The way Guus Hiddink was waved off by Chelsea in 2009 has always lingered in the mind. Inheriting a fractured, under-performing squad from Luis Felipe Scolari in February of that year, he was the calm breeze which soothed the acrimony that had gone before and the short-term fix which turned a dramatic failure into a semi-successful season. Chelsea would finish the year by winning the FA Cup and were a late Andres Iniesta goal away from the Champions League final. He was popular with the squad and fans alike - an understated achievement at Stamford Bridge - and reports at the time claimed that figurehead players had done their utmost to convince him to stay beyond that four months.
It’s hard to remember an interim manager leaving such a definitive footprint. Caretakers are often characterised in terms of their short-term value, making it a thankless task, but Hiddink really did do a good job. He reinflated the sagging egos and galvanised a disenchanted group almost immediately and, as a consequence, that briefest of tenures formed a proper annotation on his CV - in fact, he himself has elevated his time at Chelsea into the company of his finest achievements.
So, he’s perfect for the moment. Michael Emenalo was not vague in explaining Jose Mourinho’s departure yesterday, attributing it to the fissures between the Portuguese and his players, and so Hiddink is really inheriting an identical situation: a lot of talent, a lot of animosity.
Chelsea stand no chance of retaining their title and have little hope of finishing within the top-four and so whatever happens between now and May will be attached to Mourinho. Should Hiddink oversee a productive run in the Champions League or a capture a second FA Cup, he will depart - again - with his reputation enhanced.
But even if he falls short of tangible success, he has an important job to do. He will not be there just to oversee a sleep-walk through the remaining fixtures.
Chelsea are not a club in crisis, but they have been devalued. What appeared to be a strong, enviable squad in May must now seem like a snake-pit to outsiders and Hiddink’s objective will be to dispel that impression. If Nemanja Matic is able to reclaim his form of eighteen months ago and Eden Hazard returns to being the division’s premier attacking-midfielder, Roman Abramovich will have far greater leverage in pursuing Mourinho’s long-term replacement. A goal-scoring Diego Costa would be an obvious draw and so would a maturing Kurt Zouma; those would be symptoms of progression and will be important indicators to anyone invited to consider the job.
Pep Guardiola’s name has inevitably been associated with the job and Diego Simeone is supposedly among the candidates, but both will have have more tempting offers between now and the Summer if Chelsea remain in their current condition. Mourinho provided continuity and returned the kind of stability that dissipated so quickly after his initial departure, but the circumstances which have led to his demise threaten to plunge the club back into corrosive short-termism.
Abramovich’s financial generosity means that Chelsea will always be able to attract a certain level of manager, but the very best candidates typically look for long-term projects - or, at the very least, environments in which they can construct something in their own image. At the moment, Stamford Bridge isn’t that place and a Guardiola-calibre candidate would understandably hesitate before walking through the door.
Hiddink’s primary task is to change that perception - as he did six years ago. Returning this squad to something like its best form will equip Abramovich with very useful recruiting leverage and that’s the objective over the next six months.
Rather than being a write-off, the rest of this season will actually go some way to shaping the club’s future.