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Guus Hiddink – the firefighter who reignited Chelsea’s year

Guus Hiddink has enjoyed three weeks of farewells. He has said goodbye to the masses who made him their own at Stamford Bridge, conducting a choir of adoration from the centre circle at Chelsea’s last home game. He has bid ta-ra to the Premier League with victory at Sunderland in the north-east, prompting cheeky pleas from the locals to take the helm on Wearside next term. Yet, on the turf at Wembley this afternoon, his last adieu could be his most fulfilling.

The FA Cup is the chance for the stand-in’s perfect send-off. A club that grew accustomed to hoisting silverware during the trophy–drunk Jose Mourinho era has not claimed honours in the turbulent seasons since. Under Roman Abramovich, high expectations have been maintained and two years represents an unacceptable drought, yet Hiddink can make amends of sorts against Everton today. Chelsea rather stumbled upon their ideal replacement for the Portuguese, turning to the Dutchman out of desperation back in February with their season threatening to unravel. The man Abramovich would now keep beyond all others will return to Russia with love tomorrow, and there is nothing the oligarch can do to prevent it.

Chelsea’s owner is not used to being denied. It is easy to see why Hiddink will be missed. The 62-year-old, answering the SOS from the Russian team’s training camp on the Turkish coast back in February, inherited a squad in danger of ripping itself to shreds. Luiz Felipe Scolari may have enjoyed a blistering start to his reign in the autumn, but the daily grind of club management – and with limited English to make himself understood – had provoked a slump. Too many points were shed in winnable fixtures. Manchester United and Liverpool, twice, beat the Londoners and the discord mounted. Training lacked the intensity Mourinho had once instigated, with the team’s style of play too pedestrian when a more upbeat tempo was required.

Scolari, more used to the international game over recent seasons, was at a loss as to how to arrest the decline or convince an increasingly unresponsive and disillusioned dressing room. Some players were calling for the manager to be backed, others for him to be sacked. As brief as his tenure had been, when the axe fell it came almost as a relief, with Hiddink duly charged to be Chelsea’s “firefighter”. He surveyed the FA Cup fifth-round win at Watford from the stands at Vicarage Road. “Back then, the target was just to qualify for the Champions League,” he admitted. It says everything about the crisis of confidence Chelsea found themselves Best Prada Outlet Italy in that they genuinely feared they might be ousted from the top four. In the 13 league games that Hiddink has Black Prada Doctor Bag overseen, 34 points were won with only one match lost. They ended up 20 points clear of fifth-placed Everton.

Those results were generated by a happier camp. From his first week at Cobham, the temporary manager set about refreshing bodies and minds, reinvigorating the squad with the Black Prada Bag Mission Impossible strenuous work-outs they had craved and reinstilling confidence and belief. The sudden intensity seemed to prise performances from the underachievers, most notably Didier Drogba and Florent Malouda. “Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard have been the backbone of the side all year, the most consistent,” said John Terry. “But for a few of us, myself included, our form had dipped. But he [Hiddink] raised levels again. If you make a mistake in training, or in a game, he will scream and shout at you. He gives you a kick up the backside and sometimes as a big player you need that. Certainly, since he came in we’re fitter, sharper and looking a much more organised side.”

Previously, they had been groping in the dark. Everything about Hiddink’s approach is simple. Players have remarked that his team talks rarely last more than 12 minutes. As one put it: “He understands that, if he goes on any longer, some of the lads switch off and don’t take it all in.” Communication was a problem under the ancien régime. Clarity reigns these days. “We love working with a manager who’s enthusiastic, who creates that buzz about the place,” added Terry. “You get it in training with him. The players ask for ‘boxes’ on a Monday – the routine where you go in the middle and work for the ball – but he comes back with: ‘No, today we work.’ Then, on a Friday, he and Ray [Wilkins] want to get involved so we do it because they want to do it.

“It’s great to see, the enthusiasm he’s still got to be involved. He’s still got a nice left foot, actually. He makes a mistake on the outside and he sends you in as a punishment. No arguments, in you go. You accept it. That’s the respect we have in the man. When he walks into a room everyone’s on their seats. He doesn’t talk long in team meetings. Mourinho was very much the same. We will always have that special connection with Jose, and I am sure we will have the same with Guus as well.”

Age is not dimming his approach. The Dutch equivalent of the League Managers’ Association wrote to Hiddink earlier this month to remind him that he will qualify for a pension in two years’ time – “When I saw the amount I’d be receiving, I Authentic Prada Shoes For Sale realised I had to keep working,” he joked – but the combination of enthusiasm and experience has rubbed off on his players. His first league game, a horribly awkward fixture against Aston Villa who were above Chelsea at the time, was won with an early goal Agatha Ruiz Dela Prada and a grinding defensive performance thereafter. “It was a Are All Prada Products Made In Italy little bit like the old Chelsea,” said Lampard. “The commitment, the never-say-die attitude when Villa were throwing balls into our box … Our performances in the five months since have set a standard. It’s been championship-winning form.”

The journey back from Birmingham was spent discussing the game “over a couple of beers”. “That went down really well,” said Terry. “He had a beer and walked up and down the bus speaking with the lads. When you step back, as a player, you appreciate little things like that.” Winning over this squad, crammed with its various egos and reputations, has become notoriously difficult. Avram Grant lacked the charisma to convince, Scolari the English. Under Hiddink, the key players have all responded.

Malouda suddenly looks a £13.6m international winger. Drogba, his livid reaction post-Barcelona aside, has been a model of commitment and professionalism, and a nightmare for markers. Terry, injuries perhaps having taken their toll, has benefited from Alex’s brawn at his side. Michael Ballack has even been successfully converted into Authentic Prada Outlet Online Uk a deep-lying midfield anchor at times. Potential has been maximised throughout this team. Bicester Village Prada Online “He knows how to talk to each player and get the best out of him,” said Mikel John Obi. “Sometimes he kicks you up the arse and wakes you up. And he brought something back that had been lacking – the fighting spirit, the need to do the dirty work.”

There has also been an injection of speed in the pass. Under Scolari, the team’s forward propulsion became too reliant upon Bosingwa and Ashley Cole’s pace down the flank, and Lampard’s lung-bursting charges from midfield. The likes of Deco and Ballack lacked forward thrust and build-up play was too laboured. Better opponents were comfortable, with Chelsea blunted against the likes of United and Liverpool. “We needed to keep the Authentic Prada Handbags Outlet Uk ball better and move it quickly,” said Lampard. “That was the main change under Hiddink.”

The reality is that no manager has been accepted and made such a profound impact at this club since Mourinho, and where the Special One was granted a little over three years to make his mark, Hiddink has had a little over three months. He leaves a legacy nevertheless. “He will still have a big input into Chelsea over the next few years,” added Terry. “He has promised that to us and to Roman as well. He has seen things that need to be changed for next year and, whoever Agatha Ruiz Dela Prada Online Shop comes in, he will point them in the right directionwhether it be around the training ground, the youth system, the reserves or the first team.

“He’s worrying about the future of Chelsea. That’s how much it means to him. We have all asked him to stay on but, from day one, he has said he owes it to Russia to go back. He is a man of his word and we fully respect like it that. He’s full of fire and dignity and someone I am sure the players will forever respect. I admire his loyalty. He’s a great man as well as a great manager, and now we have to make sure we give him the right send-off by winning the FA Cup.”

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