The Last Word: Leader of the pack

Grant deserves all the plaudits he has been showered with for a superb attitude under extreme pressure.

Former Israel coach Avraham Grant is far from your typical chief of staff. Quiet, unassuming and, at least according to much of the English media for the last couple of years, no beacon of inspiration – a Moshe Dayan or Yitzchak Rabin he is not.
However, as Portsmouth’s FA Cup quarterfinal victory inched toward fruition on Saturday afternoon, the club’s passionate supporters made it known that, for them, Grant is the perfect man to lead their troops into battle, and victory.
With the seconds ticking away, and Pompey 2-0 up at home to Birmingham City, the reality of a Wembley semifinal hit the Fratton Park faithful and they broke out in song, praising the individual they see as responsible for the few positives in a season of tremendous difficulty.
“Avram Grant’s blue and white army,” the thousands of fans chanted in unison, before cheering the final whistle as if their team had won the cup final itself.
It has been a remarkable turnaround for the 54-year-old Pompey manager.
For nearly two years he has been dismissed by the majority of the soccer world as nothing more than a lucky chancer, a wheeler dealer who somehow found himself at the top of his profession without the skills or experience to deal with it.
When Grant led Chelsea to the 2008 Champions League final he received little praise, most commentators instead claiming the Blues’ success was down to team spirit.
Grant’s arrival had clearly coincided with a change of fortunes for the West London club, which had been hurtling downhill before Jose Mourinho extravagantly walked out.
But a John Terry slip ended the dreams of European glory in Moscow.
Soon Roman Abramovich had shown him the door, apparent proof that Grant had never been a suitable candidate and his appointment had been a mistake from the start.
But now the critics are beginning to eat their words.
The unlikely FA Cup run has shot Portsmouth’s soccer back into the spotlight when its financial failures were grabbing all the headlines.
Suddenly Grant is being hailed as the quiet, unassuming inspirer, who has united his group of players in the midst of a crisis.
It is only a few weeks since rumors surfaced of Grant’s plans to quit Portsmouth, following a management decision to transfer goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and defender Younes Kaboul made behind his back.
Yet Grant has shown he is not a quitter.
As the club freewheeled into administration with debts of £86 million, as players were not paid for months on end, he somehow brought the club together and won the respect of both the fans and a begrudging media in the process.
The image published in many UK newspapers on Sunday morning showed a picture of relief – Grant dressed in a black coat, arms raised and head back as he screamed for joy.
It was instantly reminiscent of the scene at Stamford Bridge in April 2008, when Grant fell to his knees and threw his arms in the air after Chelsea beat Liverpool 3-2 in extra time in the Champions League semifinal.
The man from Petah Tikva does his best to remain understated, but, on rare occasions, his emotions spill out.
Saturday’s quarterfinal victory showed a side of Portsmouth which has hardly been seen in recent months.
Just a week after the club entered administration, Grant’s boys won a second consecutive match, following up a 2-1 league win over Burnley with an excellent performance against a Birmingham side enjoying one of its best seasons ever.
No matter that Alex McCleish’s Brum got revenge in the league a few days later, Frederic Piquionne’s double lifted the spirit of the entire city.
For much of the quarterfinal Portsmouth played crisp, entertaining soccer, capped by Piquionne’s delightful second goal where he turned the visiting defense inside out before slotting home.
There was controversy over an apparent Birmingham goal not given 10 minutes before the end, but Grant, his players and fans had every right to celebrate the win to their hearts’ content.
There is now a cup semi against Fulham or Tottenham to come, and then the possibility of a mouthwatering FA Cup final against Chelsea.
Life is not going to be easy for anyone connected with Portsmouth FC in the coming weeks and months.
On Wednesday it was announced that 85 staff members have lost their jobs as the administrators attempt to cut costs.
The club is five points adrift at the bottom of the Premier Leaguetable and the spectre of being hit with a possible nine-point penaltyfor going into administration is hanging over Fratton Park like theangel of doom.
However, it now seems that if anyone can hold the club together it is Avraham Grant.
Perhaps he will even achieve the unthinkable and keep the team up. Buteven if he doesn’t, Grant deserves all the plaudits he has beenshowered with for a superb attitude under extreme pressure.