Saturday 17 March 2018

Jose Mourinho's Europa League whinging is simply a pathetic excuse in case of failure

Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho

Jim White

Jose Mourinho was at it again this week, giving voice to a familiar excuse.

Manchester United, the new manager said, would be substantially inconvenienced by their participation in the Europa League. Its Thursday/Sunday timetable, he insisted, would undermine their competitive ability to challenge for the Premier League title. By wisely failing to qualify, Liverpool and Chelsea have put themselves in the domestic driving seat.

Now there are plenty of reasons why any club would not want to be in the Europa League. Mourinho is right to regard it with his nose held. It is a largely second-rate nonsense of a trophy, its principal aim seemingly to give continued European participation after Christmas to those teams not good enough to make the grade in the Champions League.

It is no more than a footballing version of those repecharge matches they have at rugby sevens events, designed to keep those who have lost in the first round out of the bar.

But whatever it is, its timetable is not the issue. As excuses go the suggestion its rhythms are peculiarly corrosive is among the most fanciful in sport. With the distance between matches no greater there is absolutely no reason why Thursday/Sunday should be any more debilitating than the Wednesday/Saturday pattern demanded by Champions League participation.

And Mourinho would be the last to rail against that competition’s requirements. Yet it has become received wisdom in the game that the Europa League is singularly demanding, its arrangements somehow unnatural.

What seems more surprising than the feebleness of the excuse, however, is that a manager as sophisticated as Mourinho would embrace such a line of thinking. One of the reasons why British participants have derived such success in the Olympic and Paralympic Games is that there is a culture within our winning sports of allowing no excuses. It was a philosophy first embraced by Sir Dave Brailsford in the velodrome. He ensured every last detail was right in the preparations so that when a cyclist failed to win they couldn’t blame the bike, the coaches, their diet or their training regime.

With everything done for them – Victoria Pendleton even used to get her pre-race banana peeled by a mechanic – if they failed, they could only blame themselves. As a motivational tool, Brailsford reckoned it the most successful available. It meant, the moment they arrived on the start line, every British cyclist was mentally attuned to deliver. Frankly, they felt obliged to do it.

Yet football retains its habit of fetishising the excuse. This week, the blame for Tottenham’s defeat to Monaco was put by many – though not, to his credit, the manager Mauricio Pochettino - on the venue. It was all down to Wembley. The ITV pundit Lee Dixon insisted that when he had played for Arsenal in European matches at the national stadium while the Emirates was being built, the unintended consequence was it had inspired the opposition while undermining the supposed home side.

Which made no sense at all. Why would playing at an internationally renowned venue collectively motivate one team while uniformly unnerving the other? Surely both should be lifted. But the excuse has proliferated to the extent it has become a superstition: it is rapidly becoming a matter of football lore that any club temporarily using Wembley as its home for European nights is doomed to failure. Next time Tottenham play there it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And so is the Thursday/Sunday line. Mourinho, a manager who rightly prides himself on the thoroughness of his preparation, has already provided his players with a get-out clause should they lose at Watford on Sunday lunchtime. Never mind that half the team for this weekend’s fixture – including the captain Wayne Rooney – were excused from Thursday night duty, instead enjoying a week of rest and recuperation at the training ground.

Should it happen, defeat at Vicarage Road would not be their fault. It would be the Europa League’s.

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