From The Times: An excerpt from Carlo Ancelotti's autobiography about his time at Chelsea, a read worthwhile to get to know the man.
Chelsea initially courted me during two meetings in May 2008, in Geneva and Paris. The manager’s position was soon to become vacant, as José Mourinho’s replacement, Avram Grant, was due to be replaced himself. The need for the meetings to be clandestine affairs meant that this courtship took on a slightly comical turn, not least because the notion that any meetings between two people such as Roman Abramovich and me could be kept secret was immediately undermined within a couple of hours of the Paris meeting, when Adriano Galliani called me to ask how it had gone. I lost out on the job that time because the owner chose Luiz Felipe Scolari before me, supposedly because of my poor English.
Scolari proved to be not so effective for Chelsea and was sacked in early 2009. Guus Hiddink was hired as an emergency replacement until the end of the season and so suddenly I was back in the equation. The whole interview process was repeated, with further “secret” meetings with Abramovich and his staff. In February 2009 Chelsea’s director of football operations, Mike Forde, spent a series of meetings over a six-week period with me and my assistant, Bruno Demichelis. Unusually, for me, these discussions covered such issues as Chelsea’s vision, the club’s operating model, key strategic objectives, the use of data, performance modelling, managing the big players and the conditions I believed I needed to be successful at Chelsea. Mike questioned me in great depth about all these matters and more.
This courtship was very intense and unlike any I’d experienced with other clubs. In March I agreed to join, beginning my duties in June, and, after I signed, Mike gave me a great deal of help to understand the staff structure, the special features of the Premier League, Chelsea’s recruitment policy and the expectations of the owner — though these had already been made very clear to me. I was taken to Holland, with Bruno, for an intense week-long course in English, solid days from eight in the morning until eight in the evening. If the language had been an issue the last time, I was determined that it would not be so this time; I like to be known as a good student so I studied hard. Soon after I started my duties, I held my first press conference at Chelsea and spoke English in front of over 200 journalists. I was nervous, of course, but very pleased.
The dressing room at Chelsea had many strong characters and I’m sure my own career success helped me at the beginning. When you join a club after winning two Champions Leagues, you tend to command a lot of respect from the players — but only at the beginning. This honeymoon period with the players never lasts long because immediately after that, they are looking at you and asking, “What can this guy do for me?”
I didn’t change the style of the training. The players felt comfortable with it as it was, so it seemed right to keep it. We did change the style of the play, though, and that helped in a different way because the players had to concentrate and learn, which always motivates the best of them. Of course, just as I would see later with Real Madrid, we had to change the way we played because the owner wanted something different about the style. On one of the first occasions I met Abramovich he told me, “I want to find a manager that gives my team an identity, because when I watch Chelsea I’m not able to find an identity. When I see Barcelona or Manchester United, I find an identity in the team — when I watch Chelsea I cannot find an identity.” So we changed the style of play — we played with more possession. What better way to control possession than with a player like Milan’s Andrea Pirlo? We tried to sign him, but it was not possible, so in the beginning I played with Michael Essien in this position, who adapted and became one of the best in that position.
The beginning of my time at Chelsea was glorious. I took charge of the team for a pre-season tour to the US and we won every game. My ideas, thoughts and approach seemed to be well received by the players. We started the season proper very well, with the team winning 14 of the first 16 games in all competitions. However, even then there were signs that the relationship with the owner might be difficult. During that great run of games, we lost 3–1 to Wigan. It was just a blip, to my mind, something that happens in football, but Abramovich came to the training ground the next morning to demand answers. I tried to listen and not respond impulsively, but maybe I should have had some answers ready for him and been more prepared. I should have recognised this as my first red flag. It was a new type of relationship for me with an owner — even Berlusconi had not been so demanding.
When December came around we were in the top two in the Premier League and had won our Champions League group. We then drew Inter Milan — and, of course, José Mourinho — in the last 16 of the Champions League and the pressure and expectation began immediately, even though the games were over two months away. We started 2010 playing strongly in the FA Cup, but in February two thunderbolts hit me that would seriously affect my relationship with Abramovich. First, we were beaten 4–2 at home by Manchester City, which was bad because we were outfought and tactically outthought. He called a 9am meeting the next day to ask what had happened. Abramovich is never happy with these “thunderbolt” defeats — defeats that he believes should not happen to Chelsea. The second, and worse, thunderbolt was our away defeat to Inter in the first leg of our Champions League tie.
When we lost to Inter again in the second leg, 1–0 at home, I was challenged publicly by the media for the first time. The honeymoon period was well and truly over. The next day Abramovich addressed the group, demanding answers. This was another episode which taught me how to deal with this different kind of president; again, I chose not to meet aggression with aggression, it is not my way. I like to think through difficult times, address the problems coolly and with reason. When Mourinho’s Inter went on to win the competition — an ambition he was not able to fulfil when he was at Chelsea — it was not good for me. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end, a big red flag.
We were out of the Champions League but I challenged the players to achieve a new goal — to win the League and FA Cup double for the first time in Chelsea’s history. I put up a chart that signposted our way to the achievement, telling them that in the twentieth century only four teams had won the double, and in the 21st century only one, and that we would be the first for eight years, since Arsenal in 2002. This became our new mission.
This is where building strong relationships comes into play. The players knew that the owner was on my case and they felt that they had let me down. They began playing for me; they felt that they owed me and they responded brilliantly.
We went on to win a lot of games, many of them by big margins — we scored a lot of goals — and, on the last day of the season, we beat Wigan 8–0 to win the League. A week later we won the FA Cup final against Portsmouth to complete the double. Unusually, I was not offered an extension to my three-year contract after the final. In fact, it was not even discussed. All of which suggested another red flag to me.
There were more worrying signs to come. There were no major new players brought in over the summer and several of the older players, such as Michael Ballack, were not offered new contracts. I was asked to promote five young academy graduate players into the 25-man squad, which I did. We won the first game of the new season 6–0, but I was still summoned to Abramovich’s house that night to receive a “dressing down”, as they say in England, for the performance. Another red flag — and only one game into the season.
We continued the strong start and we were top until we had a bad November. We lost to Liverpool, 2–0, and my assistant Ray Wilkins was fired days later. Another lesson learnt. I could have fought harder, but I knew that it was a done deal. Michael Emenalo, the club’s head of opposition scouting, was made assistant manager and I had to introduce him to the squad. The English players in particular were not happy with the way things had been done.
I was surprised when the club changed Wilkins. It was not discussed with me first. In my first year at the club Ray was, of course, important because of the language — he spoke Italian — and he was a good reference for the players. In my second year in the job, although I certainly didn’t want to, I could do without him. The club had made the decision — Ray was already gone. When Abramovich decided to make Emenalo the assistant manager — my assistant — I told the club that I didn’t need another assistant. I already had Paul Clement and Bruno Demichelis, and between us we had everything covered.
I didn’t have any personal problem with Emenalo, but he was not comfortable in his new role. He was not used to being an assistant manager — his experience was in scouting — but the club put him there anyway. He was certainly not comfortable in front of the players, because they knew him from his time in a certain role, not in his new position.
In January the club made two marquee signings — Fernando Torres from Liverpool and David Luiz from Benfica — which lifted spirits, but not for long. Sadly, Torres was not at his best after a period of injury at Liverpool. In April we played Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-finals, with the feeling that we would have to win to save our season. The night before the second leg, Abramovich addressed the players, telling them they had to win or there would be huge changes to the team. He told me individually that if we lost then I was not to bother coming back to work. I wasn’t sure if he was serious. We lost and I did go back to work, though I felt like a dead man walking. Again, I suppose I could have confronted the owner, but it seemed pointless.
We lost, 1–0 away at Everton, on the last day of the season. I’m told that the CEO was driving away from the stadium when he got the call to say, “Turn around and tell Carlo he is fired.” I think the logic was that there was no point in waiting and telling me later. At least this way I could say goodbye to the players and staff before the off season. That night, when the team arrived back in London, the senior players — Didier Drogba, John Terry, Frank Lampard and the others — took me out for dinner and a few drinks. I had never known that before in my career. I think I was liked.
The relationship with the owner, however, was not so good. To break a relationship there are little details that all add up. There was the sacking and replacing of Ray Wilkins, and Abramovich also started to say that I had a preference for certain players; perhaps he was buying into the rumours about my favouritism. I told him that it wasn’t true — I made it clear. It is important that presidents and coaches can be open with each other.
Maybe the favouritism thing was an excuse for Abramovich. I believe his main reason for letting me go was that he thought the management of the squad was not right. He thought that I was too kind in front of the players and he grew sure that it was causing something to go wrong within the group. He would try to convince me, with all my experience to the contrary, to be stronger, tougher and more rigorous with the players.
I’d heard it before and I’ve heard it since, but he was wrong — they are all wrong. I don’t change my character.
What they hire me for is my ability to calm the situation at a club by building relationships with the players, which is one of my biggest strengths. At some later stage that is not the approach they want any more and the relationship with the owners — not the players, but the owners — begins to worsen. They hire me to be kind and calm with the players and then at the first sign of trouble along the way that’s the very characteristic they point to as the problem. I know that if I am winning then it is because I am calm; equally, if I am losing it is because I am calm. How can it be both? It’s a paradox, but I was trapped by it at Chelsea.