Grant’s chance to silence doubters
By Caroline Cheese
Eight months after his appointment and the Chelsea fans still cannot bring themselves to sing manager Avram Grant’s name.
But after watching their side lose out in a thrilling Premier League title race on the final day of the season, the supporters’ stance seemed to have softened as they responded to his lap of honour with a warm round of applause.
If the 53-year-old can guide the Blues to a first Champions League trophy with victory over Manchester United on Wednesday, Grant will surely find a permanent place in their hearts.
Former Israel international Ran Ben Shimon, one of Grant’s closest friends, is convinced.
Ben Shimon, who will take over Grant’s former club Maccabi Tel Aviv next season, told BBC Sport: “Sometimes when you fall in love at first sight, it’s too easy.
“But if it takes work, the love you finally earn is stronger for that. Eventually I’m sure the fans will respect him very much.”
CHELSEA UNDER MOURINHO
WIN PERCENTAGE 67.56%
CHELSEA UNDER GRANT
WIN PERCENTAGE 67.9%
Few could argue with the Chelsea fans’ suspicions about Grant when he was appointed on 20 September.
He replaced the charismatic Jose Mourinho, who had led the club to back-to-back league titles and four other trophies, and Grant even stood accused of contributing to the turmoil that led to the Portuguese manager’s departure.
He had never managed outside Israel and it was suggested he only got the job because of his friendship with owner Roman Abramovich.
Former Chelsea player Pat Nevin summed up the pervading feeling when he said: “Grant is going to be as welcome as Camilla at Diana’s memorial.”
Uncomfortable as it must have been, it was a situation Grant was used to dealing with.
Following a successful first spell with Maccabi Tel Aviv from 1991 to 1995, Grant engineered a return to the club in 1996 after forging a friendship with the new owner.
It meant the popular Dror Kashtan – now the coach of Israel – was dumped after one season, despite leading the club to a league and cup double.
“He was known for buttering up the owners of clubs,” revealed Simon Griver, a journalist in Israel who writes for the Jewish Chronicle.
“You can argue, though, that perhaps he understood where football was going, that if you want to succeed, as well as knowing your football, you’ve really got to get on with the men with the money.”
While he was coaching the Israeli national team in 2004, Grant was introduced to Abramovich by Israeli ‘super-agent’ Pini Zahavi.
Avram has always had this amazing ability to read people. He knows how to connect with people
Grant’s friend Ran Ben Shimon
The pair immediately hit it off and according to Avi Meller, a commentator for Israel’s Sports Channel, an unbreakable bond developed.
“I think it even surprised Zahavi because their relationship went from strength to strength and they became best mates,” said Meller.
“Abramovich found in Grant not only a knowledgeable football person but a friend he could trust, someone he could speak to about anything and everything.
“They went on holiday together, spoke on a weekly, if not daily, basis. In a way, Grant taught Abramovich everything he knows about football.”
Grant himself tells a revealing story about a meeting he had with Abramovich in the early days of their friendship.
“He said to me: ‘Coach, which team do you want to manage? I’ll sort it out.’ I just smiled. What else could I have done?
“An hour later we went our own ways but one of his guys chased me down and said: ‘Mr Grant, what’s wrong with you? Abramovich offers you a team and you just smile like nothing happened? How many opportunities like that are you going to have?'”
If the rumours are true, Grant did eventually take the Russian billionaire up on his offer as the Israeli arrived as director of football at Portsmouth, a club owned by Alexandre Gaydamak, the son of one of Abramovich’s business contacts.
No wonder, then, that the Chelsea faithful sensed cronyism at work when Grant took the top job at Chelsea.
But Grant has gradually turned it around, overseeing a bold challenge in the league and the pulsating win over Liverpool that earned the club a place in the Champions League final for the first time.
His manoeuvring over the years has gained him plenty of enemies. Meller claims that the head of Israel’s Manchester City supporters’ club is so disgusted by Grant’s behaviour that he would prefer United to win the Champions League.
Yet it appears the ability to win friends and influence people is one of Grant’s main strengths as a manager.
“You cannot have just a good human connection without a deep understanding of the game,” stated Ben Shimon, who has known Grant since he was a child and is still in regular contact with him.
“But in football today, it’s much more important to understand the personalities you’re dealing with.
“Avram has always had this amazing ability to read people. He knows how to connect with people.
“If something goes wrong, you never hear him speak bad about that person, he just moves on. You never see him stuck with a feeling of revenge.”
That quality must have been severely tested when at the age of 14, he heard his father Meir screaming in his sleep, tormented by the horrors of the Holocaust.
Meir, now 80, is a survivor but, aged only 15, he buried his parents and his five siblings – some with his own hands.
Grant explained that when he sank to his knees after Chelsea’s semi-final win over Liverpool, it was in recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The following day, he travelled to Auschwitz in Poland to join the March of the Living.
He said: “The fact that I am leading Chelsea into a historic Champions League final is the real victory. Not mine alone, for all of us Israelis. For me, it’s more important than winning the Champions League.”
He knows what he’s doing today means nothing for tomorrow. There’s no guarantee for anybody
Former Liverpool defender Avi Cohen
His dignified manner added to the growing respect for Grant, who had already enhanced his professional reputation by overseeing consecutive wins over United and Liverpool.
He appeared far more confident in his dealings with the media. ‘Average Grunt’ was a figure of the past.
“I’ve seen the criticism that he’s a boring person but people just don’t know him yet,” said Ben Shimon.
“I tell you, he’s one of the most emotional guys I know.
“He doesn’t give anything away but there is depth to him. You’ll get to know him.”
We may not get a chance. The rumours persist that this summer Grant will be asked to revert to his previous role as director of football to make way for a new manager.
That seems unlikely should Chelsea lift the Champions League trophy but former Liverpool defender Avi Cohen says Grant is fully aware of the fickle nature of football.
“He knows what he’s doing today means nothing for tomorrow,” confirmed Cohen, another friend of Grant’s, who is now the chairman of Israel’s Professional Footballers Association.
“There’s no guarantee for anybody. He can’t just sleep after one victory.”
That said, if he can mastermind victory over United on Wednesday in Abramovich’s home country, he might be able to sleep easy.