Friday, 4 June 2010

Football Is Love

Avram Grant recalls being in an art gallery with Roman Abramovich, admiring one of the Russian's many paintings. Chelsea’s owner, and at the time Grant's boss, whispered how it had cost £25million.

'Pity,' said Grant. 'My daughter would have done the same picture for you for 25 quid.'

Grant might not be much of an art lover but he does speak as he finds, as he demonstrated to Abramovich that day and in the rare interviews he has given since. He reluctantly reveals some of the more extraordinary incidents during the most turbulent of seasons at Portsmouth; and suggests it is only now, after somehow overcoming the chaos at Fratton Park to guide that team to Wembley, that his former employers at Chelsea might appreciate what he did for them. He feels, if you'll excuse the pun, that he was 'taken for granted'. That he did not receive the recognition he deserved when he steered Chelsea to what remains their only appearance in the Champions League final, coming within a penalty kick of winning the thing. He also admits he did not want the Chelsea job in the first place.

As he enjoys a spot of lunch in the Wolseley on Piccadilly, Grant insists he is not bitter. He says he still embraces Chelsea's directors, staff and players like old friends whenever he sees them. That he remains close to the billionaire he still thanks for giving him his big break in English football. 'It had always been my dream to manage here and I'd waited 10 years for the chance,' he says. 'Roman was the one who gave me the opportunity.'

But even then he is not sure if Abramovich and his directors at Stamford Bridge recognised the talent he clearly has for managing football teams; a talent that has now taken him to West Ham. 'Like I said, I will never forget what Roman did for me but I can be disappointed with him for the way that it ended,' he says. ‘He knows how disappointing it was for me. The decision itself didn't disappoint me. It was how it was made that did. The last three months, when the team were doing well, when we won the big games and played good football, I think they took that for granted. They didn't understand that everything comes from how you do things, how you don't sleep at night because you're thinking about training and the tactics; how you speak with the players. And yet at Chelsea every game we won wasn't down to me. It was down to the players, the other management, the kit-man, the groundsman. I'm joking but that's how it was. Only when we lost was it down to me.'

He knew it would be. It is precisely why he first told them not to sack Jose Mourinho and then rejected the invitation to switch from director of football to the self-anointed Special One's replacement. 'When they offered me the job I said no,' he said. 'I didn't want to be the manager. I told them it would be better to take a team like Crystal Palace, another team, and make positive steps. Then everybody would see what I had done. People like to go to big clubs but, if you think only about yourself, it is better to start almost anonymously. If you believe in yourself, it is better to take a club and develop the football side, showing leadership and everything. At Chelsea, even though the team were on the way down, and they were, any winning would be, "That's what they should do". I would need to have unbelievable success, and when I took over nobody believed we would go to the Champions League final or fight for the title to the last day.'

Prompted by information from sources at Stamford Bridge, it is put to him that he argued against the decision on Mourinho. 'It's true, ' he said. 'I did. It was not that they sacked Mourinho. In the end he also wanted to go. But before this they thought about sacking him and I said they shouldn't. They asked me if I wanted the job and I told them to keep Jose. I was fighting like crazy. I had just come to the English league, after a short time at Portsmouth, and I wanted to work as an assistant to put the right things in place.'

An indicator of the widespread derision that greeted Grant’s appointment can be found in the front-page headline of an Israeli sports magazine. It read, in capital letters, “What the fuck?” Grant smiles and says: “The Israelis are very nice guys, but some like to be cynical.” So, too, the British media. He was seen simply as Abramovich's mate and not someone who should be taken seriously as a manager. 'I think you're right,' he said. 'England didn't know me when I was at Chelsea. Maybe they didn't want to know me. The one thing I didn't like was that people didn't judge my work. The criticism I can take, OK. But if you compare what I did to Ferguson and Wenger in their first year, or Mourinho in his last year, compare the way I worked, the style of training, the way we played, the fact we only lost one league game, I think I did a good job. We changed the style of play, less long-ball. But people didn't want to know. I think they have changed now, though, even the Chelsea supporters.'

At times he appeared over-whelmed by the size of the task, struggling to fill the shoes of Mourinho when he quit the club in September 2007. That has changed now that he is a familiar face in the Premier League, standing up for his himself and rattling off some of his own statistics. "The target was to win the Premier League title and to reach the Champions League final," he added. “After I took the job, we were in title-winning form and I still believe we would have won it if there had been two more games. Sir Alex Ferguson said it was the best team he had ever built at United and they only just beat us. We reached the Champions League final and only lost because of the grass - well, I have to blame someone."

Instead it was John Terry's slip that cost Chelsea the chance to win the Champions League, losing his balance in the penalty shootout in the Luzhniki Stadium. Grant lost his job and yet he accepted his fate, paying the price for his failure to achieve the objective of winning the Premier League. "Every club has a plus and minus. At Chelsea you have everything. The facilities are first class, the staff are great and the players are top class. You can have any player you want, you can build whatever you want. I wanted to change the team and we were starting to do that. Everyone in England likes a bet and yet no-one put a penny on us to finish the season the way we did. I never found it political. It's not like Gordon Brown and David Cameron, I just left all that to other people. The target was to improve the team. Before I came people said we were playing appalling football, but no-one said that when I was manager. They were on the way down after big success under Mourinho, but when we won it was down to the players. When we lost a game like the Carling Cup final against Spurs, it was down to Avram. I couldn't win. I knew that."

The players always seemed to like him, as Frank Lampard revealed when he paid a moving tribute to Grant at a dinner in the England midfielder's honour back in January. Not only did Lampard praise Grant for doing such a fine job during his eight months in charge, but in particular for the way he responded to the sudden death of the player's mother. 'The bond I formed with those players is something I'm very proud of,' he says. 'Not all of them, but most of them. Lampard was very special, and I will never forget what happened in the week he lost his mother. It was obviously a question of whether we played him in the Champions League semi-final against Liverpool. He hadn't trained and when he eventually did, in the last session before the game, he was a disaster. He was scoring own goals. I'd never seen him like that. So distracted. The staff thought he shouldn't play because his mind just wasn't on the game. But I spoke with him and used a little psychology. I didn't tell him he would be playing, even though I knew he would. I didn't want to burden him with trying to think about the game. I left it until lunchtime on the day of the match and he was absolutely great.'

Grant departed within days of the defeat in Moscow. “It was an emotional moment,” he says of the penalty shoot-out. “I remember one of the Chelsea directors saying: ‘You show emotion.’ I said: ‘For me it’s a compliment, for you it’s not.’ Emotions are good if you don’t lose your judgment. I wanted to bring more soul to the game, for players to not be like computers.” Moscow is a wound that will never heal. 'You know that John Terry didn't want to be up there taking the penalty,' he says. 'But I don't know if it would have been different if that penalty had gone in. I don't know if they would have wanted me to stay or even if I would have wanted to stay. When I look back, though, I can't have negative feelings. There were things I didn't like but there were a lot of good things as well. Roman is not perfect, nobody is, not even him, but he is a good man. And I can tell you that he never interfered. All this talk that he tries to pick the team, that he chooses the players, it is not true. All he has done is put the club on the map. It is a big club because of him. The facilities, the training ground. That is what he has done.'

It is, of course, a world away from where he went to next - a club at the opposite end of the Premier League food chain and one that was in turmoil all last season. The deduction of nine points that followed Portsmouth’s slide into administration; the changes in ownership and their failure, month after month, to pay the players on time. Not to mention the round of redundancies that forced those same players to dip into their own pockets to keep certain members of staff, mostly down at the training ground, in employment. Grant, too, suffered financially.

When he took the job at Portsmouth back in November as successor to Paul Hart, having returned there two months earlier as director of football, he agreed to help them out by taking 20 per cent of his salary as a bonus for keeping them in the top flight. The nine-point deduction soon ended any hope of that. Like the players, he had also been paid late and in other months a good deal less than he expected. 'I called them once to say they must have mistaken me for the kit-man,' he says.

Pompey's administrator made drastic cutbacks, shaving costs in an attempt to turn the club into a viable business proposition. The team were frequent flyers in the old days, when cash appeared to be in plentiful supply and they took off for away trips from Southampton Airport. Adds Grants: ‘There had been cutbacks. Where we used to fly to games we now had to get on a coach for five or six hours to save money. For a time we couldn't afford to prepare the training ground pitches properly, putting all the players at risk of injury. There had been lots of smaller things, such as the chef having to perform miracles. He didn't even have a budget for tea bags any more. Oh, and the coffee machine…’ The bailiffs had been in again meaning no more coffee in the training ground canteen and no more double espressos for Portsmouth's head coach. ‘I had to buy a new machine, but I didn’t like the coffee it served," jokes Grant. "The new man will have to get another."

Grant remains in good form, the gallows humour of someone who has come through so much. At 54, he has come of age in the Premier League, part of the fixtures and fittings after leading Portsmouth's fight against the drop with dignity. Their place among the elite was always a lost cause and yet the enduring images of Grant, burying his head into a swell of Pompey supporters enhanced his reputation. He is a good man, a deep thinker with a dark sense of humour, switching effortlessly between the two as he contemplates his recent experiences.

"I felt like I was fighting for people who were victims of circumstances beyond their control," he reveals. "People in football forget that most things are temporary. Managers come and go, so do players and so do owners, especially at Portsmouth. The only permanence is the fans. I liked the challenge. To work for a team that belonged to a proper town was different to anything I'd experienced before. Problems in football are part of the game and at Portsmouth it's financial. If we hadn’t survived beyond the season, it wasn’t going to be for the lack of trying. To beat Southampton was so important for the supporters. It was a privilege to see so many people happy - they never did anything wrong. All they did was turn up to support their team and yet they didn’t know if they would even have a team to support next season. No-one did."

It had, in his words, been insane. 'The main problem was not knowing who the owner actually was,' he says. 'One day I'd be speaking to Mark Jacob, the next Peter Storrie. I knew Peter wasn't the owner but the chief executive, but at one point I just shouted, "Who the fuck is the owner?" One time I was sitting with Sulaiman Al Fahim, who by then was the former owner. He said, "I know you're interested in this Egyptian striker; you need to take him". I turned to Peter, who was sitting the other side of me, and said, "Is this the owner or the former owner?" The players were confused. They didn't know what to do. If you don't get paid, you want to go to the owner and find out what is happening. But there was nobody to go to. Crazy.

'When I came there they said the problem with the wages was a misunderstanding and that the money was coming through from Hong Kong. Now we know that was not true but I was told, "No problem, we don't have any problems with money". Then I was told I could keep the squad together and add three or four players. When I agreed I was sure we could stay in the league, so much so that I told them to put 20 per cent of my money as a bonus for keeping them up. In November or December we were told the debts were £20million or £30m. Then it was £60m and that seemed crazy. But now it's £140m - and I still don't know if that is it or if there is more.’

Grant rose above enforced player sales and salary disputes, operating with honour when he could easily have walked away. It was not an act, not part of some well thought out scheme to help him secure his new post at another Premier League club for next season. He has also overcome the embarrassment of being caught walking away from a Thai massage parlour known not so much for its backrubs as its “happy endings”, after pictures were published in several national newspapers. For now it is off limits - "this is not the right time" - but he will address it one day. His wife Tzofit supported him, highly visible as she protected her husband in the hours that followed.

The morning that Grant’s infidelity was exposed in the papers, she was sitting in a restaurant outside her home town of Tel Aviv. He had rung at 6am to warn her of the coming storm. By 10am, Mrs Grant was besieged with enquiries, and issued similar statements to different papers, television and radio stations until midnight that night. “What do I care?” she told them. “It’s his business. It’s very stressful being a manager at a club like Portsmouth. He should have had two massages.”

Faced with the prying and the press intrusion, the sniggering inquisition dressed up as sympathetic indignation, she has been defiant. She has, until now, brushed aside the press with that flip deflection. She has proudly defended her privacy, dismissed the prurience and stoically taken the postmodern Tammy Wynette position: she is standing by her manager. She has refused to be the victim of the story, nor has she been a willing party to it. Instead, to spend a day with Tzofit Grant – to hurtle from her sell-out play in Tel Aviv to her home in the suburbs with her teenage kids, to tea the next day with Rabbi Lau, the old chief rabbi of Israel, to a long, late dinner talking about her television shows in Israel, Avram’s football matches in England and the pressures on their 17-year marriage – is to see the complexities of real life too easily cast as a tawdry morality tale in the media.

But then, Mrs Grant is anything but the stereotypical footballer’s wife. On television, she is notorious for her eccentric persona, her chutzpah and “so sue me” attitude. But sitting in her stylish but informal home in Tel Aviv, she comes across as a mature, self-analytical woman: the thinking woman’s WAG. A strikingly attractive 45 year-old actress and the mother of two teenagers, Mrs Grant is a series of contradictions: she dyes her hair different colours but wears little make-up off camera, she has a healthy appetite but worries she is fat; works flat out on her career but is a devoted mother, can out-vulgar any lads’ mag but was appointed president of a charity for the mentally ill in Israel after her brother was struck down with schizophrenia.

Nor is Mrs Grant’s husband the most handsome man in the premiership: “When I first met Avram, I thought he looked like a monkey.” Indeed, she acknowledges what most women do: “[Jose] Mourinho is sexy, I can’t say that he isn’t.” But Mourinho does not, she says, come close to Avram for charisma. And, as Mrs Grant puts it, when she goes to bed with a man, she is making love first and foremost to his brains. Her frequently foul-mouthed and strident opinions belie a keen mind, generous personality and uncompromising values. Ironically, for a woman whose husband has been caught paying a woman for sexual favours, she says: “Almost every woman has a price. It starts from a very early age when our parents want us to marry a man who has money … It’s most women, maybe 80 per cent in the rich, Western world. Especially the upper class, it’s very easy to buy an upper-class woman in exchange for a comfortable life.”

From her first encounters with Mr Grant, she railed against the transaction that she believes is at the heart of courtship, where a man tries to buy a woman, and a woman allows herself to be bought. “On our first date, I opened the glove compartment and found some perfume, and the smell was amazing. And Avram told me, 'You can take it’, and I was so tough with him, I said, 'Yes thank you very much — and then when you want to sleep with me I need to say yes?’”

Three weeks later he proposed, in a football stadium, at midnight. Less than three months after that they were married. Football has been part of their marriage ever since. When Roman Abramovich hired Grant as director of football for Chelsea in 2007, Tzofit came to live in St John’s Wood. In the evenings she found herself going to parties on Grant’s arm as the “plus one” she had worked so hard not to be. “I was so lonely. I used to wake up every morning and cry for hours. Because in one moment I understood what it was like to become a nobody, a zero. I lost everything, my work, my personality, my spirit.”

It was also a testing time for her husband, who was made manager after Mourinho’s departure. He consistently led the team to victory until the fateful day that John Terry slipped and missed the penalty in the Champion’s League final against Manchester United in Moscow. “I couldn’t look,” says Mrs Grant in a stage whisper. “My daughter, she screamed, and my son shut down completely. Until now, as a family we can’t talk about it. I remember after the match I walked out into Moscow and it was raining. I didn’t cry as I was just trying to support my children. I said to them, “It’s just football, it’s just a game.” But I knew I was talking bull.”

And her husband?

“I think he died a little in that moment,” says Mrs Grant. “And he is still underground. Something changed in him. But I don’t think he believed that Roman would tell him to go. That was what really broke his heart. Avram and Roman do not like each other, they love each other. And we are all very thankful to Roman for giving Avram such a big opportunity … But I never understood why Roman dropped him. I think maybe he was nervous of the press … And maybe it was also because Avram didn’t have such status then as a football manager. The Russians care a lot about status.”

Mrs Grant is now living apart from her husband, ever since he took on the job as manager of Portsmouth. She says that her husband received offers from all around the world to be manager. So why did he return to England, to a team that was at the bottom of the Premier League and in serious financial trouble? Mrs Grant shrugs. “Because it is the best football league in the world. And because being a manager in England is unfinished business for Avram. And because it was a great opportunity for him. He was taking no salary, it is not a normal club to be working at … But Avram is an amazing coach, a first-class coach … He has the capability of managing the English team. And also Argentina and Brazil.”

With such support, it is hardly surprising that Grant soon recovered; handling everything in a dignified manner and switching his attentions back to the more pressing problems at hand. He admits to being hoodwinked by a succession of owners, sold the dream when he was brought back to the club by Ali Al Faraj. "The Portsmouth supporters wanted answers, that's only natural," he says. "They deserve to know the truth, but I can't help them. The people responsible for this mess admit they misled me. They say they didn't realise the enormity of the situation. I have to accept that. Of course I felt let down. Promises were made to me that were not kept. When I agreed to take the job they accepted all of my demands, but then they found a lot of financial problems."

They were so deep that Pompey were forced to sell players, cashing in on some of the key assets under the threat of administration. Grant was powerless, gripped by the fear of relegation and helpless as the team that Redknapp built was ripped apart. He was told the club would go bust unless they sold Younes Kaboul back to Spurs, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy during the January transfer window. "At first, they told me January would be fine, but then they suddenly told me they needed to sell four players," he explains. "We needed to bring in players, not sell them. Everything came by surprise, so quickly, there was nothing I could do about it. I was told that if Kaboul stayed the club would go bust. That simple, very matter of fact. They said I could use some of the money to improve the team. A few hours later, they sold Asmir Begovic to Stoke.

"When I came to the club, no-one would have given us £100 for Begovic and yet we sold him for £3.5million. If he had stayed we would have improved his value. Part of my job is to develop players, but I didn't have time. As soon as Begovic was sold, Mike Williamson went as well. I couldn't stop it. The situation was desperate. I am a man of process and I like to plan everything, from training to the style of play of the team, the identity of the team and the behaviour of the players. They agreed to everything, they told me the wages would be paid on time in future and that it was temporary. At times it felt like it was permanent."

The blame game is in full swing on the south coast, with former chief executive Peter Storrie, owners Sacha Gaydamak, Suliman Al Fahim, Ali Al Faraj (if he exists) and Belram Chainrai all targeted over the fall of Fratton Park. "I tried to do the job without blaming people. I didn't want to be the judge,” insists Grant. "All I know is that the picture changed from the one presented to me when I took the job. My relationship with Peter Storrie and Mark Jacobs was good. Part of the success in football is that everyone does the job they are employed to do. All I wanted to know was the budget. If they told me it was small we could handle it. If they told me it was like Chelsea then we could build a different club. I don't know who is responsible for the mess, but I know who was not to blame and that was my players, my staff and the supporters.

"Of course I was misled when I took the job. I was told we would be buying players in January, not selling them. When we got to January, I realised how bad things were. I had a list of three players I wanted to buy, but they said we could only get them in on loan. Then I was told they couldn't even come in on loan and that there was a transfer embargo in place. I didn't need a good imagination to realise that we wouldn't be able to get out of this. I told them that as long as I knew the budgets then I could work within them and we could keep the club up. Since the problems started, there had been a joke at the club that the latest news is "there's been an hour without some bad news".

'We had the day when the players had to pay the staff at the training ground. By then players had been sold. When we sold Kaboul they said it would save the club, and two weeks later we went into administration and lost nine points. I did come close to quitting. One month I would get paid this, the next month that. They owe me money now. But I decided I wouldn't give up, and when I saw the supporters and the unbelievable backing they gave me, that made my mind up.

'It's embarrassing, the way they have behaved. But it was not like Chelsea. At Portsmouth, everything we did they gave love back. If you stay at the club, they give you love back. If you win, they give you love back. I love that. Football is love. I know it's all about money in life, what the pound is worth compared to the dollar or the euro. But I don't believe in that. I respect money and I would have liked them to pay me. But it's not everything.'

Two years ago, Portsmouth reached the FA Cup final, beating Cardiff when Kanu skipped through the Bluebirds' defence to bring back the Cup. "When Sol, goes up, to lift the FA Cup, we'll be there", they chimed, honouring their heroes in the club's finest hour. Harry Redknapp had realised Gaydamak's dream, taking the team to the final after the owner sent him a text when they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford. "Harry did a great job in the year that I was there as director of football," agrees Grant. "The team played some great football and he made some very good signings on free transfers, people like Sol Campbell, David James and bringing that youngster Kanu through the academy."

Grant, of course, was working with limited resources, a world away from those heady days and the riches he left behind when he was sacked by Chelsea. How he and his players put such issues to one side and secured their place in this season’s final is extraordinary. Grant called together his players and offered them two choices. “The first is to give up, go to the beach,” he told them. “Obviously I will not come as I’m not so skinny. But nobody will blame you for what’s happened. This is not football. The second is not to give up. But to do it big time.”

Grant would accept no half measures. The players took option B, found their best form in the FA Cup and knocked out Sunderland, Southampton, Birmingham and Tottenham en route to the final. “For us to come to the FA Cup final in a season like that, playing our best performance in the semi-final against Tottenham – that is some kind of miracle. We knew that whatever they did to us in the league, in the FA Cup nobody could take what we did off us,' he says. 'They couldn't take points away. They couldn't stop us playing. They couldn't kill the spirit of my players. Since the administrator arrived there had been more stability. But prior to that the hardest thing was arriving in the morning and having no idea what would happen that afternoon. I always like to start the day with a meeting with the medical people and my assistants, about training. At Portsmouth, that was impossible.”

Last month Grant went to Poland for Holocaust remembrance day, an echo of the emotional journey he made just two years earlier. On the day he had delivered an address to more than 10,000 Jews, a letter from him also appeared in a newspaper in his native Israel. It was as emotive as the speech he prepared for those he joined on the three kilometre March Of The Living between Auschwitz and Birkenau. A eulogy to his father, who survived the Holocaust but only after burying just about every other member of his family, and an intensely personal account of his experiences in football management.

As he has so often said, his father's story brings every challenge he encounters sharply into context. "The home in which I grew up and the education that I received have helped me get through these past months," he said. "To coach a football team is a dream but it is also a very difficult adventure. The pressure being placed on me cannot be described. The expectations are enormous. Behind me is an enormous number of fans, a demanding media and everything happens with the most crazy intensity. Every moment of this story is a personal and professional celebration and experience. I'll remember these moments, even the most difficult ones, for the rest of my life. But in the end, you remember and you understand and you know that nothing resembles what my father had to go through 65 years ago, and you get things back into proportion and distinguish between bad and good and know where you came from and where you are going back to."

So it was that Grant reluctantly resigned as the manager of Portsmouth after a momentous season for the club. In an open letter to the club's supporters Grant said the decision to step down was one of the most difficult he has taken. "It's been both a difficult and complex year for us at the club but at the same time it's been a wonderful and uplifting professional and personal experience," he said. "I will never forget you, the loyal fans of Pompey who, without a doubt, helped me protect the team under such complex circumstances. There are very few teams in the world that have fans as passionate and devoted as you are. It has been a great experience to be part of one of the most wonderful occurrences that has happened in the history of British football and also shows that even in the most desperate times loyalty, devotion, professionalism and passion can be demonstrated. I wish you all the possible success which you genuinely deserve."

Grant became something of a folk hero to the club's supporters after taking over from Paul Hart, and that connection informs the anger he clearly still feels. ‘The Premier League taking the points away made me most angry, because they punished the wrong people. Rules are rules but rules were changed when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005 and they were still allowed to play in the competition the next season, even though they had finished fifth in the Premier League. The people who were sacked at Portsmouth worked so hard for just a small wage. That was one of my saddest days. The people who were hurt were the kind of people who have served the club for so long. Before the last owners arrived and long after we've gone.'

Last season ‘Uncle’ Avram was fighting for them. For the people he never took for granted.


Emlyn said...

Yeah. Trilbry is back. Oh I have longed for your words of wisdom in the darkest hour. All to avail. When a light starts to shine, you surface. I'll let you off this time. Hopefully, you won't have to disappear again. Great to have Avram on board, let's just hope the chairmen can show us they mean business. Great to read your stuff mate.

Trilby said...

Cheers Emlyn. I have to say the timing of my return is purely coincidental. From a blogging point of view, you probably get better material in the black times. From the darkest mud blooms the whitest lotus...

Anonymous said...

Obedient bye, sentimental friend :)

Anonymous said...

Lofty bye, sentimental soul mate :)

Anonymous said...

Obedient bye, sweet chum :)


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