It varies, clearly. The amount of responsibility – credit or otherwise – that a particular Manager deserves to receive. And in football, the measurement of such things is a) hilariously prejudiced by tribalism and … well, rage, often and b) by lack of knowledge – ours. In particular knowledge of what really happens in dressing rooms and on practice pitches. Few of us get a fair or informed picture of all that barking and larking or genuine professional graft. At Chelsea, over and above these prevailing inadequacies, there appear to be several extra dimensions, belted provocatively together like some Dadaist symbol for contemporary machismo. How much is satire? How much is real? What’s it made of? Who is responsible for this madness/this brilliance? Well now… blow me! It’s Rafa.
Rafa the ‘fat Spanish waiter’. Rafa the prolific trophy-hunter-gatherer. Rafa the portly ‘academic’. Rafa the puppet-with-thankless-task but substantial wedge, critically(?) we assume. Nominally – it’s him.
So let’s run with that for at least a paragraph. That assumption of him Casey Jones-ing the Blue engine; waving his hat and smiling through steamed glasses at the bouncing innocents along Kings Road Meadow, as they gosh and gallivant alongsides. (Because it’s that kindof beatifically innocent scenario we’re talking here, right?) Rafa as wholesome, er… English, spirit-lifting and no doubt balloon-piloting leader of men rather than porky attendant upon some Russian oiligarch. Because –even us unBlues – we have to dream, yes? Let’s dream.
Benitez starts off as Stinky Pants in the class; universally disliked and derided for his unequivocal unattractiveness and history of suspiciously dour, five-bellied Latin Scouseness. Or something. Slaughtered for not being either of those other two Mediterranean geezers; abused for his obvious and treacherous lack of FatLamps/Terryhood. But he manfully steps up (here comes that Casey Jones thing again) to the fireside plate and woo-woo – slings coals around with authentic Grit and Determination. He whistles convincingly, authentically, trans-halfwayliningly, with just the right fingers in just the right part of his gob and… before yas know it… proper locomotion! Players go beyond mere hand/arm wheeling gestures and puffing out cheeks into recognisably doing His Full-on Rafathing. Firstly, actually listening – as opposed to smirking in the depths of the changing room before jogging subversively out– then whooshing and clanking and braking and refuelling, pretty-much, in exactly the way he might really want, on the pitch. As if Rafa was really really in charge. (Cue major toot!)
It’s becoming (something that seemed cosmologically distantly unlikely) infectious, I think. Both the notion of Rafa winning out and the actuality of Chelsea getting manifestly better. Even those of us who have failed to warm to the man and who remain suspicious of the quality of his achievements elsewhere may – like the Sheddites themselves – have to nod approvingly as the Flying Spaniard streaks past… and on… and upwards. Because let’s face it, this seems increasingly likely.
Chelsea are looking good; more durable and organised; pacier as well as more directly threatening. Torres, whilst not being remotely the liberated, electrically humming soul of Anfield days, has looked like a footballer again. And has scored. Plus that suspicion of frailty brought on by the random inclusion of anyone with an exotic surname is dissipating, markedly. Chelsea’s midfield are more successfully stopping other people playing, whilst growing themselves – finding their rhythm, dominating. They are a stronger unit. Whether or not we acknowledge this through more or less grinding gnashers, it seems only reasonable to conclude that Benitez must take some credit for this.
But when will this turn into love? How long – if ever – before the chanting turns turtle? Already you suspect that the vitriolic banners are being folded away. After the deluge against Villa and now – perhaps more significantly – the hard-won and possibly fortunate win away at Goodison, when might we expect the first warblings of Rafa-appreciation to go public? Who, I wonder, might be bold enough or drunk enough to break ranks from the previously icy monolith? Anthropologists are no doubt secreting themselves amongst the faithful to trace the moment.
In this near-romantic fug it really is possible to shake away, for a lovely moment or two, the shadow of Roman. But not entirely. Because though he remains unimpeachably clear from the dangers of any form of accountability – whether by interview or other democratic means – Abramovic rules. His truly appalling metier – that of the alleged fan but in reality that of the bruiser, the dictator, the maniac, perhaps? – abides. So any personal triumphs or inspired choices or transformative drills or directives from Benitez shrink to nought; or will. Because they mean nothing compared to the real Gaffer’s whims.
I have found it fascinating and a little depressing that in the upheavals of recent weeks and months virtually no dissent – and no demonstrations to my knowledge (though I am happy to be corrected on this)- have been targeted at Abramovic, for what many identify as his bitterly stubborn mode of ‘leadership’. As though he has bought that particular success – ie inviolability – in addition to the on-field accomplishments. Instead, the focus has been entirely fixed on an unwanted Rafa and the unjustly departing Di Matteo. Meanwhile (and consequently) Chelsea the Club remains an idle plaything, less than inert but more than competitive, paradoxically fortunate to be in Abramovic’s financial orbit but corrupted, some would say, by his grasp. In short, (perhaps not uniquely) there is no innocence here; instead there is something which feels greedy and anti-sporting.
Rafa may succeed. He may even succeed undeniably, so that (because a particular gentleman may yet turn Roman down) he may be paraded triumphantly yet by a suddenly loquacious and emotional and converted Abramovic as the ‘Real and Legitimate Manager for this Club.’ But I doubt that. Sounds lovely… but I doubt that.
I have just published an ebook of selected posts and new material, with an introduction from Paul Mason. ‘ Unweighted – the bowlingatvincent compendium’, is available from Amazon ebooks. The link amzn.to/SSc9To should take you there from Twitter.