The name carries legendary status around West London: Roberto Di Matteo. And the club attaches emotionally in his heart: Chelsea Football Club. So how fitting that the two came together in early March. How fitting that the Italian could write another piece of history. And how fitting that a legend carried his club through their greatest triumph.
Three words were meant to transform Chelsea: “Andre Villas-Boas”. But the three words came in another form. First, “Andre, you’re fired”, with Roman showing the door to the young prodigy after eight measly months, the same door shown to half a dozen other world-class managers. Then “Roberto Di Matteo”. So what could a rookie do? It defied odds. But the man who won the FA Cup twice as a player, would win it again.
This is a man whose career highlight pre-March would have been the Black Country derby. One win in ten games and a 3-0 loss to Manchester City foreshadowed his sacking at West Bromwich Albion. After the sacking, he was linked with the job at Brentford. He was allegedly unpopular and, it seemed, not that great a manager.
So it is to his credit that he bounced back. His assistant manager duties were increased to manager responsibilities early March. Some argued at the time it was a rash decision. It spoke volumes about the club, that Chelsea felt it was better without AVB than with him, that they trusted Di Matteo more than AVB to arrest the slump. But n0-one doubts it now.
Rafael Benitez and Fabio Capello, to name a few, were all linked to the short-term role. Chelsea opted for the safer, faster option. But quietly, he assembled his team, drafting in colleague and friend Eddie Newton. Slowly, in the background, Chelsea were reuniting – there was silent urgency. The players rallied behind. Vindication at the greatest level.
This was Di Matteo’s chance to make up for a stained managerial CV. Logic would have suggested that if the 41-year-old could not control players at West Brom, he would not have a chance at a big club with “big egos” at Chelsea. But logic is to be defied – this was his club, his time.
From the heroics of recovering a 3-1 deficit, to the miracles seen in Barcelona, to the thrashings of Tottenham and setting Chelsea on their way to more Cup glory, this was not the man everyone thought.
His tactics appear to have been very simple, merely re-igniting the players’ desire and belief after the opprobrious performances seen in the AVB time. But, often, simplifying things make it easier. Easier to tackle and easier to achieve. And boy has he achieved.
His time may – or may not – be over for now, but often, good things come in small packages. What Di Matteo did in two months, no-one else could do in the entirety of the Abramovich era. All those world-class names: Ancelotti for his Champions League successes, Scolari for his World Cup successes. So how ironic that a last-minute, bold choice showed the kings of Europe who the daddy was. The true sign of a good manager is not necessarily determined by winning trophies, merely over-achieving. This true success is a testament to his bond with the club, the supporters, the players.
The man is young, still, the same age as Pep Guardiola and the same age as when Jose Mourinho took over at Chelsea back in 2004. As much as Chelsea owe him, so too does he owe Chelsea: for giving him the chance for redemption, for making him a global name. But the world is firmly in his hands. This is a world saturated with opportunity. He controls his own fate. Multi-lingual and with another tick on his CV.
Whether or not he stays in football management, he has opened his doors right up. Blackburn, Bolton, Aston Villa could all come calling. Who knows, he might want to look abroad. Whatever the Chelsea hierarchy decide, these three months – which in itself was an angelic, albeit short, era – should not be seen as a chance to feel sad, more used as a chance to celebrate writing another chapter in the long book.
Thank you, Robbie. Thank you.