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Michael Emenalo exit interview: Leaving a massive legacy at Chelsea

Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

On Monday, Chelsea announced that the club had accepted the resignation of technical director Michael Emenalo. It was news that no one was expecting. Emenalo had become a fixture over the past decade at Cobham, growing into his role with purposeful drive, hard work, and admirable ambition, becoming one of Roman Abramovich’s most trusted leaders at the club. Derided by many but appreciated by those who mattered — given far too much but also not enough credit — Emenalo made a massive impact on the club, whether he’ll admit it or not, leaving behind an important legacy but also a tremendous hole in terms of stability and direction without an obvious successor lined up.

The following barely scratches Emenalo’s complex, controversial, outstanding legacy at Chelsea Football Club.

Ten years and two weeks ago, almost to the day, Avram Grant, interim Chelsea manager, convinced his good friend and former player at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Michael Emenalo to join his fledgling staff at Stamford Bridge. Grant had been appointed manager after José Mourinho’s (first) sacking; Emenalo would be his chief scout, arriving from the Tucson Soccer Academy in Tucson, Arizona, USA, where he had served as chief executive—yes, he also coached a (very successful) U12 girls’ team at the Academy, much to the merriment of the sexist footballing elite ever since. In an interview with the local paper, he described how his skills in evaluating talent translated to his new job.

"My job is still to spot and evaluate talent. But being back working in big-time soccer is exciting. I miss that, and working with top-quality pros is a joy.

"The added bonus of it is going to a club that has a manager that I have the utmost respect for and I can learn from. It's a wonderful soccer education for me, like studying for your Ph.D. at Harvard."

-Michael Emenalo, Nov 2007; source: Arizona Daily Star

Grant wasn’t the only one interested in Emenalo. The former Nigeria international (including for the Super Eagles’ 1994 World Cup campaign) was also being recruited by his former manager at Lleida, Juande Ramos, who had recently been appointed as head coach at Tottenham Hotspur. Most importantly, Emenalo also impressed Roman Abramovich personally.

As legend goes, Emenalo auditioned for his Chelsea role by opposition-scouting Valencia in the group stages of the 2007-08 Champions League, thus playing a part in Chelsea’s 2-1 victory at the Mestalla in October even before getting officially hired later that month. After that victory, Emenalo was introduced to Abramovich, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since he joined, first as chief scout then as Director of Football (DoF), with a brief period serving as one of Ancelotti’s assistant managers after Ray Wilkins* was let go, Emenalo has played a key role in reshaping the club, especially in how scouting, recruitment, and player development are handled. These are hardly transparent processes, and Emenalo, who was often confused for a Board member, which he was not, has caught plenty of (unjustified) flack from the very beginning from both insiders and outsiders, fans and media alike for his perceived involvement in various decisions made over the past decade—the nadir of which was the last six months of Mourinho’s second stint at the club, when Emenalo oversaw the deadline day signings of Michael Hector and Papy Djilobodji and then was picked to deliver the tone-deaf message from the club after the sacking itself (a Board decision, not a DoF decision) a few months later.

*(Wilkins quite clearly harbors some personal resentment, as this interview on BBC 5 Live on Monday left no doubt.)

It is perhaps fitting that Emenalo now got to conduct his own exit interview, sitting down with Chelsea TV to reflect on his time at Chelsea, including the past six years as Director of Football. (You can watch the video from free, but it’s not embeddable, so you have to do so on the official website.)

“After 10 years here, 10 wonderful, successful years, but very demanding years, it is a very tough decision to decide to step aside. It is entirely my decision and it has come about for very simple reasons. I need an opportunity to get to see my young kids grow and also to step back and reflect on the work that I have done here and the things that we have been able to accomplish together in this great club.”

“It is something I have been thinking about for quite some time now and it is something I have discussed with my family and they understand the reasons and the timing for wanting to step aside. But this is not a knee-jerk reaction or decision, it has been on my mind and it has been thoroughly discussed amongst friends and colleagues.”

Initial reports claimed that Emenalo was “let go” — i.e. sacked — by Chelsea, but as the comments from Chelsea Chairman Bruce Buck first alluded to, this decision appears to have been made by Emenalo alone. He cites family as the biggest reason — his wife and three kids live at least part of the year back in Tucson, AZ, where she’s a local soccer legend — though there are a few stray rumors of AS Monaco knocking on his door as well, which would be rather ironic given the usual criticisms of Emenalo’s decisions at Chelsea and Monaco’s fabled player recruitment of recent years.

And while Emenalo did revolutionize and streamline Chelsea’s scouting processes, aligning it with more modern methods after the bloat and controversies of his predecessor, Frank Arnesen, his biggest legacy will undoubtedly be Chelsea loan system, which is something that he was not only proud of, but repeatedly maintained that other teams are looking to implement as well. (And if we look at, say, Manchester City, it turns out Emenalo was not wrong on that account.)

“The first thing I would like to say is that I have been very, very lucky. When you work in this organisation you are lucky because you are surrounded by very talented and very experienced and intelligent people. I have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that working from the top down. I have had incredible support staff. I’ve had a set-up in so many different areas that can only bring success. At the Academy we have an Academy manager who is absolutely outstanding. We have a scouting network that was revolutionary, people are copying some of the things that we did.

“We have managed to improve our opposition scouting department and the recruitment of players. There are so many things outside of the technical area which I am aware of that have also grown and improved exponentially.

“But the ultimate ambition and ultimate goal of this football club has always been to win, and the totality of the wins that we’ve had – whether it’s the Champions League, or the Premier League, or the Europa League, the Ladies’ Premier League and cups, the Academy, those young men winning back-to-back youth Champions Leagues – they have all been achievements that I am very proud of, and I’m proud of it because it’s not just an achievement by me or that has just my influence, it’s an achievement that is the totality of everybody’s work.”

And yet, despite all those trophies and wins and glories, the most wonderful parting gift for Emenalo was one born out of strange circumstances, when Andreas Christensen, the latest poster child for Emenalo’s loan system working exactly as intended, was surprisingly drafted in by Conte to replace David Luiz in the starting lineup against Manchester United. Like player development itself, sometimes opportunities arise out of simple random chance and coincidence.

“Absolutely. Andreas, unbeknown to him, gave me a wonderful parting gift yesterday because his performance is indicative of what development is all about. Development equals humility, hard work and timing and Andreas has done all three.

“He’s shown great humility to go on loan and work very hard while he was there and gain the experience which is needed, and the timing is right for him now to step in and show what he’s learnt during those periods of development.”

In his exit interview, Emenalo says he simply wants to be remembered for his dedication and love of the club. But that would greatly undersell his impact on the club over the past decade and especially over the past six years.

We often talk about “stability” at a football club. At Chelsea, that stability, beyond just Roman Abramovich’s continued dedication to the cause, had come from Michael Emenalo as Director of Football. Head coaches, managers, whatever we want to call them, come and go seemingly every year, if not more often. By definition, these short-term appointments that depend altogether far too much on the team’s results must not set the overall direction of the club—not even if José Mourinho comes back to his (then) happy place. Those are old-school ideals that outside of Arsenal, do not have a place in modern top level football.

The conflict between Emenalo and Mourinho never quite rose to the level that the former possibly was envisioning when he offered to resign in the summer of 2013, but as power see-sawed between the two, we saw how destructive it could be for both of their plans. The post-mortems over why and just how exactly Chelsea managed to rid ourselves of the qualities of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku will probably go on until they’re all retired, but the shift in emphasis from signing (younger) players for the future and signing (older) players to win-now was marked a year later by the arrivals of Fàbregas and Costa. A title duly followed, as did a collapse, palpable discord, and yet another transition period.

That’s not to say that everything Emenalo had done was good or sensible or successful. The summer after Mourinho’s last title was an unmitigated disaster for both “sides”, punctuated by the laughable arrivals of Michael Hector and Papy Djilobodji on transfer deadline day. But those who are celebrating Emenalo’s “demise” as a “victory” for Conte may yet be in for a rude awakening. One man’s departure doesn’t guarantee longevity for the other, and by most accounts, there was no actual conflict between head coach and technical director—there may have been professional disagreements (Morata vs. Lukaku, for example), but nothing good has ever come from a bunch of yes-men. If there is conflict, it’s possibly between Conte and Granovskaia, The Hand of Abramovich, and she’s still around. Her line of Chelsea now “reviewing our management structure” is as ominous as it possibly is just standard management speak at a time of change.

How all that will shake out, and whether Conte does actually “gain” more power and influence over the non-playing aspects of the club’s operations (unlikely, but you never know) remains to be seen.

Emenalo’s confident he leaves things in good hands, whether that be the world class scouting department, the Loan Army (who’s going to take over running that?), the Academy with director Neil Bath, the Ladies team who have become one of the best in all of Europe, or the first-team itself.

“I think professionally there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is a good time for me to step aside and let the club continue to move forward. The club is in good hands, an outstanding board of directors, a very generous owner, one of the best coaches in world football who I know from personal day-to-day interaction cares about his work and about the club, an Academy that is the best in the world bar none, a Ladies team and programme that is evolving at rapid and successful speed. There is so much to be proud of in this club but the time has come for me to also take a step aside and consider some personal growth which I think at my age and after 10 years of demanding and gruelling and all-encompassing work, is very necessary.”

And so, Emenalo’s unlikely, controversial, impressive, and wildly successful journey at Chelsea Football Club has come to an end. Ten years ago, he was a relative nobody. Today, there’s not a Chelsea fan who doesn’t know his name or have an opinion about him.

As ever in these sorts of situations, Emenalo’s true legacy probably won’t emerge until a few years down the line. Will his accomplishments, failures, ideas, and methods stand the test of time? They just might.

“I think I would like to be seen as someone who was very dedicated to the job, who loved the people he worked with and who loved the club. I was speaking to a friend earlier and alluding to the fact that to support Chelsea Football Club, work for this club and love this club, to share and revel in the dramas, especially the successful ones of winning trophies, is very addictive.

“My family and I have enjoyed that addiction, and I don’t know if that passes as a legacy but I would like to be remembered as someone who absolutely enjoyed supporting and working for Chelsea Football Club.

“It will be different [and wonderful to watch only as a fan]; I hope everything that comes out is positive because I know how difficult it is as a fan to be helpless on the outside and just wanting your team to do so well. Hopefully the experiences I have from the inside will help me to keep my nerves, but these are exciting times and I look forward to enjoying being a supporter.”

-Michael Emenalo; source: Chelsea FC

Thanks for everything, Michael, and best of luck in whatever comes next.

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