It wasn’t his football accomplishments which finally got the Chelsea manager some good press
There can be little dispute as to who is the most famous Israeli in Britain. No, it is not the articulate new Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor, despite his impressive media appearances. Nor is it the conductor Daniel Barenboim, who has recently garnered acres of space in The Guardian, pronouncing on the difficulties of his adopted land.
It is without doubt the manager of Chelsea Football Club, Avram Grant, plucked from the relative obscurity of the coaching staff last autumn to take over from the charismatic Jose Mourinho. This was perhaps his biggest sin. Mourinho was a favourite of the sports journalists because of his colourful language, and was adored by women because of his dark good looks and style. Grant was the antithesis of all this: taciturn, slightly overweight, and he rarely smiled. He only recently came into his own as someone with a quick, understated Jewish wit.
Even the most cultured of the sports journalists regretted what they saw as Grant’s usurping of one of the greatest jobs in the land. Henry Winter, writing in the Telegraph, bemoaned the fact that, despite the results, he was in a job which rightfully might have gone to one of the great, young homegrown managers like Everton’s David Moyes or Blackburn’s Mark Hughes. And Grant hadn’t served his time, came from a minor footballing nation, and was only there because he was a pal of the owner Roman Abramovich.
In some of the copy — and certainly on the terraces — there appeared to be more than a touch of antisemitism, as confirmed by the abusive, racist emails revealed by the JC last week.
The mood changed when Grant outpaced his predecessor Mourinho by dumping Liverpool out of the Champions League en route to Moscow. For football reporters, the greatest human drama is a broken leg or dislocated arm. But Grant exposed them to something infinitely more moving and shocking when, 12 hours after the Liverpool victory, he flew to Poland to take part on the Holocaust Memorial Day Services at Auschwitz.
As the Daily Mirror noted (and the JC first reported), his father Meir survived the Nazi invasion of Poland but his grandparents and countless other relatives were among the six million who died. “This puts every battle you fight in proportion — including the battles you fight in football,” he told the paper. There were similarly sympathetic reports in the Sun, the Daily Mail and the broadsheets. Grant was no longer the cold fish and the usurper.
One of the most sensitive profiles came from Roger Alton, soon-to-be Independent editor, in the Spectator. Why was Grant not getting the respect he deserved, Alton queried. He wondered if it might be antisemitism: “There has always been an unpleasant strain of it running through English, and especially London, life,” he noted.
Alton speculated that a change in attitude was possibly engendered by the spin doctor Matthew Freud, husband of Elisabeth Murdoch and direct descendent of Sigmund, whom he called “an extremely smart psychological operator.” Furthermore, Grant had made “a magnificent speech” at the March of the Living between Auschwitz and Birkenau. “He was a hero to thousands of Jews present,” Alton concluded.
Gradually Grant — and not just through results on the field — has begun to win over the media and, via them, the supporters. It has been difficult. And at times the intense spotlight has sent Grant into monosyllabic rage. But latterly, the media have come to see in him a manager whose intelligence and battle-scarred history make him different from other managers. Turning the tide of media opinion is not easy, as many former England mangers, would testify.
Somehow, Grant managed it.