Sunday 8 December 2019

James Lawton: Dynasty-makers the missing link for kings of the touchline

For all their motivational gifts, Klopp and Mourinho don't have leaders at their disposal to inspire new era

Rooney was supposed to assume the role of a Keane or Cantona Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Rooney was supposed to assume the role of a Keane or Cantona Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

James Lawton

No doubt it is tempting to say, as so many are saying, that the latest Premier League spectacular at Old Trafford tomorrow has everything.

It will, after all, have Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp exhorting, and pouting, on the touchline as only they know how. It will have Zlatan Ibrahimovic striving to confirm his claim that he has conquered English football in just three months - and Philippe Coutinho trying to explain why he is high on the New Year wish list of such as Barcelona and Real Madrid. So, yes, tempting, certainly, but is it true?

A lot depends on how much you believe there is no limit to the effect of even the most brilliant coaches.

At Old Trafford the case for the two celebrated operators will, of course, be extremely formidable. Despite Klopp's chagrin over lost ground in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final at Southampton, and fresh evidence of Liverpool's debt to a Sadio Mane reluctantly ceded to Africa Cup duty, the profiles of both he and Mourinho could hardly be in better shape.

Mourinho has not only found his mojo he is using it to batter the heads of his worst critics - and with some of his old barbed subtlety. Klopp's reinvention of the potential glories of Liverpool continues to look like a force of football nature.

Yet, still, there is a nag. Is something not missing from the armouries of these remarkable football men?

Could it be that they are still searching for one final piece? The suspicion has to be yes - and that what they need, as some last affirming flourish in some quite exceptional refurbishment of teams which appeared to have lost their way, is the big dynasty-making player. We are talking about the kind of man around whom the most successful of their predecessors built empires.

Alex Ferguson hand-picked the ramrod that was Roy Keane and happened, with some good fortune he admits, on the strange, sometimes elusive, but ultimately superb inspiration of Eric Cantona.

There was the catalyst of so much more than mere improvement. There was the installing of a professional force and dimension which changed everything.

When Bob Paisley took over from Bill Shankly in the 1970s and contemplated the loss of Kevin Keegan to Hamburg he was remarkably composed. Why? Because, as he said, "I know precisely who will take his place." It was Kenny Dalglish.

And then, six titles and two European Cups later, there would be the sight of the galloping, unquenchable Steven Gerrard.

However big your war chest, or exhaustive your peering into the latest transfer window, you are never guaranteed such windfalls. When Matt Busby, the man upon whom Ferguson set his standards, had players of the quality of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and the young George Best, he confided, "I never had a bad moment before any game because I knew I had players out there who could do anything, in any challenge, in any situation."

That now is, necessarily, the dream rather than the certainty of Mourinho and Klopp as they go into tomorrow's huge test of will and ambition and sheer competitive instinct.

It is true they do not lack the presence of impressively competitive characters.

Mourinho's patient nurturing of Ibrahimovic, a superstar who has made no secret of his admiration for the style of the Special One, has brought some rich dividends in recent weeks. United have benefited hugely from the swaggering self-belief of a veteran who some believed was putting himself out to profitable pasture at Old Trafford.

But however forcefully Ibrahimovic rages against the dying of the light, the fact is that he is 35 and is much more about fleeting transition than a boundless future.

Paul Pogba will no doubt bring natural brilliance to that future but will he ever show the authority of a maker of dynasty? The jury has barely sat itself down and whatever the verdict it is unlikely to announce that United have found the next Keane or Cantona.

Likewise, the splendidly committed Juan Mata, who has given Mourinho, his dismissive boss at Chelsea, plenty of reasons for re-assessment, all of them short, however, of any conviction that he might be the one to shape United's destiny over the next few years.

Wayne Rooney? As a young prodigy he was supposed to assume the role of a Keane or a Cantona but even as he seeks the goal which smashes Charlton's club scoring record, it is impossible to forget that the years which should have represented his prime happen to have coincided with his own and United's most critical decline.

It means that Mourinho, if he is to compete again at the peak of the European game with United, has to look for fresh sources of leadership and inspiration.

The same is true of Klopp. For all his motivational powers, he was still required to rough out a desperate note and hand it to Daniel Sturridge as Southampton threatened to take a grip on the League Cup tie.

For Ferguson, there was no such imperative when Juventus, in their own Turin citadel, appeared to be barring the way to the Champions League final in Barcelona in 1999. He simply left it with Roy Keane out on the field. The result was one of the most remarkable recoveries in the history of front-rank football. Bobby Charlton still recalls that night with a sense of awe. "I was in the directors' box and I broke etiquette. I stayed on my feet from the moment Roy equalised and led us to victory. I had never seen a piece of leadership to rival that."

Do the current United or Liverpool have a Keane or a Cantona, a Dalglish or a Gerrard? So far the evidence is less than compelling. Cantona once said, "I do believe in destiny and I know that when I arrived at Old Trafford I felt the spirit of the club, the old teams, become a part of me. I always had that spirit and when you have a feeling like that you know that anything can happen."

Except, perhaps, the possibility that your coach will feel the need to scribble you a note.

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