Jim White

AVB: Carry on up the Tottenham

Jim White

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About six months ago, I mentioned in a report from a Chelsea game that the club's manager Andre Villas-Boas ought to be careful about his choice of attire.

When Jose Mourinho first stalked Premier League touchlines, his coat quickly became a symbol of his style and panache; in that mac, the belt tightly fastened at the waist, Villas-Boas was forging an altogether less impressive sartorial image. He was in danger of resembling Frank Spencer.

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Almost as soon as the piece was published, into my inbox pinged an email from someone whose email name suggested where they were coming from. Chelsea Till I Die, or some such, wrote: "You've got it all wrong about Villas-Boas and Frank Spencer." And I fully expected it to continue with a stout defence of the man. "Check out the attached". And there, clipped to the mail was a photograph of a young Kenneth Williams.

According to my correspondent, what I had got wrong about the Chelsea boss was the comic figure he most closely resembled. He was right, the likeness was striking: had Williams not been born a good half century earlier, we might wonder if he and AVB had been separated at birth.

It was at that point I realised Villas-Boas was finished in west London. Whatever Adam Ant might have once suggested, in football management ridicule is something to be scared of. When the discussion about you largely centres on which comic institution you most resemble (and there were plenty mentioning Gordon Brittas in the lookalike stakes) it was fair to assume nobody is taking the project seriously.

And it made me appreciate how remarkably quickly reputations in football can be dashed. Just six months before, Villas-Boas had been the most sought-after coach in Europe. A double winner at Porto, he was wanted in Italy, Germany and Spain. Chelsea seemed a natural fit. He had worked there previously, after all. Young, ambitious, forward-thinking, he seemed exactly to fulfil the requirements of the owner as a replacement for Carlo Ancelotti.

But within no more than half a season, he was hung out to dry, defenestrated for boldly attempting to do the very thing he had been employed to do in the first place: modernise the playing structure. That it turned out to be an inspired sacking and Chelsea went on to win the FA Cup and Champions League even further corroded what was left of the AVB mystique.

Though the irony that Chelsea won those cups under the stewardship of Roberto di Matteo, a man who himself was but a year previously regarded as a managerial busted flush when he was removed by a dressing room putsch at West Brom, will not have been lost on the Portuguese.

Given how summary his removal from the Bridge had been, his return to the Premier League just six months on from his fateful meeting in Cobham with Roman Abramovich is nothing short of extraordinary.

Though it does fit a pattern. Spurs have a history of employing managers with a grudge against local rivals. It didn't quite work as they hoped with George Graham. But by so quickly giving Villas-Boas his chance to prove Chelsea wrong, Daniel Levy probably believes he has pulled a masterstroke. The Spurs chairman knows Villas-Boas did not win the Portuguese and Europa Leagues in his first season in charge by being a figure of fun. He did it by being an astute analyst, excellent coach and powerful motivator. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it.

A man apparently flying to the top, he met his nemesis at the Bridge. He will appreciate in retrospect that when things went awry he made a number of errors. His language became increasingly jargon-filled, his responses to questioning twitchy and paranoid, his approach in the dressing room dogmatic and inflexible. Finding himself alone, he made no attempt to accrue allies, believing that a manager's job is to remain above cliques and favourites.

His reaction, however, was largely in response to a set of circumstances he had never experienced before and is unlikely to experience again. At Chelsea, everyone was protecting their own patch and were quite happy to see him sacrificed in order to maintain their position. At Spurs he will encounter significantly fewer layers of command. He will be much more in control.

In which case he will quickly need to demonstrate that — when allowed to get on with the job — he is capable of delivering. He has all the necessary tools, including bravery, astuteness and a brain so huge he sometimes appears to struggle to keep it confined within his cranium. What he now needs to do is recall his strengths and learn from those weaknesses exposed in Chelsea. And realise he does not have long to bed in. The irony of his position has been made clear to him by his Chelsea nightmare: he will need immediate success to enable him to build for the long term.

Though if he does succeed he will not be the first to resurrect a managerial career apparently holed below the waterline. After all not that long ago, as they were floundering at Liverpool, Reading and West Brom respectively, few would have given Roy Hodgson, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto di Matteo a prayer of ever returning to the big time.

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