(Or How Close to Barking Can You Get a Sphinx?)
In keeping with the melancholy and wistful mood engendered by all the speculation over the future of our Double winning manager, I find myself humming the Louvin Brothers classic version of an old American folk standard, “In the Pines”, which features the following lines, in amongst lots of woohooing and general yodelling.
The longest train I ever saw went down that Georgia line
The engine passed at six o’clock and the cab passed by at nine
[Chorus] In the Pines etc.
The longest train I ever saw was 19 coaches long,
The only girl I ever loved is on that train and gone.
(For those who are interested enough, here’s a very, very long train in Georgia. Set it running while you read on.)
If you were standing by the railway line that runs behind Stamford Bridge you’d have seen 24 coaches pass you by (not including caretakers). John Robertson would have passed at 1905 and Carlo Ancelotti at 2009. (That’s only about an hour and four minutes which shows that our trains are much faster than those on the Georgia Main.)
But seriously folks, in 106 years of football we’ve had 24 coaches or more properly, for most of them, managers. However giving them their proper title would have ruined my beautifully crafted opening, “doncha” think?
Those of you with a natural bent for arithmetic will already have calculated that we’ve averaged a manger roughly every four and a half years.
What we really need, you’ll be thinking, is a gritty Scotsman who can hang in there for the thick end of nearly thirty years and get us a bit of continuity.
The “Sphinx of Stamford Bridge” anyone?
Those steeped in their Chelsea history will lean back at this point, take a puff or two on the briar, hook their thumb into the waistcoat pocket and murmur, “David Calderhead 1907 to 1933 of course.”
For the rest of us it is worth noting that we did the old “employ a Scots person for 20 odd years” long before it was either profitable or popular. And where did it get us? Unfortunately despite spending a few bob and recruiting a fair amount of talent there were no league titles or trophies to show for it.
Now when you take a 26 year reign out of the equation, you’re talking a manager every three and half years.
But interestingly between the end of Calderhead’s reign in 1933 and Dave Sexton quietly closing the door behind him in 1974, we’d only had four other managers – Knighton (ex-Arsenal), Birrell (ex-QPR), Ted Drake and the Doc (the only other Chelsea manager to have also managed Porto). So far that is…
Six managers in 67 years albeit with a couple of World Wars in there. Sounds quite stable. No one put in a shift of less than six years.
Let us together take pause to consider those teams around us, and how they have coped in the managerial stakes.
(That train still rolling eh?)
(For purposes of comparison, I have taken 1905 as the starting point and excluded Caretakers or Committees. Where managers serve more than once, that is counted as a separate manager on each occasion. But nationality only once. Simples.)
Arsenal: 15 (4 Scots, 1 N. Irish, 1 French, 9 English)
Everton: 20 (3 Scots, 1 Welsh, 1 N. Irish, 1 Irish, 11 English)
Liverpool: 18 (4 Scots, 1 French, 1 Spanish, 10 English)
Manchester United: 16 (5 Scots, 1 Irish, 10 English)
Manchester City: 33 (6 Scots, 1 Welsh, 1 Swede, 1 Italian, 24 English)
Tottenham: 28 (2 Scots, 1 N. Irish, 1 Argentine, 1 Swiss, 1 French, 1 Dutch, 1 Spanish, 19 English)
To complete the comparison, here is the roll of honour for the highest office in football.
We can break it down as follows:
Chelsea: 24 (6 Scots, 1 N. Irish, 3 Italians, 1 Dutch, 1 Portuguese, 1 Brazilian, 1 Israeli, 10 English)
Not as shabby as one might think and we’ve certainly employed our quota of Scots, enough English, and more so than anyone, have opened up to the “foreign” manager.
And it certainly stands comparison with our neighbours: given that Fulham have had 33 and QPR 37 separate appointments in a similar time frame.
But it is worth emphasising that since 1974 we’ve worked our way through 16 managers in 37 years.
A managerial Merry-Go-Round? A bleedin’ Moulinex Blender more like! (Other makes of blender are, of course, available.)
Feeling dizzy? Have a gin, dab your forehead and lie down on the couch. (I’m not posh enough to have a chaise-longue. Do they even do them at World of Leather? Other furniture stores are available of course.)
But what of the Premier League era I hear you ask? We don’t care about you old timers dribbling on about the Middle Ages.
Well, we’ve had nine, Liverpool seven, City 11, Spurs 10, Arsenal three and United just the nameless “One”. And what of Rovers, the only other winners of the Premiership outside of “The Holy Trinity”? That’ll be another nine then.
What conclusions do we draw from all this? Well as Mr. MacAree of SB Nation blog “We Ain’t Got No History” recently argued, there is nothing ethically wrong with hiring and firing, of itself. It’s whether it works for the team. And it may to some extent have worked for the team under both Bates (eventually) and Roman, as there has been a more than steady improvement in the club’s fortunes. However you cannot set aside the greater resource, which was available in the latter part of the Bates era and very much in the Abramovich era. But equally it has been allied to perhaps a more “winning” mentality than previous eras.
(About half that train will have rolled past by now.)
If there is anything, other than a rather overdeveloped sentimentality, which makes me question the rather hurried comings and goings of these later years, it is this: there is not just a revolving door with the team management of late, but with the whole sporting side. Arnesen is now departing. There have been a number of talented coaches in the club staff who because they were good and ambitious have moved on. From the outside looking in, it is difficult to tell if there is a succession plan, a core of people maintaining a sense of continuity. Ancelotti, whether by choice or edict arrived with a small staff. If that is to be the fashion, who is taking up the slack? Who is providing direction? There is a lot of emphasis on who we should get in. But is there the same emphasis on support once they’re here?
It surely makes sense for the Academy, Reserves and ancillary setup to be as stable as possible even if the coaching of the first team changes with the weather. There must be a benefit to the club if they can bring through some playing staff from these junior ranks. Players who have been coached in a stable environment, who follow a “club” ethos and are primed to perform in a committed and professional manner, if only to give traction to those who come in from around the world and look for a centre to the organisation.
When you consider Ted Drake’s overhaul of the youth setup it is perhaps no accident that the 60s and early 70s was a time of comparative success, partly fuelled by a pool of young talented players. And when the club failed to maintain this we had little to fall back on in the hard times. It’s not about producing half a dozen stars every year but it is about trying to keep a core of people at the club who can provide a centre left undisturbed by the tornado whipped up by the managerial comings and goings. There are signs now with the success in the Youth Cup carrying through to the Reserves that this may have started. It needs to continue.
We have been fortunate enough to see a central group of senior players become a component in seeing the team through some difficult times. Kalou, despite being accused of not supporting Ancelotti was very recently trying to make the point that there needed to be a cohesion amongst the players, irrespective of who is coaching or managing. Not all clubs have this. We should be trying to feed this from within.
But enough preaching and philosophising. Come with me on a journey.
It is a journey not just across London but across time. Waiting at Fulham Broadway is our 23 coach train (Carlo is still with us and has gone ahead with the team). In each carriage sits an ex-manager ready for a trip up the District Line to watch us play West Ham.
The carriages are ordered by length of service, briefest tenure at the rear. Each carriage can hold say about 150 people, so that’s about 3,450 of us.
Here’s a map of the route for those of you who are unfamiliar with the District Line. We’re heading for Upton Park.
Now I understand that many of you will be incredulous at the way I’m stretching credibility but stay with me. Just because West Ham have taken the drop doesn’t mean we can’t play them in a cup game. And the District Line does run sometimes.
So choose your carriage. And yes, some of you will have to travel with Avram.
(I reckon the track should be nearly clear now down in Georgia.)
Well, we pull out smoothly from Fulham Broadway and spirits are high. It’s beer and sandwiches all round, with canapés and white wine spritzers for the ladies. But we’re just halfway to the next stop when the trouble starts. We’re losing carriages off the back of the train.
So by the time we get to West Brompton, we’ve already lost Ken Shellito, Ron Suart, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Avram Grant and Danny Blanchflower.
Only one stop and we’re down to 18 coaches. 750 of you ain’t getting to the game.
On to Earl’s Court we go. But just past the halfway point we lose two more: John Robertson – our first manager – and Geoff Hurst.
And before we can pull into the station Ian Porterfield and Ruud Gullit are gone as well.
Two stops and we’re down to only 14 coaches. That’s 1350 fans stranded on the line.
You’re all familiar with the trope, common in film, where someone uncouples carriages, hijacks trains and so on. The Taking of Pelham 1·2·3 springs to mind.
Well something like that seems to be going on and we keep losing bits of our train. I suspect interlopers from the Hammers.
OK, signal to green, next stop Gloucester Road. Just a quarter of the way there and more trouble. Who’s gone now?
Blimey just past half way and was that Luca? Yes. Gianluca Vialli.
And shortly before we arrive: John Hollins.
So three stops and we’re down 12. Over half a train. 1800 loyal souls marooned in the tunnels and cuttings. Deep breath, it’s on to South Kensington. Oh no, we’ve left one in the station!
And before we get too far down the line they’ve shortened the train again.
Wait, no it can’t be…
Jose Mourinho. The most trophied manager in our history.
Crikey, down to eight, I hardly dare to look around. Perhaps the perpetrator is in this carriage. Oh God we’re slowing down. I must get to the next coach.
Addio Claudio Ranieri.
So we roll into South Ken with just the seven left. Only the fourth stop and we’ve but a thousand odd to take on the Spammers.
Next station, Sloane Square. Goodness me we seem to be keeping it all rolling. Yes we’ve reached the fifth stop with our seven intact.
A mistake! Whaddya mean? Who? Oh no someone went just outside South Ken.
It was John Neal.
Down to six.
Panic is now general and we’re all looking at each other with rising suspicion.
Victoria next. But as we’re getting ready to pull in he’s gone. Who?
Right, we’re six stops down the line and we’ve lost 18 coaches. That’s nearly as many as the longest train someone ever saw. So where’s my girl now? On this train or gone?
Not again, they’ve got to the couplings one more time. Another one left standing at the platform.
How are we going to look turning up with 600 at the Boleyn? Where’s this? St James’s Park. At least we’ve managed to keep four coaches together through one stop.
Westminster next. What? No we’ve only just got going again. Who’ve we lost?
So into Westminster. Eighth stop only three carriages. Less than 500 fans left. Nightmare.
Right, we’ve made it to Embankment. Let’s hope for the best.
Disaster. We’re only half-way to Temple and there goes one of the greats.
Into the tenth stop, Temple. Two carriages. 300 fans. Those evil Hammers have reduced our train to this.
Well there’s nothing for it but to plough on. Blackfriars, Mansion House, we’re making some headway now. Into Cannon Street. Monument next. Whoa. What the… who’s standing still just as we leave the thirteenth station?
We’re down to the last coach. 150 of us. All eyeing each other nervously. It’s just us and David Calderhead left.
Monument, Tower Hill, Aldgate East, Whitechapel, Stepney Green, Mile End. Maybe we’ve survived. That’s 19 stations. Bow Road, Bromley-by-Bow. Oh lordy West Ham. This could get ugly. Keep the dead-man’s handle down we ain’t stopping. We can’t go to the game, we’ll get mullered before we make it to the ground.
Plaistow, Upton Park, don’t stop… East Ham, that was 25 stations.
Change of plan. We’re going to Barking for a cup of tea and a visit to JT’s old house instead.
Oh no. We’re going too fast! What’s that on the track?! It’s all going wrong in a chorus of screams and grinding metal.
Oh dear, now we’ll never see Barking and neither will the Sphinx.