In Bobby Robson’s 1998 autobiography, An Englishman Abroad, there are some remarkable details about the circumstances of his sacking from Sporting Lisbon in 1993, after the team lost a Uefa Cup tie in Austria.
On the flight home, the Sporting president Sousa Cintra addressed the players, directors and supporters over the plane’s intercom, telling them that the defeat was a “disgrace” and that he would be taking it up with his manager on their return.
Robson did not know Portuguese well enough to understand, but had a translation whispered into his ear by his loyal 30-year-old assistant who was sitting next to him, one José Mourinho. Cintra was such a self-publicist that he would drive his car ahead of the Sporting team coach when they returned home from away wins, in order to milk the applause of the waiting fans and, sure enough, the next day he sacked Robson.
That was Mourinho’s first experience of a big-name manager being fired by a high-profile club, and although it is a world away from the modern Premier League’s multi-million pound settlements, some things never change. Then, as now, the end is brutal but it never ceases to surprise how quickly things move on. Robson went to Porto, taking Mourinho with him, and defeated Sporting in the 1994 Portuguese cup final.
Twenty-two years on from then and three days after Mourinho’s second Chelsea defenestration, his statement from his commercial agents CAA was clear: José wants back in. But managers this big are the proverbial super-tankers of the football business. They only dock in the ports big enough to accommodate them, and there are not many of those.
As you look down the list of super-clubs, many of whom Mourinho has either burned bridges, or mortally offended, the name that stands out untouched among the wreckage is Manchester United.
Already there are suggestions that his representatives are laying the groundwork for a potential move in the summer, the kind of negotiations that one supposes would take more time to agree than the average Nato treaty.
Mourinho and United feels like a collision, rather than a working relationship - and the conflagration could either set the rest of the Premier League aflame or just United. In the aftermath of the David Moyes’s succession both sides had a convenient cover-story for why Mourinho did not come to Old Trafford.
But what was notable, however bruised the egos may have been on both sides – Mourinho for the rejection, United for the ensuing disaster that was the 2013-2014 season – is that it never got nasty between the two parties.
The door remains open. The United tradition of success is the perfect fit for Mourinho - especially a Mourinho who would return to the Premier League with a point to prove. Less so the United tradition that dictates the club promotes young players from the academy, which Louis van Gaal has done his best to continue. As to whether Mourinho would be compatible with United’s history of attacking football, it would be fair to say that just about anything would be an improvement on the current situation.
For all that Mourinho brings, there would be serious misgivings at United that the club would need reassurance on before handing him the reins. As for Mourinho, he had concerns about the infrastructure at Chelsea that he does not believe would be an issue at United.
Above all, the absence of any one controlling figure behind the scenes at United to challenge Mourinho’s power feels like the working model he has been searching for his entire career. Since Ferguson’s departure, United have hung onto the principle that the manager’s position is sacrosanct. They have no technical director despite the fact that a haphazard transfer policy and an academy that, by their own admission, has fallen well behind others, suggests they might have benefited from one.
For right or wrong, this is what Mourinho wants: no man in the office across the corridor who dilutes his power. He wants what Ferguson had, what Arsene Wenger still has at Arsenal, what Rafa Benitez fought for at Liverpool. He almost achieved it in his first spell at Chelsea but by the time he returned, the club had adopted a very different approach.
You get the impression that Mourinho regards the office of the technical director much the same way as most people regard a bad case of rising damp. He happens to live in an age, however, where very few owners or chief executives are prepared to hand control to their manager. Smaller clubs like Southampton, Swansea and Watford have made a virtue of a collegiate approach where the manager is just one of a few responsible for player recruitment.
Inriguingly, despite his controlling tendencies, Mourinho has always worked for the most autocratic presidents or owners: Nuno Pinto da Costa, Abramovich, Massimo Moratti, Florentino Perez. By comparison, the remote Glazers and their man on the ground, Ed Woodward, have allowed their managers to take the lead, rather than try to slot them into a more narrow head coach-role.
At United they still hold on to the dream of Ferguson, a figure who can revamp their youth system, sign the world’s best players, crush their rivals, intimidate the Football Association, win the league and still remember the names of the ladies in the laundry room. The problem for Mourinho is that over the last few months, he has shown a worrying tendency to become immersed in personal vendettas.
Yet, his record of success remains the closest thing United have to a Ferguson. The manager who can bring that back to United will be given the freedom to do what he wants at Old Trafford. It is the kind of job spec that, for Mourinho, requires no further embellishment.