Finishing off our month of guest posts (excluding any late submissions!), Ben Williams of upper90magazine ponders Avram Grant’s existence.
‘Avram’s Arse’. That’s the phrase coined by the Israeli media to describe the luck of Avram Grant. A trail of good fortune seemed to follow him around Israel’s 2006 undefeated World Cup Qualifying campaign, as though he were specially selected by the Gods to be a successful manager. Well, Avram, Britain is a an agnostic nation at best, and I think the game might finally be up.
Somehow, the indefatigable Israeli seems to have fooled a series of chairmen into thinking that he is ‘the right man’ to bring success, as David Gold and David Sullivan put it when they hired ‘Uncle Avram’ at West Ham. But let’s face it, Grant is better suited to putting his Transylvanian looks to good use playing evil villains in B movies, or starring in ‘Dracula: The Retirement Years’.
Still, one must sympathise. What chairman could possibly stand a chance when confronted by those deep set, darting brown eyes? How do you read a character with an uncanny ability to simultaneously show charm and malice? One minute Avram is like one of the ill-fated individuals portrayed by charities: give him your money; he needs your help. The next, he’s a formidable foe; not someone you’d want to meet in a dark alley, or even a very well lit one for that matter.
It all started as a youth coach for his local club, Hapoel Petah Tikva. Despite having no potential as a player, and, at 19, very little experience, from the start Grant displayed his natural ability to befriend the right people and get a job to which he had no right. After 13 years he was promoted to assistant manager, then manager, and he never looked back.
After winning four Israeli championships in a weakly contested league, Grant became the Israeli national team’s youngest ever manager in 2002. Israel subsequently failed to qualify for anything in his four year reign, but Grant was able to do what he does best: paint himself as the victor or the victim.
Despite Israel playing a brand of conservative football capable of curing insomnia, Grant led them to an unbeaten campaign in a group including France, Ireland and Switzerland; on paper then, an impressive achievement.
But Avram was busy plotting and planning, carefully manoeuvring himself into the circles that would take him to his dream destination: the English Premier League. During his tenure as national coach, he befriended Roman Abramovich, reportedly wowing the oligarch with his footballing knowledge. Perhaps Grant can talk a good game after a few drinks; perhaps Abramovich doesn’t know what a good game is. Either way, the charm offensive paid dividends.
In 2006, Grant pitched up at Portsmouth, as director of football, thanks to Abramovich’s friend Alexandre Gaydamak.
Then the unthinkable happened. Without the Uefa Pro Licence necessary to manage in the Premier League; hell, without even the A or B licence, Avram Grant was appointed to one of the most lucrative positions in football: Chelsea manager.
Let’s be clear about this. Grant, an under-qualified, mildly successful coach with no track record in England, displaced arguably the most talented manager of the modern era, Jose Mourinho. It was a monumental achievement in networking. An overwhelming victory for those who argue that it’s not what you know, but whom.
The players complained that Grant’s training methods were 25 years behind modern standards. They complained that he didn’t know what he was doing. And yet, Grant cleverly portrayed the work of Mourinho as his own and took Chelsea to where the ‘Special One’ never could: the Champions League final, which resulted in agonising defeat on penalties to Manchester United, who also pipped them to the league title.
Abramovich eventually heeded the pleas of his players and Grant amicably stepped aside. But Avram was the real winner again, turning failure into a personal victory. He was depicted as the man who nearly led Chelsea to glory, who was dignified in spite of continuous criticism from the fans and the team.
Then onwards to Portsmouth for the next con. Grant’s reign was marred in turmoil. But would he abandon ship? No sir, not Uncle Avram. Determined not just to re-arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, Avram sat down in one, and, oh so bravely, refused to budge.
Portsmouth lucked their way to the FA Cup final, including an astonishing underdog victory over Spurs in one of the most one-sided semi-finals you’ll ever see. In his final home game in charge, Grant turned cheerleader, emotionally proclaiming to the Portsmouth fans at the end of a disastrous season, “They can take points from us, put an embargo on us, but they cannot destroy our spirit – never!”
Thus, Avram did it again! Somehow spinning a relegation campaign into a triumph against dark forces. His triumph, of course.
And now to West Ham, the latest victims of this serial ‘player’. Grant has led a team containing four England internationals to the bottom of the league. His ineptitude at coaching is on display for all to see. Avram reportedly turns up for the team talk and little else, relying on more talented staff such as Wally Downes to try and turn things around on the training ground.
However, despite disastrous results and dispirited performances, Avram is still there. Once again, he is posturing as the victim, this time of the derisory handling of his near-sacking by Karren Brady and Messrs Gold and Sullivan.
By stoically remaining dignified, Grant portrays himself as a lonely figure fighting against the odds, rather than being the cause of the Hammers demise. Meanwhile, his insight into why West Ham are failing to perform has stretched only to a correlation between victory and his lucky scarf.
Against Birmingham in the League Cup semi-final though, Grant may have shown that he is finally starting to crack under the mounting pressure of keeping up the pretence. With West Ham surprisingly cruising at 1-0 and 3-1 on aggregate, having totally outplayed their uninventive opponents, Grant admitted that he “didn’t know what to say to them [his players]” at half-time.
Unable to deal with the surprise of his team playing so well, Grant did nothing as his players rapidly surrendered the initiative, and allowed the previously awful Nikola Zigic to become a talismanic presence up front for Birmingham. West Ham proceeded to implode in spectacular style.
Perhaps now, at long last, Grant is lost for ways to hide the truth. He is a poor football manager at best. But he does have a talent. He is a master at grabbing the limelight in the most subtle of ways; at schmoozing with the right people at the right time; at snatching a PR victory from on-field defeat. Avram Grant is a born politician.