Avram Grant is a softspoken football manager who spent his formative managerial years in Israel coaching Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Haifa and the Israel national team.
The Israeli took over as manager of Chelsea in 2007 and brought them to the brink of a Champions League final victory, only for a John Terry penalty miss to snatch it away. He led Portsmouth to the FA Cup final in 2010, the same season they went into administration. He then managed West Ham the season they were relegated and recently helped guide Partizan Belgrade to their fifth successive Serbian Championship before resigning.
Phuket Gazette sports editor Andrew Scott sat with Grant at the Serenity Resort and Residences in Phuket when the 57-year-old visited the picturesque island.
How did you find the transition from coaching the Israel national team to coaching Chelsea?
For me it was not a big surprise. Since the age of 22 I had visited England five times each year and was in Europe to study. I was Bob Paisley’s guest at Liverpool and I watched training for one week to 10 days – watching games to see how the club was run. Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson are friends, so it was not something I didn’t know before. I thought that I could give something to English football and it could give something to me.
Why did it take you so long to leave Israel?
If you look at England now, there is no coach or manager from a small country. It’s very difficult for them to accept someone from a small country. People noticed me only when they watched the Israeli national team’s qualification for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where we didn’t lose a game and missed out on qualification by only two goals.
Who is the best Israeli player you have worked with?
I have worked with many good players, but if I have to choose, it would be Yossi Benayoun, who has played for Arsenal, Chelsea and now plays for West Ham. I think he is the most famous one. I started to coach him in 2000 when he was 19 years old. Then we won the championship with Maccabi Haifa in Israel. After Israel he moved onto Spain and to England. He is the type of player I believe in because he is also a very nice person.
What makes him so special?
He is very clever and can think a lot quicker than other players with or without the ball. I have to admit I was not so sure he would succeed in England as he was not so physical. He is an intelligent player who can help the dynamic players around him.
Why do you think fewer English players play abroad?
I think for two reasons. First: it is the most exciting league in the world. Stadiums are always full, even if you go to the Championship – the stadiums are always full. A football player is like an actor, he wants to play where everybody will see him. Second: Money. Players always get paid on time. When I was at Portsmouth the owners didn’t pay on time and this was a big thing in England.
When you took over from Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, was it hard to rid the club of his dominating influence?
I can tell you that one of my friends sent me a message saying, “I don’t know if you know what you are going to do after Jose Mourinho.” I knew it would be very difficult and that all the world expected I would fail after Mourinho. As I have done all my life, I took on the challenge and only thought about what was best for the team. It was not easy but it was a big challenge.
Do you think your time at Chelsea was a success?
Some of the players said at the time that they didn’t think any other manager could’ve taken over after Mourinho and carried the team the way that I did. When I first saw them, the team was neither good nor was the atmosphere. With me they were almost the champions of England. We came down to the last game on the same points as Manchester United, which nobody was expecting when I started, and then the Champions league final. It was a very good season and I laid a good base for Chelsea for the future.
Did you feel hard done by when you lost your job after the Champions league final?
Yes. In football, you are only as good as your last result. My last result was good and other results were good [but] it was a decision of the owner. I didn’t even ask him why. I moved forward and had good days after that.
You had worked with John Terry for a few years. What are your views on his racism case?
I think it went a little bit too far. John Terry is not a racist. Even though he said a few words he didn’t need to say. But, we are playing football. If we played here five on five, maybe we would also say something that is not so nice. It is good to fight against racism.
Why do you think he is so disliked in England?
The press thrives in such moments. They saw a case and spoke about the case. I don’t think they dislike Terry but they didn’t like what he did this time and they took it too far. I don’t think they hate Terry.
Do you think there is a problem of racism in British football?
No, I don’t think so. No more than any other country in the world. In every society you will find a racist. There are problems in Austria, in Italy – in many, many countries – but it is only a minority. In football, like in other areas of life, you hear the minority more than the others. The English supporters are very good. They give a lot of respect to their team and the opposition. Among 40,000 fans you are bound to find a few who are not okay.
What do you make of Portsmouth’s downfall?
I feel so sorry about what has happened. I am not sure who is right and who is wrong. The victims of this situation are the supporters. Portsmouth supporters are the best in the world. They get right behind the team. We played a semifinal and 45,000 people came from Portsmouth. We were in a very bad situation and the supporters were still behind us. If English football wants to maintain its high standards, it needs to find a solution so that, if some people do the wrong things, the victims of the situation will not be the supporters. I always tell peo