Perhaps Carlo Ancelotti’s most heinous crime as Chelsea manager was simply doing too good a job. After all, what good is two trophies in your first season and being top of the league 13 games in to your second with a settled, free-scoring squad to a club characterised by its own internal soap operas and the propensity to snatch utter calamity from the jaws of apparent serenity?
Successful as the Roman Abramovich years have been, this was far too off-brand; far too symbolic of the sort of functional football club which would bore Netflix and Amazon to tears nowadays. And so, on November 11, 2010, it was decreed by someone somewhere that normal service would resume at Stamford Bridge through the sudden and still-inexplicable sacking of Ancelotti’s assistant, Ray Wilkins.
By the time Ancelotti took his place in the Chelsea dugout three days later for the visit of Sunderland, there was an almost deliberately empty seat next to him; his first team coach Paul Clement to his left, a gaping void that had already swallowed whole any sense of tranquility about Chelsea to his right. Sunderland had been pulverised 5-1 in the Tyne-Wear derby two weeks earlier and were demolished 7-2 at Stamford Bridge the previous season. They ran out here deserved 3-0 winners. It was Chelsea’s worst home defeat for eight years.
From then on, Chelsea hardly capitulated, but the underlying sense of turmoil never quite fully evaporated. A Champions League quarter-final and second place was, inevitably, not enough to save Ancelotti - at least back then, anyway, no trophies meant no job for the man in the Stamford Bridge hot seat. And while it would obviously be unfair on the Italian to downplay his own involvement in Chelsea’s success under him, it seems as much now as it did then that Wilkins’ departure precipitated their demise.
And to be fair, the Italian manager seems to think so, too. In his 2010 autobiography ‘The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius’, released shortly after their double success and two months prior to Wilkins’ departure, he said of his assistant: “Ray is one of those select few, always present, noble in spirit, a real blue-blood, Chelsea flows in his veins... without him we wouldn’t have won a thing.” Even something as trivial as Wilkins explaining to Ancelotti that the Chelsea fans were singing “Carlo, give us a wave” to him before duly obliging during a crucial 2-0 win at Anfield in May rather typifies how grateful and reliant he was on Wilkins.
For a first-time Premier League manager, Ancelotti could not have asked for a better number two than someone so tactically astute and steeped in Chelsea’s history as Wilkins. Glowing tributes from some of the titans from this team following Wilkins’ tragic passing in April 2018, including John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, also suggested as much. Whereas it is commonplace for any new manager to surround himself with their own entourage, dismissing backroom staff from the previous failed regime as collateral damage, Ancelotti valued much of the personnel he inherited, even replacing Wilkins with Clement, who later followed the Italian to Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich as his assistant again.
Where is this all going? Well, eight years since leaving Chelsea, Carlo is back on these shores - and in the Hollywood of football that is north-west England, no less. He’s said all the right things since being appointed Everton manager on Saturday, he’s come armed - importantly - with a particularly dashing coat, and he’s made a sensible first move that the four men who most recently occupied his new office all dared not risk - allowing Duncan Ferguson to have a louder voice.
Ferguson is not cut from the same cloth as Wilkins. Both bleed royal blue, albeit of different strands, but the Scot at least appears far more visceral than Wilkins ever was, wearing his heart on his sleeve as much as his old sweatband or Howard Kendall’s broken watch. That aside, though, the scenario Ancelotti has walked into feels strikingly similar to that which he discovered at Stamford Bridge a decade ago. Albeit in a shared role with the manager’s son, Davide, Ferguson will step up from first team coach to assistant. For a man who patently harbours hopes of becoming the club’s permanent number one eventually, his undefeated audition as caretaker boss, and his chance to now work in such close proximity with one of the world’s greatest, offers him one of the best platforms to realise this dream.
Ancelotti spoke at his unveiling on Monday of how transfixed he was by the feverish atmosphere in Ferguson’s three games in charge at Goodison Park (at least, before the Arsenal game kicked off, anyway). He even said “wow” as the ground swelled to a crescendo of cheers as the players emerged from the tunnel on Saturday. The root of this revival, though, is Ferguson; not just for his touchline bombast, but for restoring a genuine sense of pride and belief among a beleaguered fan base with five points from three games against the ‘big six’ and forcing rampant Leicester City to penalties in the EFL Cup.
Ferguson himself stressed the need last week for the next Everton manager to harness this feeling going forward, and in that regard, Ancelotti could have done far worse than making the man responsible more central to his plans. It would have been easier for him to mimic his predecessors and marginalise the club legend, muting one of the club’s most thunderous voices to prevent the risk of being undermined by a fan favourite. In fact, though different in approach to Wilkins, Ferguson could complement the 60-year-old perfectly; the stirring, hot-blooded yin to his manager’s more cerebral yang.
There were more than a few glimpses during the interim manager’s two-week reign of tactical nous to underpin the unquestionable devotion to the club he possesses in spades. Now, with an established and clearly-defined role in Ancelotti’s setup, he can finally put to bed for good the cheap shot of ‘what does Big Dunc actually do?’ He must seize the chance to be as indispensable to Ancelotti at Everton as Wilkins was to him at Chelsea, and prove even further that beneath the adrenaline-fuelled veil of zest lies a genuinely excellent coach.