Maybe Pep Guardiola's decision to snub Roman Abramovich will make the Chelsea owner see sense and favour stability over intensity
At Barcelona they tell a story about Frank Rijkaard's final season at Camp Nou when it was becoming clear something had to give. A practice match was arranged against Barça B next door at the Mini Estadi and it ended with the reserves, managed by Pep Guardiola and playing in Spain's third division, running the first team ragged. For Rijkaard, anxiously pulling on a cigarette, it was an embarrassment. At one point a member of his backroom staff approached Guardiola on the touchline. Please, went the message, time to ease off a little.
That was the day Guardiola realised the full extent of the disarray in the Barcelona side. Ronaldinho, flabby and uninterested, barely lasted 10 minutes. Deco wasn't much better. Not long afterwards, Barcelona were the first opponents after Real Madrid had made certain of the title. It meant the ignominy of having to form the pasillo – the guard of honour – to usher their deadliest rivals on to the Bernabéu pitch. Guardiola knew he could do better.
He has shown ever since that he is a manager of class and achievement and it is easy to understand if there are Chelsea supporters experiencing the occasional moments of insecurity now he has selected Bayern Munich as the next destination in his professional life. Guardiola delivered football of butterfly beauty to Barcelona. He did it with grace and dignity and perhaps Roman Abramovich may now have a better idea about the tendency of human beings to want structure and security in their lives. Chelsea's owner may not particularly care what the rest of us think but he was close to obsessed with Guardiola and, by choosing the Bundesliga, the most in-demand manager in the business is effectively telling us that someone of his distinction does not want to immerse himself into a culture of short-termism and remote-control sackings.
Guardiola's rejection of Manchester City is probably more of a surprise bearing in mind the scale of operation and the identity of the men making the advances, namely Ferran Soriano and Txiki Beguiristain, the former Barcelona executives now working on behalf of Abu Dhabi's royal family.
Silvio Berlusconi, Milan's president, had already gone public with his information that City were in control of the negotiations because of the well-placed "friends" Guardiola had at the club. OK, there are some considerable holes in Berlusconi's reputation as a truth-teller but, to borrow one of Sir Alex Ferguson's old maxims, this time there may actually have been some pasta under the sauce. Key figures at Chelsea had confided that they thought the same. Their information, in mid-December, was that Guardiola was edging away from them and favouring City, where he was regarded as an upgrade on Roberto Mancini. Chelsea, in other words, were never blind to the fact that Guardiola might repel their approaches. They just had the wrong club in mind.
City at least have a manager in place with enough in his favour that many supporters find it distasteful for his position to be vulnerable in the first place. Chelsea are in a very different place. If the Rafael Benítez experiment was working, the simple solution would be to make the arrangement permanent. However, it is plainly not. The joys of thrashing Aston Villa and Stoke City soon wear thin in the face of bleak draws at home to Fulham and Southampton and defeat by bottom-of-the-table QPR.
Every Chelsea fan with a spare piece of cardboard and black marker pen has made it clear how they feel and, if the idea of bringing in Benítez was to spark Fernando Torres into life, it has barely made any discernible difference. The most devastating footballer in the Premier League, circa 2009, has morphed into football's equivalent of 5 O'Clock Charlie, the North Korean pilot in M*A*S*H who used to fly over camp every day and drop his bomb at 5pm, only to miss every time.
Benítez is trying to bring some sense of order to a club where the players know he is a stopgap measure and the crowd are only one misplaced pass or unpopular substitution away from the next mutiny. It is a mess and now Guardiola is off the market it would be madness, surely, if Chelsea did not thoroughly explore the possibilities of coaxing José Mourinho back.
It would be complicated, as it always is with Mourinho, but Chelsea's position has definitely softened from the point a couple of years back when it would have been unthinkable. Abramovich, like most men of serious wealth, has not made a habit of sacking people then rehiring them a few years later from a weakened position, but you would also like to think he has devoted too much time and energy into Chelsea to let them continue in this rudderless form. More than anything, Mourinho is still the closest there is in football to guaranteed success, whatever the politics that accompanies him. Ignoring it now would be a dreadful error of judgment on Chelsea's part. It also runs the serious risk that one day Mourinho will come back to Stamford Bridge as Manchester United's manager.
As for Guardiola, the El Mundo columnist who described Bayern as the "coward's" choice surely misjudged the scale of ambition at the Allianz Arena. It is, however, true that trying to get the better of, say, Ferguson would have shown us more about his ability to transfer his qualities between different countries.
For all his brilliance, Guardiola inherited a Barça side that contained Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. They were exhilarating times once he had weeded out Ronaldinho and the other dressing‑room slackers and it is true that he produced something so artistic and thrilling he seduced us all. "I forget for whom the description 'women want to be with him, men want to be him' was first coined," Graham Hunter writes in Barça – The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, "but it fits Guardiola as perfectly as those 30-inch waist trousers which still, improbably, fit his snake hips at the age of 41."
To listen to some of my colleagues is to think it has already been airbrushed out of history that Guardiola left Barcelona in a season when they finished nine points behind Madrid. A few questions still linger, too, about the way he cut himself free, citing the sapping effects of his workload, in his fifth season. Nobody's business but his you could say, but it was an unorthodox move.
Consider the foreword Ferguson writes to Guardiola's biography and the way, amid all the usual tributes, United's manager strays off-message, almost rebuking the man he has been asked to eulogise. "He was at a fantastic club and it is not going to get any better for him, wherever he goes. Going to another club will not take any pressure off him or reduce the level of expectation surrounding him. So why? Why would he decide to leave? If you look at Madrid, who won five European Cups in the late 50s and early 60s, there's no reason to think he couldn't have done the same with Barça. That, to me, would be a personal motivation." Ferguson's conclusion is that it was "silly" on Guardiola's part.
History now, but it does mean that we will never know how Guardiola would have coped once Mourinho had repositioned Madrid as the best side in Spain. Mourinho was the bane of his life by the time he had left Barcelona. And vice-versa. Both have talked at length over the past week about their desire to manage in England and, for the benefit of the show, it can only be hoped they are obliging enough to make sure it happens at the same time.
They used to have a photograph in the Southampton boardroom of Lawrie McMenemy, with that broad smile of his, taking the FA Cup back to the Football Association's old headquarters in 1977. McMenemy had managed the side that beat Manchester United in the final the previous year. So it was an iconic picture in Southampton, precisely the sort of image you would imagine a football club to cherish.
But no. A few years back they replaced it with a picture of a steam train. It was a gift from Doncaster Rovers, apparently, after a game at the Keepmoat Stadium. As for the significance of a steam engine … well, no, me neither. But up it went. The original photograph was offered to McMenemy with the generous message that he could put it in his executive box if he liked.
Southampton, in short, can have a funny way of doing things – though not funny in the traditional sense when you consider that successive promotions, then establishing the side with a good shout of staying in the Premier League have not spared Nigel Adkins from being fired. Add in the fact that his replacement, the former Argentina international Mauricio Pochettino, does not speak English and was sacked from his last job after taking Espanyol to the bottom of La Liga and it is tempting to wonder if Southampton's executive chairman, Nicola Cortese, doubles up as a member of the Silly Party.
At Nottingham Forest, the Kuwaiti owner, Fawaz al-Hasawi, has been on his own sacking spree, opting for the scattergun as his artillery. Frank Clark, one of the club's European Cup winners, has been removed from his ambassadorial position. The chief executive, Mark Arthur, has gone, as has the head of recruitment, Keith Burt – which, call me old-fashioned, doesn't seem like the greatest timing slap-bang in the middle of a transfer window.
Previously Hasawi had moved out Sean O'Driscoll directly after a 4-1 win over Leeds had put a team that was almost relegated last season within a point of the Championship play-off places. At least O'Driscoll was told in person. The latest sackings were administered in a series of letters from Hasawi's solicitor. In Burt's case his wife opened it at home and rang the City Ground to let him know.
It happens. It's an unshakable part of modern football life and it isn't going to change, whether we like it or not. There are times, however, when it is easy to long for the days when everything was that little bit more charming and orthodox.
Brendan Rodgers was entitled to be annoyed with Luis Suárez's public admission that he deliberately tried to con a penalty against Stoke City in October but would it not have been better to criticise the player at the time of the offence rather than the point of confession?
The dive was so shudderingly obvious it hardly needed the striker going public to know he was guilty. Rodgers, however, went for the old Arsène Wenger trick at the time. "I haven't seen the incident, so I can't really comment." Not even Wenger uses that line any more.
Liverpool's manager has presumably seen it since. In which case he will have seen the absurdity of it all and the nearest Stoke players, Marc Wilson and Robert Huth, reaching down to Suárez as if to say: "Nice try." Fair play to Rodgers for demonstrating that Suárez is not above criticism, but it is still not entirely clear whether he is embarrassed by the action or the admission.
One last thing, too: now Suárez has admitted that he does occasionally cheat, will ESPN be issuing an apology to Jon Champion?