Avram Grant interview: Fighting dictators and directors, from Israel to Bollywood

A gruff chuckle comes from deep within Avram Grant. Try as he might, he cannot help but recall his time in English football. But one particular aspect tickles him as he considers his new post in the Indian Super League.

"You know, everybody complained when I was in England, all the foreign coaches, saying why did we need all these games at Christmas and, over here, there's even more," Grant says by phone from Goa, on the west coast of India.

After a six-and-a-half hour flight from Bangalore, via Mumbai, followed by a 90-minute bus journey and change of hotel, Grant's team have arrived in the bustling city, which overlooks the Arabian Sea. But there is little time for tourism. NorthEast United are getting ready for their first of six games in 18 days, as part of a fight for survival.

"The travel here is not like in London," Grant tells Newsweek. "You need to travel a lot. We had one game on Wednesday, then on Thursday we fly for two hours in the morning and then six hours by bus, and then we play the day after."

Grant is now 62 years old and in unfamiliar territory. A decade has passed since he was sacked by Chelsea—something he disputes—eight years since he wrote an emotional letter of resignation at Portsmouth, and seven since he was sacked by West Ham after being relegated from the Premier League.

Since leaving British shores he has worked far and wide: from Serbia to Ghana, on to Thailand, and now India. He has lectured at universities and companies around the world and launched a new project called 'Win Your Mind' based on methods of success through psychology.

It is the mental side of the game that Grant returns to frequently in a wide-ranging interview that looks at his friendships from Bollywood to the NBA, dictators in football, his relationship with Roman Abramovich, why he's always guilty and how he ended up in India.

And it is here, with his move to South Asia, that we begin: Grant became interim head coach of NorthEast United, second from bottom in the Indian Super League, on January 4 after Joao de Deus was sacked. It is a move that he had been considering for a while.

Avram Grant
Avram Grant in Port-Gentil, Gabon, February 4, 2017. Grant has been appointed head coach of Indian Super League club North East United. STEVE JORDAN/AFP/Getty

"The last few years I was very curious about India because every year they ask me to come to be coach and I didn't want to come for one year or one season because I didn't know how it is here," he says. "Now they ask me to come until the end of the season and it's a good chance to see what it's like."

The man Grant describes as "they" is NorthEast United owner and Bollywood star John Abraham. "John Abraham is my friend," he says. "He is a very interesting guy with a lot of passion. He also comes from show business so he knows what is going on. I told him the only difference between movies and here is that you cannot take cuts at the middle of the game and say let's do it again!"

That deep chuckle rises again. This train of thought gets Grant thinking, and he recalls a conversation he had with another high-profile friend. "I said to Phil Jackson, if I could take some timeout or to replace players for a few minutes I would be a better coach," he says. Grant has known Jackson, who won 11 NBA titles as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, for 30 years after admiring his mental approach to the game. Grant watched how Jackson kept the hunger within prolific winners such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson despite their financial wealth. Grant used that knowledge when he entered coaching in 1986 with Hapoel Petah Tikva in Israel and has taken it to India today.

Grant's first impressions of the Indian Super League have been interesting, if odd. "Every flight here is three hours, four hours, five hours, and you play two away games close to each other. But what is very, very interesting is the team, the players and the staff are all staying in the same hotel all the time.

"Sometimes the conditions are not so great, so all the teams are sitting in hotels. We are staying in the same hotel seven days a week. On one hand, [the players] are under you, you can do a lot of things. But on the other... it's strange."

North East United
Avram Grant, center, coaches North East United in Goa, India. North East United

Grant has already brought success to NorthEast. He led the team to its first win of the season against Goa on January 6, and then another against Chennaiyin FC two weeks later, leading to hopes of a revival. It is this type of work that saw him appointed technical director at Portsmouth in 2006 with Harry Redknapp as manager, and then saw Abramovich take him to Chelsea a year later as director of football.

Much has been made of Grant's friendship with Abramovich, the Russian oligarch he got to know during his time as Israel's national team manager between 2002 and 2006. He acknowledges the accusations of nepotism made when he took the reins at Stamford Bridge when Jose Mourinho was sacked two months after he arrived, remembering "a lot of suspicion."

"When I was director, it was not a problem because everybody saw we had done a very good job at Portsmouth with Harry Redknapp as the manager and [Alexandre] Gaydamak as the owner," Grant explains. "They were nice players and we played very, very good football—Portsmouth are my love. So then Abramovich came to me and said, 'Come and do the job you did at Portsmouth at Chelsea.' I came to Chelsea, we started very well and I had a good relationship with Jose, and then the results were not so good. Jose left and Abramovich asked me to replace him."

Mourinho was sacked eight games into the season after dropping points against Liverpool at Anfield, losing away to Aston Villa, a goalless draw with Blackburn and then failing to beat Rosenborg in the Champions League. Grant told Abramovich his style would be different, that he didn't believe in "dictators."

Roman Abramovich and Avram Grant
Roman Abramovich, center, and Avram Grant, right, at Stamford Bridge, London, February 17, 2013. Grant sits in Abramovich's box at Chelsea as a guest five years after leaving the club. GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty

"I always say coaches are like directors of movies," he says. "The movie needs to be good and the actors are the stars, not the coaches. The coaches need to give the stage to perform, and what we did in Chelsea was to go by the mental side, to go from a situation where there wasn't a [confident] performance to a situation where they play like they know they can.

"I remember I said to the owner one time, 'You need to know that I am different from the coach before, not because I'm better or he's better, but because I think the players are the stars and we need to do it in a way to take the best from them.' If you look back, John Terry, [Ricardo] Carvalho, [Frank] Lampard, [Claude] Makelele, [Didier] Drogba, [Michael] Ballack, Joe Cole, and others, it was one of the best years—maybe the best year—of their life, and I know people take it for granted."

During the nine months Grant was in charge at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea lost just once in the Premier League, a 1-0 defeat away to Arsenal. His team forced the title race to the final day of the season, lost the League Cup final to Tottenham and were a penalty kick away from winning the Champions League after Terry's famous slip in Moscow. Grant purrs as he points to an unbeaten home record and insists his team played "exciting, attacking football."

"I always say to myself, I will not speak about this and people will forget, but every time people remember what happened and, to be fair, it is a very good memory for me," he says. "I think it was a great season, not just because of this but we played very, very good football and very attacking football with three forwards and two midfielders.

"One thing I'm very proud of is, before I came they said it was ugly football and the atmosphere was not good, and during my time they didn't say that. I always say that one thing I learned from my father is don't live in the memories, but it was good memories. It was a great year and all that I did was a basis for the future. But the owner decided different, and that's OK. That's life."

Champions League final in 2008
Frank Lampard, left, Avram Grant, center, and John Terry in Moscow, Russia, May 21, 2008. Grant was a penalty kick away from winning the Champions League as Chelsea manager. Christof Koepsel/Getty

Despite Grant's record, he was relieved of his duties in a private meeting with Abramovich at the end of the season. "He said he didn't sack me, I came as a director and he wanted me to continue as a director. I thought it was no good for me to continue but I respected his decision. I didn't accept it at all—not because of me but because of the team. You don't stop a team that performs so well."

Media coverage during his tenure was clearly a cause of irritation for Grant. He doesn't believe he was given the respect he deserves and recalls a conversation he had with a journalist at the end of the season. "After the press conference he asked me, 'What is your real job in Chelsea?' I said to him, 'Like with my wife: to be guilty even if I'm not guilty.' Because I remember we had a very good run. Drogba was injured, Lampard was injured, but we won eight games in a row. Then we lost the Carling Cup to Tottenham and the media say that's it's my fault."

Over the years since he left, Grant has kept a keen eye on Stamford Bridge. He has seen Abramovich appoint 10 permanent managers in 14 years, with Antonio Conte the latest coach awaiting the walk to the gallows. Grant doesn't agree with the trigger-happy approach but stresses that Abramovich's demands are clear from the outset: success is unconditional.

"I don't think it's good to change coaches so often but I think, in a way, when you are looking for the identity of a team in clubs, Chelsea don't have a style of playing like Barcelona or others—even like Arsenal when they were good," Grant says. "But Chelsea are buying players and want to win titles, and they did great in the last 10 years. You know, I think they could have been in the Champions League final more than twice but they've been champions and done a lot of good things.

"You see the policy of Roman Abramovich, it's very clear. If you leave me to the side, every coach that didn't perform for a long time didn't continue. He said, 'OK, I give you money, I give you all the facilities, I give you everything, and this is a game for results. You need to bring results.' I cannot say that he does not have patience, you see that he has patience even with Jose in his last year—more than before—but at the end of the day this is his policy and everybody knows it."

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich
Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge, London, December 19, 2015. Abramovich has appointed 10 permanent managers in 14 years at Chelsea. Clive Mason/Getty

So does Grant think Abramovich's patience has run out with Conte? "I think Conte did a brilliant job at Chelsea last year and even this year it's not so bad, you know. If he continues or not, you and I have experience of seeing [former Chelsea manager Roberto] Di Matteo. His team came sixth [in the Premier League in 2012], which was not his fault, but they won the Champions League final and he continued [as manager]. I think it's better that we wait and be patient a little bit."

Grant may not know what the future holds in store for Conte, but what of his own? He has worked in the Middle East, risen to fame in Europe, plied his trade in Africa and now has a new challenge in India. His contract, at the moment, only takes him to the end of this season. So, where next for Avram Grant?

"I have had a few interviews in my life and I always have a different answer for that question, but there is only one that I never change since I started in football," he says. "Doesn't matter if it's in India, Chelsea, Portsmouth or Israel, or anywhere else. In my life, I don't know what will happen tomorrow and, you know what, I don't want to know. Football was good for me and took me to a lot of places. So let's see. I didn't know in the past and I don't know now." And with that he's off, knowing that what does await him is another long journey by plane, and another bus in this strange new world.