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May 11, 2008

In defence of Avram Grant

CHELSEA 1-1 BOLTON

Any campaign to crown Avram Grant as the Premier League Manger of the Year is unlikely to have too many supporters.

After all, we are trying to promote the claims of the most ridiculed and belittled coach to take charge of a major team for many a year, but the facts suggest the Israeli who lacks the personality to win any admirers deserves to be hailed a success story after a title challenge that fell just short here at Stamford Bridge in the final day of the season.

Manchester United's win at Wigan meant nothing Chelsea achieved against a battling Bolton side could see the title returning to Stamford Bridge, but Grant should still emerge from the most chaotic season in this club's history with plaudits aplenty.

Suggesting he deserves to be named as Manager of the Year ahead of the legendary coach who denied him an unlikely triumph on this sweltering Sunday afternoon is a proposal that would lead to many football fans calling for this humble reporter to be sectioned, yet it is not as crazy as it sounds.

While United boss Alex Ferguson has enjoyed a season free from the concerns of the African Nations Cup and major injuries to several star names, Grant has endured all those troubles and so much more as he has strived in vain to establish his credibility before a public who refuse to offer him any form of respect.

Trying to replace the enigmatic and brilliant Jose Mourinho would have been a thankless task for the best of managers, but when you have the personality of a train spotter, the job of winning over the doubters is all the more improbable, but this was the day when Grant was accepted at last.

The end of this game may not have brought the title celebrations the Chelsea boss would have dreamed about, but he was greeted more warmly than ever as the team embarked on a well deserved lap of honour. Grudging admiration seemed to have been replaced by welcoming smiles as Grant embraced supporters and he deserved his time in the sun. It was a nice moment.

Chelsea's cause in this game against Bolton was not helped when John Terry was stretchered off after just 11 minutes after he clashed with his own keeper, the luminously dressed Petr Cech. With his elbow partially dislocated, word soon came through that the Blues skipper was being taken to hospital and so his troops would have to win the title in his absence.

Didier Drogba has not always been at his deadly best in a disrupted season, but he was bursting with energy and enthusiasm in what was likely to be his final game at Stamford Bridge in a Chelsea shirt.

The Ivory Coast hit-man has made no secret of his desire to move on this summer, but he would have wanted to go out in the grand manner and after missing an open goal after seven minutes, he came within inches of opening the scoring with a Cristiano Ronaldo-style dipping free-kick.

So long as United were not ahead, Chelsea had real hope that the trophy and title winning medals waiting beneath us in the press box would be making an appearance on the pitch later. When news came through of Ronaldo's successful penalty at Wigan, the mood around Stamford Bridge took a notable dip.

As so often happens at this stadium, early optimism and enthusiasm from the stands rapidly drains away when the team they come to support take to the field. The sight of stand-in skipper Frank Lampard trying to inspire the crowd into action by desperately waving his arms mid-way through the first half said much about the lack of belief among supporters who only really come to life when their team are winning.

It's also fair to suggest the lack of excitement this functional and less than inspiring Chelsea side does little to boost the noise teams often require to play at their best, but Avram Grant did his best to fire his side into action by making a bold tactical switch at half-time.

Andriy Shevchenko has been held up as one of the ultimate problems in the Roman Abramovich era as Chelsea owner, but Grant managed to inject a minor buzz of excitement by switching to a 4-4-2 line-up for the second period and within seconds, they so nearly had the goal they needed.

Florent Malouda, who has been a major disappointment in his first season as a Premier League player, saw his speculative shot diverted onto the bar by Bolton keeper Ali Al Habsi. Juliano Belletti then went close with a shot as the Chelsea pressure mounted and Grant deserved to take some of the credit for improved performance of his team.

The only way we can judge the quality of a manager in the heat of battle is by the way his troops respond to a half-time gee-up and this looked like a Chelsea side who were ready to step up a couple of levels and the previously subdued sell-out crowd responded by raising their game in kind.

Then Chelsea moved within one goal of the title once again as after 61 minutes, Shevchenko bundled home the opening goal of the game to pile all the pressure back on United. All eyes and ears then turned their attentions to a match being played in pouring rain some three hours up the motorway, yet Bolton so nearly equalised as one of their trademark set plays ended with the ball bouncing off the Chelsea crossbar.

Indeed, the visitors deserve plenty of credit for the commitment they showed on a day when they had little to play for but pride. Their determination to throw themselves into tackles was commendable and like Grant, Bolton boss Gary Megson has been a much maligned figure who has answered his critics in the grand manner in recent months.

With 78 minutes on the clock, news came through of United's second and conclusive goal up at Wigan, with Ryan Giggs' effort greeted with gasps of despair in West London. Chelsea's brave, gallant and unexpected late title charge had come to nothing, but Grant had every right to feel proud with his achievements after his first season at a top level club.

Matty Taylor's last minute equaliser came after Chelsea had long given up on their title dream, yet Grant was still trying to be upbeat as he turned his attention to the Champions League Final.

'I offer my congratulations to Manchester United,' said the always dour Grant. 'But more importantly, I am very proud of what my team has achieved this season. They fought right to the end and no one expected us to still be challenging a great United team on the final day of the season.

'I felt we had a real chance when we went 1-0 up, but it was taken out of our hands once United scored their second goal. Still, I believe we have had a great season and it can still be an amazing season.

'Now we can look forward to the Champions League Final and the chance for us to make some history for this club.'

Manchester United deserve their glory, but Avram Grant has earned the right to be respected.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Frank Lampard
On a day when many at Stamford Bridge seemed to lack the belief required, the man who donned the armband in the absence of the injured John Terry gave a whole hearted display.

PITCH PERFECT: The man in charge of the Stamford Bridge pitch deserves a bonus as the surface provided for this final game of the season was magnificent. No wonder he didn't want those pesky Manchester United players running on it after the game a couple of weeks back.

KEEPER CIRCUS: Gary Megson decided to name two goal keepers on the bench, but it was not a moment of madness from the Bolton boss. 'Ian Walker was not feeling well so I felt it was right to name an extra keeper.'

THE FUTURE IS ORANGE: Chelsea keeper Petr Cech looked a little like a clown with a new bright orange kit unveiled for the first time today. Coupled with his head guard, he only needed a pair of floppy feet to complete the outfit.

VERDICT: Failure rarely comes with glory, but for Chelsea to be competing for the title on the final day of the season after overcome so many obstacles was success in itself. Avram Grant may still need a personality bypass, but this dignified man who prefers to take a back-seat can no longer be described as a laughing stock.

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