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Good luck, Avram!

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

7 May 2008

12:00 AM

The infinite capacity of men to talk utter balls about football should never amaze, but the level of spiteful twaddle spouted about Chelsea’s Avram Grant, which started at volume 11, is laughable. This decent, courteous, humorous and intensely honourable man was put in charge of a team of highly gifted, absurdly paid, over-ego’d individuals who were capable of playing profoundly tedious football and has turned them into what is easily right now the most attractive team in the Premiership. But still fans whine and experts carp. God, it’s awful stuff.

So why isn’t Avram Grant getting the respect, admiration and, er, love he deserves? It is baffling: here are Chelsea running down to the finishing line neck and neck with Manchester United; there hasn’t been a Premiership finish like it ever. Then the same two teams go head-to-head again in Russia in a sort of Groundhog Day for the Champions League final in a couple of weeks. It is quite simply a stunning achievement. So what’s wrong? Is there a bit of anti-Semitism going on here? Maybe — there has always been an unpleasant strain of it running through English, and especially London life. And certainly Roman Abramovich’s Jewishness is every bit as important to the Chelsea owner as his Russian-ness, and Grant and he have long been close friends.

Is it just that he isn’t Mourinho? Well again, maybe. He doesn’t wear a cashmere coat like Jose, nor arch an eyebrow; but he is much more likeable. He took over Mourinho’s squad, then fifth, has pulled them to the joint leadership of the Premiership, and taken them past Liverpool into the European final, something Jose never did. And of course he doesn’t feed the media like Mourinho did.

But there are signs that the tide is turning now. Grant has been getting some advice from PR guru Matthew Freud, and the more fans and commentators, as well as the players, see the real Grant the more they respond to him. He is an extremely smart psychological operator, and has got more out of his players, certainly in terms of attractive football, than Mourinho did. There are signs he has got Ferguson riled. He is also bemused that people are questioning his football abilities: he has been coaching since he was 18 and picked up every honour going in Israel. The day after beating Liverpool, deservedly so, to reach the Champions League final last week Grant flew to Auschwitz to attend the March of the Living between Auschwitz and Birkenau as part of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Grant, whose 80-year-old father is a Holocaust survivor, was a hero to the thousands of Jews present, and made a speech that I’m told was magnificent: personal, hopeful, inspirational. Now this transparently good man has just two hurdles to cross. I think it is a great pity that the luminous Champions’ League final is simply a repeat of a Premiership game. How much more appetising would Chelsea vs Barcelona have been? It does no good for European football if the Premiership top four, which are largely squads of world stars temporarily billeted in the UK, continually smash these great European names like Inter, Juve, Roma, Barca, Milan, Madrid, or Bayern into the middle distance. Anyway, good luck Avram. I think you can win both titles, I hope you do, and that’s where my money’s going.

Finally please, waistcoats loosened for the great Ronnie O’Sullivan. A real genius of his sport, just like Federer and Woods, Lara and Cruyff. Snooker pros say Ronnie is the best ever to pick up a cue: but the stats say Stephen Hendry. But what would you rather watch, genius or grinder? Senna or Prost? Botham or Border? Ballesteros or Faldo? Gazza or Lineker?

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