Comment: Steven Gerrard will regret never playing for Jose Mourinho
Ask Steven Gerrard if he regrets rejecting the multiple advances of Chelsea and there will be a shrug and insistence he never will. Ask him if he regrets never playing for Jose Mourinho, and the confirmation will be swift.
On four occasions Mourinho tried to sign Gerrard. In 2004 when he first moved to Chelsea; in 2005, when the next high-profile pursuit in 2005 ended with Gerrard signing a new Anfield deal post-Istanbul; when he was at Inter Milan; and finally when Mourinho began his stint in Spain. Each time Gerrard was bonded to Merseyside – some will argue emotionally handcuffed to the place – as the chance to put personal ambition before that of his club was cast aside
The lament when Gerrard stands in the guard of honour to applaud the newly-crowned Premier League champions this Sunday will be directed at the manager and his trophy-winning addiction, not the venue. Gerrard knows when he rejected the advances of Mourinho, he missed the chance to work with the coach who would have swelled his medal collection – whether at Liverpool, Stamford Bridge or the Bernabeu.
In simpler, less tribal times, the duo could also have been united at Anfield. When Gerard Houllier’s term was coming to an end at the end of the 2003-04 season, Mourinho was on the Anfield shortlist having won the title and Uefa Cup at Porto.
A meeting was requested by Mourinho’s representatives in Manchester on the day of the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final in March, 2004, but the Liverpool board did not wish to negotiate before their incumbent manager was dismissed. Instead, they would turn their gaze on Valencia’s two-time La Liga winner Rafael Benitez and Chelsea’s determination to recruit Mourinho – by now on the verge of Champions League success - set the pair on their different courses.
Later, there were occasions after Mourinho’s first spell in London when the Liverpool board indicated they would pursue him to revive the Merseyside club.
By then, Gerrard would laugh when informed of such ambitions, offering an incredulous response that said ‘if only’. Not because the historic antipathy between Mourinho and The Kop made it inconceivable, but because he knew by then the Portuguese manager was well beyond Liverpool’s reach.
When the taunts shower Gerrard this weekend, therefore, the Liverpool captain will find it easy to compartmentalise the feelings of senior members of the London club and its fans.
He is aware Chelsea coaching staff and players will not reciprocate the ridicule from the stands.
John Terry’s involvement in what amounted to a second testimonial for Gerrard at Easter is proof of that, and there has only ever been warmth between Mourinho and the Liverpool captain.
It was there when the clubs met earlier this season at Anfield, when Mourinho said that he "did everything to try to sign him" only to be thwarted because "he was always a Red", and ahead of their second encounter on Sunday, Mourinho confirmed Gerrard’s regret at not working with him is mutual.
“Steven Gerrard is for sure one of my favourite enemies and for sure my dear enemy, the one who made me a better manager," he said. "To stop him or try to stop him has been very, very difficult. I lost against him, I won, I drew. I am very sad it’s the last time I play against him. I need people like him to make me a better coach.”
Asked about his desire to work with Gerrard, Mourinho said: “I tried to bring him to Chelsea, I tried to bring him to Inter, I tried to bring him to Real Madrid but he was always with the enemy. I want to honour him and I hope Stamford Bridge has the same feeling.
“It’s too late to sign him. He can’t play against Liverpool. He’s done an amazing career with his people. He refused to play in other big clubs, other big leagues to play only for Liverpool and this is a feeling that stays together. Who knows, maybe I play against Steven as a Liverpool manager some day?”
No-one understands Gerrard’s attachment to Liverpool more than Mourinho, who must have felt let down, baffled but ultimately reverential to the player’s wish to keep fire-fighting at Anfield rather than assist the serial trophy collecting in London and Madrid.
The quirk is that since Gerrard’s decision to snub the Londoners he has been sent on a collision course with them, and they have repreatedly proved the rocks on which his dreams have foundered.
There was the own goal at Wembley in the League Cup final of 2005; a backpass that gifted Carlo Ancelotti’s side a win en route to their title in 2010; and then, most painfully and memorably, the slip this time last year as Liverpool chased the title.
The glee of Chelsea supporters hinted they see all this as divine retribution for the Liverpool captain’s flirtations but ultimate refusal to join them. Now, as if Gerrard has not been goaded enough, a quirk in the fixture list compels him to accept an invitation to their latest title party just before his farewell to the country.
Since the possibility of a guard of honour was mooted it has been obvious the opportunity for further mockery of Gerrard – the subject of weekly chants at Stamford Bridge – has added to the intrigue as much as paying lip service to tradition.
Gerrard will stiffen his back, acknowledge Chelsea’s worthy triumph and shake the hand of the winners and – with genuine admiration - Mourinho.
Will his mind drift to what might have been? Inevitably.
Will he wish he were one of those in blue striding victoriously past the men in red? Never.
Will he ask himself how it would feel to sit in a dressing room as Mourinho delivered an inspiring, title-winning address? Always.