Saturday 17 March 2018

Mourinho charm offensive may not seal safe passage back to England

Sam Wallace

At the end of his press conference on Wednesday night, Jose Mourinho stepped off the low stage at the front of the big lecture room underneath the Bernabeu stadium and made his way to a Scotsman in his 70s wearing a Manchester United tie.

Not Alex Ferguson but Paddy Crerand, the tough United midfielder of the 1960s and still a presence around Old Trafford for his punditry on MUTV.

At the court of Real Madrid, there are plenty of people eager to catch the eye of the manager, or keen to follow him through the door back towards the dressing-rooms, but on this occasion it was Mourinho who sought out Crerand for a handshake and a few friendly words.

Mourinho will know who Crerand is and who he works for because it is Mourinho's way to know such things. At his pre-match press conference on Tuesday, as Mourinho took guard against a room of around a hundred journalists, he spotted a familiar face at the back of the room. "Jamie!" he shouted and waved at Jamie Redknapp, keeping a low profile at the back.

When he left the room later, Mourinho beckoned the Sky Sports pundit over to leave the press room with him. Mourinho is no fool. He knows Redknapp from his days in the Premier League but he also knows that the former England international is a frontline pundit for all Sky's biggest games. Mourinho has always kept one eye on the powers in English football, and there are few more powerful than its main broadcaster.

The abiding impression from three days in Madrid? That Mourinho is, at the very least, building some bridges in England. With the second leg in Manchester in 18 days' time in the balance, he knows that life at Real Madrid could become intolerable if they are eliminated by United.

He has revived Madrid's dismal Champions League record of the last decade with two semi-finals in his previous two seasons in charge, but yet another second-round exit would feel like a return to the bad old days.

The return leg at Old Trafford, between two of the most fabled teams in European football, should be bigger than any one man.

But if it had to be about someone then surely that someone is Mourinho. Win, and he has overcome one of the larger obstacles to Real winning their first European Cup in 11 years, and the club's season is preserved.

Lose, and he opens up the story of discontent and quiet betrayal that heralds the end of all Madrid's coaches.

Mourinho has been back to England twice before with Inter Milan, losing to United in the last 16 in 2009 and then eliminating Chelsea a year later on his way to winning the competition.


Each time he has treated the return as a chance to reaffirm his love of English football. Especially in the midst of his combustible relations with the Italian press, he reached out to their English counterparts like old friends.

But it was very different when he was Chelsea manager. The notion that he and the English media got along famously is largely a myth and indeed by the end of his third season at Chelsea, and the few months until his departure in September 2007, we hardly ever saw him. As the problems at the club got worse, his attendance at pre-match press conferences dwindled away.

Of course, when he began there was his famous "special one" press conference which set the tone. Even now, he never dodges a question and he still has an ability to tap into the English obsession of the day.

His joke in April 2006, that he was more worried about a case of bird 'flu diagnosed in a swan in Scotland than getting the sack, was one prime example. By the end, however, he was tiring of it.

We lost count of the occasions that Steve Clarke was obliged to take the Friday press conferences in the old hall, now demolished, at Cobham. On his last pre-season tour with Chelsea, to Los Angeles in 2007, Mourinho lightened up a bit, but by the final few months he saw conspiracy everywhere. Not too different to how it seems now with the Spanish press.

Things changed quickly in football, but even Mourinho's affection for England and the English seems a little rose-tinted to be believable. The famous case of the attempted seizure in May 2007 by Metropolitan police of his children's Yorkshire terrier was one occasion when he found himself very much at odds with the English way of doing things, although it did make for an entertaining press conference, which was rare by that stage.

At Madrid, the suggestion is that Mourinho distrusts some of his players. There is said to be jealousy among them towards Cristiano Ronaldo and Mourinho himself is incredulous at how little those same players recognise the debt they owe to their prolific goalscorer. Mourinho's early return to the dugout at half-time on Wednesday did not make him look like a man confident and sure of himself, it just made him look isolated.

Neither did his substitutions in the latter part of the match feel particularly like game-changing moments. There was no grandmaster move to unnerve United with its sheer riskiness.

Mourinho talks in general terms about coming back to the Premier League, but the question is where? The Barcelona bloc that now runs Manchester City appear to be wholly resistant to him.

Bobby Charlton has indicated United are not interested and while that is not definitive, Mourinho will probably need a job in the summer and there is no guarantee there will be one at Old Trafford. That leaves Chelsea which, with all its attendant complications, surely makes Paris Saint-Germain a better fit. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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