Only 100 pc is good enough - that's what mum insisted

OUR interview is scheduled for shortly after Shabbat. But at the allotted time Avram Grant is still with his Portsmouth players and our meeting is put back to 11pm.

I text him to say I'm waiting in the lobby of the team hotel, but he's with the club's administrator Andrew Andronikou. So we reschedule for 11.45pm which eventually becomes 12.20am.

Such is the unpredictability and chaos of life at Portsmouth FC where neither Avram nor his staff know what's going on from one minute to the next - let alone from day-to-day.

But with his players settled in bed and Andronikou ensconced in the bar, we retire, far from the madding crowd, to a corner of the hotel where Avram can finally relax at a time when most people are fast asleep.

The first thing that strikes you about the likeable Israeli is that he's nothing like his television and press image, all scowls with a hang-dog expression.

Our interview is punctuated by nervous giggles and Grant's gap-toothed grin is far removed from the severe, intense-looking manager portrayed on so many back pages or on Sky Sports.

He may appear intimidating, but he's actually a bit of a softie. Ask his former players at Chelsea, like Frank Lampard who wept on his shoulder after his mother died and praised Grant for his compassion, saying he could never have got through the trauma without his Israeli boss.

Or skipper John Terry who fell weeping into the waiting arms of Grant after he missed the penalty in Moscow in May 2008 that would have defeated Manchester United and won the Champions League for the London club for the first time.

But given Grant's background it is hardly surprising that his footballing philosophy is probably the complete antithesis of that espoused by the late Bill Shankly: "Football isn't a matter of life and death - it's more important than that."

Grant would scarcely agree. His father Meir Granat, a Holocaust survivor, his role model and inspiration who died recently, would wake up screaming during the night, reliving the nightmares of which he would rarely speak.

When Chelsea beat Liverpool to reach the Champions League final in Moscow two years ago, before millions of television viewers, Grant sank to his knees, almost in prayer, sporting a black armband.

He later that he revealed it was his way of marking Holocaust Remembrance Day before flying to Poland immediately after the match to participate in the March of the Living at Auschwitz.

Coincidentally, two years to the day, as he saw Portsmouth unexpectedly beat Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final three weeks ago, he also wore an armband and again flew directly to Poland.

"It means a lot to me," he said. "I owe a lot to my parents. My mother came from Iraq, my father survived the Holocaust.

"He was the most optimistic and strong man I knew. He buried his father, his mother, his sisters with his own hands. It's not an easy day for me."

Avram was 15 before he learned of the full horrors his father had endured at the same age.

His parents and all but one of his siblings had frozen or starved to death in a Russian forest as they fled their native Poland in 1941 during the Holocaust.

He was woken one night by Meir screaming in his sleep. He told Avram he had been dreaming he was back in the forest where he had been forced to dig graves for his parents and five brothers and sisters.

Guards had abandoned them in the forest, where temperatures were minus 40 in winter, taunting them: "Build a home or die."

Meir once recalled: "When I buried my father, I cut off my peyot and removed my kippa. I had lost my religious faith before his death. To survive, you must look forward in hope, never back."

It is that resolve that has stood Avram in such good stead throughout his career, which has not been without its hardships.

At 17, Avram had his hopes set on a professional career in football, as a midfielder with Hapoel Petach Tikva, his hometown club. A serious leg injury, sustained in a motorbike accident, ended his dreams.

Turning to coaching,he met stiff opposition from his mother, Aliza, who once cut up a football he had bought.

Meir once recalled: "My late wife had a fiery temperament and she gave Avram a hard time. He was bright and did well at school. But as he got older he was not prepared to invest in his studies and only wanted to play football.

"Avram bought a new football and Aliza cut it up. She wanted him to become a doctor or a lawyer.

"I would tell her, 'You cannot change him,' and that he was sure to be successful."

Once, aged just 12, the "fiercely independent" Avram went missing during the Six-Day War. By midnight his parents were frantic with worry and the police were searching for him.

"He turned up shortly afterwards and told us he had gone to Jerusalem because he simply had to walk around the Old City and see the Western Wall," Meir said. Avram has also been forced to confront adversity in his English Premier League career, after being the Israel national team's most successful ever coach.

When he became Chelsea manager in October 2007, succeeding the popular and hugely successful Jose Mourinho very early in the season, most football fans were asking: "Avram who?"

After all, most people in this country had never heard of him, his only experience in football here having been as director of football at Portsmouth, before moving to a similar role at Chelsea.

It was there, within a short time, that he was famously to take the Stamford Bridge side to within a penalty kick of winning the Champions League and runners-up in the Premier League, before being sacked for reasons he still cannot explain.

But little could have prepared him for his second coming at Portsmouth last November - this time as manager, replacing Paul Hart. He found himself at a club beset with financial difficulties, players' wages being paid late, ever-changing ownership and broken promises galore.

All that before Pompey was placed in administration, had nine points docked by the Premier League, dooming the club to relegation and Avram leading the team to the FA Cup Final tomorrow at Wembley after beating high-flying Tottenham 2-0 in the semi-final against all the odds.

For Avram, it is parental influence that has dominated his life and helped him through the hardest times. But that has meant always aiming at 100 per cent and nothing less.

"I think in football you need to think first and people sometimes, because of the pressure, don't think," Avram insists.

"First, you need to think what to do, what not to do, what's wrong.

"My father and mother made me a strong person, because my father was very strong but never spoke about this strength.

"He decided, despite everything, that he would continue another life. You need to be very strong every day to wake up after what he had with a smile on his face. It's unbelievable.

"He was strong, he was optimistic, he had positive energy. He never said to us we needed positive energy. He was like this, I think it has helped me in football.

"My mother came from Iraq. She was very, very demanding about always being the best.

"My mother, if you brought back an exam less than 100 per cent, it was an investigation.

"It had to be 100 per cent. Once I brought home an exam, 99 from 100, because in those days we used ink and it blotted.

"I think the stupid teacher took one point from 100, so I was proud - 99.

"My mother said, 'Why not 100?' Why didn't I check the pen before?

"And my father was always laughing, my father didn't care. You could bring 30,40 per cent as long as you were happy..

"I think the combination between them helped me a lot.

"From both of them I learned three things. First, really, really to do your best, really try to do 100 per cent. Second, always, look what you can do better and third, you always need to learn, you don't know enough. This is always with me."

Perhaps that's what helped him to understand what happened at Chelsea; to get inside the mind of his friend and owner of Chelsea, Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich - 99 per cent just wasn't enough. Finishing second in two major competitions fell short of his expectations.

But had he won the Champions League, did Grant believe he would have remained Chelsea manager the following season?

"Everybody speaks to me about it, but I don't like to think about it because I will never know the answer," insists Avram.

"I thought that if I stayed the second year, it would be much easier because in all my life the second year has been easier because the players know you better, weaknesses strengths, I know the players better.

"So I thought, that the strength of Chelsea was not that we reached the Champions League final and we lost only one game in the league.

"Every month we were better. I am very proud about the development.

He still has a good relationship with Abramovich, "because I don't want to remember only the end. The end was not good,

"I didn't like it for many aspects. They didn't respect what I did and I didn't like it because in the last three months they knew what a hard job it was for any coach, but especially for me.

"But I prefer to remember the positive side. I don't have negative feelings, Maybe it's the education of my parents - concentrate on the positive things all around- which gave me the chance.

"He [Abramovich]was the only one who gave me the chance at that time, not others, and even if I make a mistake, I prefer to remember only the good things."

He maintains he doesn't know why he was sacked "and I never even asked -even myself - why. It was a fact and I don't even want to know why. This is a fact - continue."

Avram refutes the suggestion that anyone could have done as well as he did at Chelsea given the quality of the players and the coaching staff he inherited.

"The backroom staff were good, but I chose them all except one. The fitness coach, the scout, the goalkeeping coach, my assistant, I chose them, so I am very proud. All of them were were new, because Mourinho took his staff.

"Those staff are still there today, which means I did a good job there.

"And of course when Terry missed a penalty it was my fault and when the team was winning it was due to others.

"This is the job of the coach, especially at Chelsea."

But he accepts that the biggest achievement of all was to get a team like Portsmouth to the Cup Final, probably the most famous footballing occasion outside the World Cup and Champions League finals

"Because it's not only about football," explains Avram.

"When I took a youth team to their first championship I thought this was my biggest achievement and then in Israel, a few more championships and the Israel national team, then the Champions League final [with Chelsea], but this is the most emotional achievement because to come to the final in a season like this was amazing. It was unexpected."

But the achievement with Portsmouth has been different from any other.

"Get them to concentrate on football. Don't pay attention to the other things off the pitch. It's not easy. Imagine in your work, I tell you that tomorrow they will close your paper," he suggested.

"I'm sure this interview would not be the same. So we were in that same situation. The first thing is to decide what to concentrate on and not to pay attention to the other things because people read the papers, the players read the papers.

"The second, of course, we decided that whatever happens we will be in high spirits and more than that we have tried to play football. I am very proud of how we played in the last month."

Avram says of Portsmouth's unanticipated defeat of Spurs in the semi-final: "I believe always in football, as long as there is a chance, there is a chance. Even though the chances were very low.

"Tottenham this season are my favourite team. They are playing the best football and you see what has happened since then. They beat Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and so we needed to play very tactically against them.

"I know that we weren't on the level of Tottenham."

Avram's very proud of his success with the Israeli national team. "I think what we did is something that I am more than proud of because we went through a process.

"There were three major weaknesses in Israeli football over 30 years. First, the physical side. Israel never performed in the last 20 minutes against big teams.

Second, tactically they were very poor and third, mentally when the other team was winning 1-0 the game was finished.

"In Europe we didn't lose one game, physically against France, Ireland, Switzerland we were better the last 15 minutes of the game and part of this is because I had a fitness coach from the army and he was an unbelievable guy.

"He was a major but he was very open-minded. He did an unbelievable job. France were leading [against us], Ireland were leading, Switzerland were leading, but we didn't lose a game.

"We equalised, so I was very proud. Tactically, all the coaches saw it was very difficult to play against us, so we went through a process that this was the target. . We did it very well."

Avram's man management skills seem to be one of his major strengths.

He narrows his eyes as he explains: "I believe players are not computers and I believe they are different. The target is the same target. But on the way to the target you need to be a human being.

"There is a quote in my room: 'On the way to excellency you have to be a human being'. And I ask this from the players.

"This is the reason that I was very proud that these players paid their own money to the staff at Portsmouth."

When things are tough though, Avram believes there are two ways to react: "To cry and say 'pe pe pe pe' or to take it as a challenge.

"When things are tough I always think more, I was more motivated to show that we could get out of it.

"Football is like life. You can see the real people when things are tough, this is the reason for what's happened at Portsmouth this year.

"I think that the supporters, players and staff need to get a reward not a punishment that they are not in Europe, nine points deducted, an embargo on transfers and many other things."

Avram denied that he was not being paid but admitted: "It was not like in the contract but I can say that I get paid far away from what was in my contract."

He loves the club, the supporters and the city of Portsmouth although his name is being constantly linked with the newly vacant manager's post at West Ham.

To keep him at Pompey, he would insist on stability.

"There is an administrator who says everything will be okay. I think he is doing a good job," says Avram

"But do you know how many times I have heard everything will be okay this season - 10,000 times - so I want to see that everything is okay.

"Stability, the owner, the budget so we know where we are all going to. For the moment we don't know.

"I love this city. I love the supporters, But it's not normal. I will not stay if it is a season like this, even half of the season like it was, because this is not football.

"What we did this season is a kind of miracle. It cannot happen again."

Can they beat Chelsea? "In football you need to believe all the time because there are a lot of surprises."

Unusually, Avram enjoys good relationship with all his fellow managers - "they've told me I'm the only one who has that with Alex [Ferguson].

"With Arsene Wenger it started 10 years ago. With Alex it was almost 15, so it was a good relationship before now.

"I went as a guest to their clubs and I knew them. With Harry Redknapp it started at Portsmouth not so well, because Harry didn't know why I came.

"Because I was a director of football and a former national coach he thought that I was going to take his place, but I can tell you that after three weeks, one month, we became good friends.

"He always said how much he appreciated and respected what I did for Portsmouth and I know that he meant it because since then we always speak about football.

"We even spoke last week. I said to him I would have chosen him as manager of the year. He said, 'For me, you are the manager of the year'.

Avram is trying to instil into his own children, Daniel, 16 and Romi, 13, the same values his parents imbued in him.

"It's not easy. My children are free spirits."

They lived in London during his time at Chelsea but are now back in Israel. "I miss them a lot," says Avram. "This year was very tough for me, very hard."

Daniel showed "big, big talent" as a footballer. He was by far the best player of his age but he was not consistent." Like his father he wants to be a coach, although presently that is in handball.

"He has a very good eye for football, he likes football, he comes to a lot of games here. I don't know what he will be, but I will support him in anything he wants," insists Avram.

Romi, 14 next month, is an aspiring actress who has already appeared in two films and on two television programmes.

She takes after her mother Tsufit, a somewhat unconventional Israeli TV presenter who once drank her own urine on screen.

She sees Avram every two or three weeks, but he visits his kids only every three months.

"She is very funny, very lively," says Avram. "If my players have the same energy that she has at 45 years old, we will win every title."

Her humour extended to laughing off Avram's much publicised visit to a Thai massage parlour that made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

"She's angry with me until today that I didn't take her with me for a massage," he quipped.

"She said the next time she comes to England I have to take her with me."

Avram is perplexed about the media attention because he went for his massage in the middle of the day, in a public place.

"I didn't have anything to hide because part of my staff went there before me. I said okay, it was the English way, it was okay. I didn't take it seriously, but my wife of course was very funny."

He doesn't believe he will ever return to manage the Israel national team or Chelsea.

"I want to do something for my country in the future, maybe an academy or something like this.

"If you ask me if I would go back to Chelsea or to another club, I would say another club because I was at Chelsea through the good times and it's always the good things in football that you can find in other places."

He was reunited at Portsmouth with fellow Israeli Tal Ben Haim who played under him in the national team and at Chelsea where they fell out when the central defender dropped down in the pecking order behind John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho after Mourinho left.

"He was bought by Jose Mourinho to be the fourth centre half, but what happened the year before was that they had three centre halves.

Two were injured and he played 14 games for me and except for one game he was good. Then he said he wanted to play more and that Jose had promised him to play before Carvalho and Terry. It was not like this.

"He's a good professional, I like him, he is a good player and he did a good job for Portsmouth. Unfortunately he was injured recently."

In the future Avram would consider coaching another national team, "but not more than two years. It's a boring job. If the national team was a job that you could work in every week it's a great job because you can make so many people proud, and that is what it is all about.

"When I saw the Chelsea supporters before the Champions League semi-final in the streets, I said to myself, 'wow what a job'.

"In one win you can make people so happy, so in a national team you can make all the country happy. I like that job but personally four years is too much.

"You have a game every three months, what do you do in the other half? How many games do you play and see?"

But for now he is preparing his team for tomorrow's Cup Final.

"The mental side is a job that I do. It is my job, and I know what to do," he stresses.

"The main problem is what happened before in the semi-final, but now it is harder that one week before [when we spoke] you don't know which players will be available for the final. And this is not good - one week before.

"The problem against Tottenham was that in the last training we lost two players who needed to play, Richard Hughes and in the last minute of training before the game, Nadir Belhadj. We needed to play Hayden Mullins as a left back where he had never played in his life. By the way, he was very good.

"It was a big problem because all the preparation against Tottenham was tactical because we knew that they were the better team but on the tactical side we could close this gap.

"Before the Cup Final I hope that in the last two or three training sessions I will know who can play and who cannot because again it's not a matter of tactics, it's a matter of who I can play or cannot."

He believes there are a few Israeli players who will soon make it in Europe, but he won't name them.

He is very surprised that one of his former national charges, Liverpool's Yossi Benayoun, has been so successful in English football.

"He is a very clever player but I thought because he is not so physical he wouldn't succeed, even though he was my favourite player. I coached him for two years at Maccabi Haifa and for four years in the national team.

"He is a great player and a great person but you can see what football is all about, because his physical side improved a lot.

"Even with all the fitness, you need to be an intelligent player and he is the most intelligent player at Liverpool, no doubt about it."

He feels that Ben Sahar made the wrong decision moving from Chelsea to Espanyol because they already have six strikers.

"His mother influences him," said Grant. "His mother loves him, but she needs to know that in football there are people who understand better.

"This is part of life and part of football.When you have difficult days you need to fight. We also had difficult days at Portsmouth, so what, we didn't say this and that, we were fighting."

Despite all the hardship, Avram has lived the dream.

"It was one dream to be in the Premier League since I was young because in Israel that's all they watch," he recalled.

"I took into consideration that maybe it would not happen, but it did. I do not know what will happen next year. I like to plan my club but I don't plan my life. I will always have surprises.

"When I was young we always waited for the FA Cup Final. I wanted to be part of this.

"I've been visiting Britain since I was 22 so I knew all about the Cup Final. I put it as a target but I took into consideration that maybe it would not happen, although I knew I would do everything so that it would."

But football isn't his first priority. That is to be with the family.

He likes to go to the cinema, visit new places, read and watch different types of sport, but not cricket which he doesn't understand despite living in St John's Wood, close to Lord's cricket ground.

His ambition is to visit Tibet, but meanwhile tomorrow at Wembley he hopes to cause one of the biggest upsets in English footballing history by taking bankrupt, relegated Portsmouth to FA Cup victory over Chelsea.

Impossible? Don't bet against it given Avram's work ethic and motivational skills. Most neutrals will be rooting for this dignified man.

Our interview over, it's back to work for Avram - a continuation of his meeting with Portsmouth's administrator - at nearing 1.30am. More unanswered questions? Only the future will tell, but such is life at Britain's most chaotic football club.

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph