This week I have found myself in a most unexpected place: I feel sorry for Rafael Benitez.
I know this is not the fashionable line to take, that really I should be mocking the scale of his ego and asking what exactly he expected to happen. But, never mind football, I am not sure that any man should put up with working conditions of the sort he has been experiencing since last October.
What a poisonous place Stamford Bridge must be. Everybody stabbing everybody else in the back, everybody looking out for themselves: for a team game, there is not much sense of unity about the place. One insider recently compared it to a medieval state, with robber barons jostling for position, second guessing what their silent, aloof, all-powerful monarch wants. The one thing of which they can all be certain is that in this kingdom no-one is regarded as indispensable. Their first instinct in everything that they do, therefore, is to protect their own backs. It doesn’t make for happy working conditions.
Poor Benitez, as the public face of the operation, is the one obliged to make sense of it. He is the one questioned every week about his position, the one constantly exposed to a scrutiny from which the rest scuttle. No-one else talks to the press (well, not openly; judging by the steady flow of top grade information from the desk of The Mail’s Neil Ashton, several members of the dressing room are briefing anonymously on a daily basis). A couple of times a week he is up there, required to try to make sense of the madness.
No wonder he blew a gasket this week. For weeks he has been side-stepping the issue. Then finally, he tackled it head on. And all he said was roughly what we already knew: that his position is now quite ridiculous. Hated by the fans, abandoned by the hierarchy, undermined by the playing staff his job is now utterly untenable. The point of him now continuing is close to futile.
Yet it seems to me a touch harsh to suggest he has no-one to blame but himself for ever getting involved in the first place. Many a commentator has asked: what did he expect? Surely he can’t squeal now what was obvious from the start has come to fruition.
Well, actually, this is what I think he expected when he took on the job: he thought he could win a few football matches. And with that he might quell the criticism flying in his direction from the stands.
And who could blame him? Looking at Chelsea from the outside at the time it was not the most ludicrous proposition. That midfield of Mata, Oscar and Hazard started the season as if determined to prove that the embrace of Barca-style tippy-tappy could achieve all sorts of success in England.
Watching them in action, who would not want to seize the opportunity to manage them? It was like being dealt all the aces in a game of poker. Seriously, no-one would turn that hand down. Especially when it came attached to the suggestion that if all went well he could be there to stay. Never mind the fact that your customers loathed you, it was an offer few could turn down. Particularly anyone with a modicum of confidence in their own ability.
And there was precedent of managers turning around fan scepticism. When Alan Pardew was appointed at St James’s Park he was roundly dismissed as another cockney mate of the loathed boardroom regime of Mike Ashley. But he changed that outlook with the delivery of what was clearly a coherent strategy at the club. These days, if not loved, he is widely admired. And, more to the point, accepted.
It could have happened to Benitez. Sure, the hard core of the Chelsea fans would have remained antagonistic had he won every trophy under the sun, but the huge majority would have acknowledged his contribution. He could have won if not their approval than at least their grudging silence. But first he needed to win a few matches. Losing at home to QPR was never a sensible Stamford Bridge career move. This is a results business, and if Benitez had got results he might have given himself a chance.
Instead, he now faces the likelihood of being gifted the opportunity to spend more time with his website long before the end of the season. He is about to become the interim manager who didn’t even stay around long enough to be called a caretaker.
What a miserable conclusion. No wonder he is feeling gloomy.
Although ultimately, I may have the wrong target for my sympathy. Benitez is probably not the person we should feel sorry for in all this. Those who really deserve our consideration are the Chelsea fans, obliged to fork out ever more hard-earned cash to watch a catastrophe of cack-handed corporate irresponsibility unfold in front of them. From Champions League winners to laughing stock in ten months: that is the real story here. Benitez’s breakdown is the symptom, not the condition.