At the end of a lengthy and characteristically measured justification of his tenure at Chelsea, Graham Potter, who has taken six points out of the last 24, picked up a drinks can and gesticulated at it in frustration. ‘It’s not like I’m some robot, just speaking to this can all the time,’ he exclaimed.
And it was as though in the last four months Chelsea had finally got to him: Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Thomas Tuchel doubtless sympathisers.
It also felt good that at last he was being himself rather than the inscrutable version of what he thinks a top-club manager ought to be. It felt a nudge from the controlled Potter towards the Mourinho-Conte spectrum, and all the better for it.
Potter was irritated by questions about whether his current run of three wins in 11 matches would get him the sack. We were finally seeing him show emotion.
‘You see me here and this isn’t actually me all the time,’ he added.
It was pointed out that he never seems riled. Not on the touchline. He even doesn’t appear irritated by our questions. At this Potter offered the hint of an eye roll. ‘I hide it well,’ he dead-panned.
‘Of course there are times when you get cross and angry. But my responsibility is to come to you and to speak in as respectful way as I can, even though some of your questions are stupid…
‘I have to answer the questions as best and as respectfully as I can, because I represent a fantastic football club. I have to come here and represent Chelsea after the match regardless of the fact I’m p****d off.’
It terms of an outburst it was some way off Pep Guardiola marching into the Real Madrid press room and announcing on live TV that if Mourinho wanted to be the ‘f*****g king of the press conference’ he was welcome to that title prior to a Champions League semi-final during his Barcelona days.
But Potter was undoubtedly ‘p****d off’. It was Thursday night and he had just lost 1-0 to Guardiola’s Manchester City and he had a right to be upset. Chelsea are 19 points off the top of the Premier League, 10 points off the top four and the third best club in West London, Fulham and Brentford both leading them. This time last year they were about to be crowned club world champions. Now they’re not even the best club in the London Borough of Hammersmith.
Chelsea’s £70million keeper couldn’t cut out a cross a yard away from him, his star striker, who was subbed on 68 minutes after starting on the bench, looks an ill-judged, overpaid acquisition incapable of 90 minutes of football and the club’s major summer signing had gone off injured within five minutes, followed by their No 10 on 22 minutes.
Bad luck and bad calls throughout the club are submerging Potter in problems, many not of his making. Owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali are determined to reinvent European football, but they are in danger of looking like the Venky brothers with an American accent. Remember the Venkys at Blackburn? They were every agent and every selling clubs’ favourite owners on their arrival in English football in 2010. It took Blackburn a decade to regain their self-respect as a club.
What Boehly and Eghbali are about is long-term development. The considerable successes of the Roman Abramovich era is acknowledged by the new owners. However, running the club at a massive loss every season was unsustainable and adjusting to a more financially-transparent model was always likely to be painful. So, when Potter was asked on Thursday whether he would normally be getting the sack, especially at Chelsea, after one win in eight games, he baulked at the suggestion.
‘I don’t think I would have, I certainly wouldn’t have got the sack at Brighton,’ he countered. ‘That’s a well-run football club.’
But the Chelsea of old would surely not have tolerated this, so does he feel lucky to be part of a different regime?
‘I would always feel lucky to be at Chelsea, as I feel grateful and privileged to be here,’ he said. ‘But I understand where you’re coming from, as there’s a completely different ownership than there was. And this is hard for people to get their head around, as Chelsea for 20 years has been one thing and now, all of a sudden, it’s different. They still think back to what previously happened over 20 years which is normal, despite the fact it’s completely different.
‘The reason for me to take the job was because you’ve got a chance to shape a club that is in a massive transitional period, huge. Twenty years is a long time to have leadership and then change. With that, I knew that there would be extreme challenges. And it’s not like I was jumping at the first opportunity to leave Brighton. I had other opportunities to leave. But this one felt like the right one because of the owners, because of the support that they would give, and they has proven to be the case. They have been fantastic.’
Boehly, Eghbali and Jose Feliciano — often overlooked but a key mover at Chelsea — were at the game on Thursday. Their vision is somewhat different. They would have enthused over the introduction of Carney Chukwuemeka for Christian Pulisic after 22 minutes and in the manner in which the 19-year-old stepped up.
They will have liked the fact that Potter entrusted Omari Hutchinson, 19, and Lewis Hall, 18, to chase the game, the former making his senior debut, the latter only his fourth senior appearance. And that Denis Zakaria, a signing Eghbali pushed for despite Tuchel’s reluctance, played so well.
‘The owners are billionaires, so they are quite smart: smarter than me, for sure,’ said Potter. ‘They understand the challenges we have and the direction we want to go in. I’ve been here four months and five or six weeks of that have been lost to international football. Pep was there a year before they won anything and Mikel [Arteta] and Jurgen [Klopp] took a bit of time. But obviously it’s maybe different for me, for some reason.
‘But I don’t put a timescale on it. I know the responsibility we have here but also I know that I am capable. I know the quality I have and I have the full support of certainly the owners, and the players, and the staff here. There will always be people who will doubt. There will be people in the press room who will doubt, that’s for sure. I’m certainly not here [in the press room] to convince anybody. I’m here to do my work and then if that convinces, it’s fine.
‘I don’t think I’d have left my previous job if I didn’t think there was a chance that the owners would give their support. I think they’re absolutely in line with where we’re at, in line with what we want to do. I’m more confident now that we can achieve things than I was when I started the job because I understand the club, the players and understand what’s needed.’
It is ridiculously early to judge Potter. It is also wrong to surmise that Boehly will fire him just because that is what we expect of Chelsea. It also true that in Pulisic, Raheem Sterling, N’Golo Kante, Mason Mount, Ben Chilwell, Eduoard Mendy, Reece James, Armando Broja, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Wesley Fofana, they have almost an entire team out.
And yet Abramovich’s Chelsea somehow always found a way to win trophies: 21 in 20 years, six in the past six seasons. Lose again to Manchester City today in the FA Cup and this is likely to be a trophy-less season.
‘I’m not sitting here as some egomaniac who has all the answers and gets everything right. But, at the same time, there are some challenges that we face, there are some margins in the Premier League that are difficult. We have had a massive transition, problems in terms of injuries don’t make it easy to be stable, but it’s sort of blah, blah, blah, isn’t it? People want to see results and [it’s] “shut up, Graham, what are you talking about? We need to win”.’
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