The message also contained death threats of a sexual nature directed at Grant’s wife Tzufit, a well-known media personality in Israel. 

The abuse would carry into the final itself. With the match labouring into extra-time, Grant’s father, who was in attendance, was notably distressed when some sections of the crowd took their frustration out on manager, once again resorting to chants of an anti-Semitic nature. “There seem to be some hardcore Chelsea fans who are very anti-Grant because he’s Jewish,” one supporter later said. Unsurprisingly, this support didn’t have the desired effect on the field, with Jonathan Woodgate heading home the winner on 94 minutes. 

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The same generic club and FA statements followed, stressing the “overwhelming majority” of fans’ disdain for “all forms of discrimination”, with no formal investigation in sight. The powers that be were showing themselves seriously inadequate in dealing with – or even acknowledging – the blatant anti-Semitic problems festering in their own stands. 

Again trying valiantly to refocus attention back onto the pitch, 4-0 and 6-1 hammerings of West Ham and Derby respectively showed the attacking potency that Grant had been installed to deliver, before one of the greatest games in Premier League history saw Chelsea frustratingly held 4-4 with Tottenham at White Hart Lane. This left the Blues five points off leaders United with eight games to go. 

With their title push on the line, revenge was sought on 23 March against an Arsenal side still shell-shocked by the horrific injury dealt to Eduardo by the studs of Birmingham’s Martin Taylor the previous month.

After a Bacary Sagna header in the first half threatened the loss of an unbeaten home record spanning over four years, Grant’s decision to introduce a second striker in Nicolas Anelka to play alongside Drogba – met with initial scorn – turned the game on its head. The move allowed the Ivorian freedom to tear the Arsenal defence apart, scoring two unanswered goals to firmly establish Chelsea as United’s main competitors as the season’s business end loomed.  

Tight victories against Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Everton closed the gap to three points and set up a mouth-watering clash on 26 April against United at Stamford Bridge. 

Arriving late into the box with a barnstorming run, Michael Ballack met a Drogba cross to take the lead in first half stoppage time. After Ricardo Carvalho gifted Wayne Rooney an equaliser on 57 minutes, the game swung on an incident marred in good fortune and controversy. With the ball fed out to Chelsea’s right wing, Essien’s fizzed cross was judged to have hit Michael Carrick’s arm in the box. Ballack took responsibility, calmly dispatching to Edwin van der Sar’s right hand post to seal the game. 

The joy on Grant’s face was clear to see at the final whistle, thrusting two fists furiously into the air as Chelsea went level on goal difference with United. With just two games to go, this would ensure the title would be taken right to the wire. “This team has a lot of character, they have shown it again and again,” Grant stressed once more. 

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On an emotional night, progression to Chelsea’s first ever Champions League final was achieved in similarly triumphant fashion. Following the death of his mother, Lampard returned to the starting line-up to deliver one of his greatest performances in a Chelsea shirt, dominating the midfield and scoring from the spot as the Blues overcame Liverpool 3-2. 

With the fixture falling on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was also a hugely emotional night for Grant. At the final whistle, the usually reserved and solemn figure threw off his jacket and dropped to his knees, later dedicating the victory to his father. “My father is the most optimistic and strong person I have ever known, so to reach the Champions League final today of all days was unbelievable.”  

For a brief moment, the man in the dugout finally saw recognition for Chelsea’s achievements. He was named Manager of the Month for the first time in April, with the plaudits rolling in. “He is not a guy who comes in and struts around the place, he’s not John Wayne, but he knows football and has done a great job,” stressed Kevin Keegan. “People say he doesn’t have charisma but I think he has got charisma. OK, he’s not Mourinho but how should we gauge managers? Are managers to be judged by how good they are on Sky, by how many jokes they tell, by how they get on with the media – or by results?” 

With focus redirected to the tightest title race in Premier League history – contested on goal difference for the first time since 1968 – Chelsea faced Bolton at home, with United travelling to Wigan in the full knowledge that anything other than victory at the JJB Stadium would leave the door wide open for the Blues to steal the title. 

As news of United taking the lead through an early Cristiano Ronaldo penalty filtered around Stamford Bridge, any hopes of a United slip-up looked dashed. The pressure was kept on with an Andriy Shevchenko goal on 62 minutes – although dreams of the title were soon crushed by a Ryan Giggs consolidation 17 minutes later, ensuring no dramatic upset on the final day. A Matthew Taylor equaliser for Bolton was the final nail in Chelsea’s Premier League coffin. Ferguson’s ruthless winning mentality had prevailed. 

Soon after, Chelsea would also lose the Champions League final to Manchester United, with John Terry’s slip becoming the defining image of a super European run. What is often forgotten today is the sheer dominance displayed that night by Grant’s men. After Ronaldo’s opener on 26 minutes, Lampard’s equaliser in first half stoppage time was entirely deserved, as Chelsea laid siege to the United goal.

Rain-soaked blue shirts relentlessly pushed for a killer blow in the second half, hitting the woodwork twice and ending with 25 attempts on goal. With penalties looming, the sight of ice-cold talisman Drogba sent of just off four minutes from time was like a dagger to the heart. There seemed almost an air of inevitability with what came next. “We hit the post, we hit the bar, we did everything but score the second goal and then we lost,” uttered a notably devastated Grant. “What more can you say?”

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Regardless, the axe would fall swiftly, with the club announcing Grant’s sacking five days later. Chairman Bruce Buck bluntly stated, “We have very high expectations [at Chelsea]. Although we never would have thought in September when Mourinho left that we would be able to make it into a Champions League final as we did, Chelsea are here to win trophies.”

Grant would leave Stamford Bridge with an unbeaten home record, losing just two league matches from 32. Today his win rate of 67 percent sits third amongst Chelsea’s esteemed managers in the Abramovich era, only bettered by Mourinho’s first spell in charge and Guus Hiddink. 

Little over a decade on, how should Grant be remembered today? As one of the managerial greats? No – relegations with Portsmouth and West Ham, followed by a disastrous spell in charge of the Ghana national team, have proven as much. 

Whilst this may be the case, it is still important to remember the state of turmoil Grant found himself thrown into upon his arrival. Faced with a club in mourning, off course in the league and faltering in Europe, he steadied the ship and managed to contest the Premier League title until the final day, narrowly missing out on the Champions League too.

His calm and measured methods gave the players confidence to express themselves and overcome challenges that would have been simply impossible through a Mourinho-esqué explosive approach. This was essential in keeping Chelsea competitive at the top of world football, at a time when it could’ve been so easy for the club to have crumbled under the weight of expectation that followed the Portuguese’s sudden exit. 

Perhaps Grant’s Chelsea were too quiet – too overawed when placed on the biggest stage of all. However, the point remains that if not faced with the greatest winner in English football history in Sir Alex Ferguson, the Israeli’s trophy cabinet wouldn’t have been left nearly so bare. 

He may have failed in his quest to emulate the idolised Mourinho – a task arguably destined to fail from the day he was appointed – however one mustn’t be so quick to discard Grant’s work in laying the smooth foundations that have precipitated the fantastic success enjoyed in the post-Mourinho decade. 

And so, with anti-Semitic chanting still present at some of the top grounds in the land, and racial prejudice still threatening to derail the careers of the country’s brightest prospects, it’s important we remember the short Chelsea career of Avram Grant – the unknown Jew who overcame crippling abuse to nearly pull off one of the greatest footballing achievements in recent memory. 

By Michael Thomas @MikeThomas___

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