What does Brooking, Platini and a car have in common?
Avram Grant: They told me I was like Brooking as a player but really I was more of a Platini… then a car smashed into me
Avram Grant had just suggested to his mother that they cross at a safer point in the road when the motorcycle struck him. He was thrown 33 metres, only to then be hit by a car coming from the opposite direction.
A promising 17-year-old footballer’s career was certainly over, but for two weeks his family feared his life was over as well. ‘It took me two weeks to regain full consciousness,’ says Grant.
‘And two months to even get out of bed. I remember the day they let me use a wheelchair. It was freedom. One of the happiest days of my life.
‘You know the irony? We were going to the hospital to visit my niece, who had been in a car accident. They said I had broken just about every bone down the left side of my body, with two bones within an inch of my heart.’
The doctors told Grant he would walk but never play football at any kind of level again.
‘And I was good!’ he says with a smile and a touch of mock indignation. ‘A technical, attacking midfielder who scored goals. People compared me to Trevor Brooking. Looking back I think I was more like Platini!’ After a year of painful rehabilitation, he decided to return to his club near Tel Aviv, Hapoel Petah Tikva, as the youth team coach.
‘I was 18-and-a-half,’ he says. ‘But I took to it immediately. I had been captain of teams I had played for and I loved helping players improve.’
Grant was in the job for more than 13 years, but in that time took every opportunity to educate himself. He studied at the university in Tel Aviv for a degree in psychology and physical education, and travelled as much as he could, often with his football-mad Uncle Jacob, to learn from the greats of the game. As a teenager he went to watch Ron Greenwood’s West Ham train and also recalls observing Hennes Weisweiler, the legendary coach of the Borussia Monchengladbach side that lost the 1977 European Cup final to Liverpool.
‘I quickly realised that, because of the quality of the football, I could only learn so much in Israel,’ he says. ‘I would go to England five or six times a year, and to other parts of Europe. To Milan, Madrid. I saw Fabio Capello in Roma and during his first spell in Madrid. Just to study his methods.’
Grant’s rise from youth coach to manager by the time he was 31 is something that defines him and something, after what has been a difficult start to his tenure at Upton Park, that should give supporters of West Ham a better idea of the man now in charge of their club’s destiny.
Ambition: Grant wants to build something exciting at West Ham
He is a fighter; someone, from the moment he was struck by that motorcycle, who has been battling against adversity for most of his life. For the most part he has been winning, given the success he enjoyed in Israel and since he arrived in the Barclays Premier League.
At home, he amassed 10 major domestic trophies, with four league titles among them, before a decent stint with the national team was then followed by his brief but dramatic spells with Chelsea, who West Ham face at Upton Park today, and Portsmouth.
In the 87 matches with the two clubs, he managed to reach a Champions League final, two Wembley finals and came within a whisker of winning the Premier League title, too. Not bad for a 55-year-old guy who, on both occasions, became manager after the season had started.
Having sat down for a spot of lunch in London’s West End, he reflects candidly for the first time on the chaos he encountered at Fratton Park. He talks about working for a club that was going bust with players who were not even being paid on time; players who responded to the dismissal of training ground staff by paying their wages to keep them on.
‘I can’t really describe what it was like,’ he says. ‘But you are from the media so I will put it like this. The media sometimes create a big story from a small story. In this instance the story was so much bigger than even the media realised.
‘There are still things I don’t know and to be honest I didn’t want to know too much at the time. I had to focus on the football side and put all my energy into what was a difficult enough challenge. I didn’t want the distraction of all the financial problems. But there were obviously many things that were wrong. I don’t know what happened to all the money when all those players were sold. But I was made certain promises when I took the job. That money would be reinvested in the team. It was why I agreed to have a big chunk of my salary set aside for a bonus for keeping them up.
‘But the money never materialised, the club went into administration, the team was docked nine points and that was that. Nobody has ever explained to me what went wrong. I would like to know but I’m not sure any of us will ever know.’
At Chelsea, where the players were left stunned by the sudden departure of Jose Mourinho, and also at Portsmouth it was a case of combining crisis-management with football management. But the challenge at Fratton Park was one that Grant relished. A challenge that drew on every ounce of his experience and wisdom.
‘It was very difficult,’ he says. ‘There was one day when the players had a meeting after they had again not been paid and many of the staff had been fired. ‘I said we have two choices. We can give up and we will go to the beach. Or we can fight on. But if we do, let’s really fight. I don’t want somewhere in-between. I am not interested in that.
‘And they took the decision to fight. They paid the money to keep on some of the training ground staff and we played with spirit. I was very proud of what happened. We did a good service to English football, because we kept fighting. We believed in the spirit of the game and we protected the integrity of the competition. We won games. We got to the FA Cup final. And again one penalty from glory.’
He also hopes the Premier League recognise Portsmouth for the cautionary tale that it is.
‘Look, the people who run the Premier League have created a great league. But they need to be careful. Right now it is the best league in the world but the Germans had the best league in the world at one stage and so did the Italians.
‘The fact is, anybody can buy a team here without guarantees and they really do need to look at that. You can buy a club even if you don’t have money. And at Portsmouth, in the end, it was the supporters who got punished and that is not right.’
Amid the financial chaos that reigned under Icelandic ownership, the supporters of West Ham have suffered, too. And they are worried now, given that their team have failed to take a single point from their first three Premier League games under Grant’s guidance. But the man in charge is not panicking.
‘You can never be calm in football,’ he says. ‘But I am sure we are going in the right direction. We have not had an easy star t . Now we play Chelsea; another difficul t game. And we have been unlucky with injuries. Thomas Hitzlsperger and Pablo Barrera have been two important signings but both were injured in international matches before the star t of the season and we have missed them.’
Last weekend, reports suggested Grant was already under pressure. That the club’s owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, were beginning to get itchy trigger fingers.
‘Those stories are absolutely not true,’ he says. ‘I have spoken to the owners and they know where we are. When I took the job they said it is going to be tough. They took over a club with many debts and the first task is to regain financial stability.
‘We agreed that for the first season we just have to stay in this league. That is the objective. I want to build something exciting here. Something to be proud of because West Ham is a great football club.
‘I signed a four-year contract because I have a vision that the owners share. But they are also responsible people. The kind of people a club like Portsmouth needed. ‘Nobody is happy that we have no points. The picture might not be good now but it is one that will improve. I know it will.’
After nearly 40 years in coaching, West Ham should certainly trust his judgment.