Published 26/01/2010 | 05:00
Sometimes reading between the lines in football can create a neon-like glare. So it is with the linking of Manchester United and Jose Mourinho.
Certainly, it appears the longer the Ferguson succession stakes are delayed the more it seems reasonable for the odds against Mourinho to fall.
This, it probably needs to be said, if only in the interests of consistency, is not a declaration of unqualified admiration. The ego, and some of the corrosive effects, of the Special One has plainly not ebbed in his time with Internazionale. Nor, presumably, his willingness to lie through his gleaming teeth when it suits his purpose.
However, let's be practical. Who, in all of football is less likely to be intimidated by the challenge of following Alex Ferguson? Who wakes up every morning with quite such a raging ambition, that one he defined so unforgettably as the need to star in his own movie? About whose mood can we be most certain in the coming weeks, when he returns to Stamford Bridge with a ton of vindication to lift from his heart?
There is another huge consideration. Mourinho has the supreme quality of a big-time football manager, one that he shares with the man he appears so likely to succeed. He has, it is plain enough to anyone now, unbreakable bottle.
In England, Ferguson versus his former player David Beckham in the Champions League has been painted as the only rival to the battle between Mourinho and his old club and rival in Milan, Carlo Ancelotti, but the comparison is lame.
Ferguson got rid of Beckham when he chose to, entirely on his own terms, and he has been proved right with every intervening year. Chelsea undermined Mourinho quite relentlessly before he left for Italy and so the wounds are still real and vivid.
We might be discussing the difference between a faint stirring of old resentment and the onset of Armageddon. This, anyway, is surely how Mourinho sees it. Drama, as is almost invariably the case when he is involved, is guaranteed.
It is, surely, something the new master of Old Trafford will need in his armoury when Ferguson decides he has fought the last of his battles, when he has wearied finally of a player culture which he recently defined as "tattoos and earrings". Some at Old Trafford believe that they have already seen something of a sea change in the mood of the old dictator.
He still rails against referees, he still sometimes sees the world as nothing so much as a conspiracy hatched entirely against the interests of Manchester United, but there are hints of a more philosophical reaction to the worst slings of misfortune.
One close-up, long-time Ferguson watcher puts it quite wryly, saying "Maybe I'm imagining this, but sometimes he seems to be chewing his gum at a slower rate."
In serious betting circles there is simply no debate about the identity of the favourite to succeed. One leading odds-maker could scarcely have put in more emphatically yesterday.
"If you made the list of runners today it would be a very small one indeed. Mourinho would have to be strong favourite, odds-on no doubt. Some feel that Pep Guardiola may be offered the job, and of course he is an outstanding young candidate after his achievements at Barcelona, and there would be mentions for Martin O'Neill and Guus Hiddink. David Moyes? About 50/1. From where I'm looking, Mourinho for United looks like a no-brainer."
Concerns about United's long- term future under the debt-loaded Glazer regime are not considered likely to shape Mourinho's reaction to an offer. He is known to be eager to return to the clamour of English football, the intensity and scale of its support and a resumption of his role of playing much of the media as if it is a particularly well-tuned Stradivarius.
He was in magnificent theatrical form at San Siro after Internazionale's remarkable 2-0 defeat of nearest challengers Milan despite being reduced to nine men. His disdain for Italian football has been expressed in less promising circumstances, most memorably when he claimed that the nation that lies second only to Brazil in the winning of World Cup, doesn't really love the game.
"Italy is more interested in the contorni," he claimed, meaning that the intrigue, the scandal, the controversy, was more compelling than the heart of the game.
From his position of strength at the weekend, Mourinho naturally took the chance to remind the football world, and especially England, of the transient nature of his stint at San Siro.
"Everything was done to try to prevent Inter from winning but my squad is strong and we will win the Scudetto. But I will leave it at that. This is your country, your league. I'm just a foreigner working here. One day I will go and leave these problems with you."
He will take a superbly combative record, titles in Portugal, England and Italy and a Champions League win with Porto which spoke eloquently of the value of discipline and powerful leadership.
Some believe these are dwindling qualities in the age of player power and self indulgence but you wouldn't have guessed this at San Siro when Mourinho scored one of his more spectacular triumphs -- and inevitably played it for all it was worth.
This was a considerable amount if you happen to believe Manchester United, for all the doubts about their finances, still offer one of the greatest challenges in football. Mourinho, we are told, is quite convinced. He has probably already written his Oscar acceptance speech. Why not? He has the nerve and, the hard word is, the job.