Love is in the air but Abramovich may kill romance for prodigal son
Straight away Jose Mourinho blew a kiss to Chelsea's fans. "I am one of you," he told them on the day of his return. But we also know what he is not. The Portuguese prodigal is not the owner, not the boss, and not the one who will prevail if he falls out with Roman Abramovich again.
Alex Ferguson's retirement brings the age of the managerial autocrat to a close. Nowhere in Europe is there a coach who can claim to be in full command of a superpower club.
Arsene Wenger clings to his throne at Arsenal but is not the supreme ruler he was eight ago years ago when the Gunners last won a trophy. All across the game rich owners have weakened the power of managers, demoting them to a two-to-three year employment cycle and surrounding them with directors of football and others who report directly to the board.
Abramovich has never ceded control to any Chelsea manager. Roberto Di Matteo, people say, received frequent texts from the owner demanding to know what was happening on the training pitch and who was in line for selection. Right from his first day at Oligarchski FC, as 'Private Eye' call them, Abramovich has adopted a Kremlin-esque stance with those on his payroll.
Since June 2004, he has dispatched eight managers but still managed to win three Premier League titles, a Champions League crown, four FA Cups and the Europa League. Hiring and firing may look like madness to us but Chelsea's owner can say it has worked for him, despite the compensation costs.
Most of the eight fell for the crime of not winning enough (or failing to impress the senior players, in Luiz Felipe Scolari's case), but Mourinho was impaled in September 2007 more for a political crime. He dared to defy a billionaire Russian oligarch. His only gain was his P45.
Many times during the negotiations this time around he must have wondered how hard to push Abramovich on this same front. What would he do if the owner signed another Andriy Shevchenko? What if the club's recruitment department picked the transfer targets and presented them to Mourinho to coach? Would he accept the diminished role of tracksuit man or seek untrammelled power in all first-team affairs?
The myth is that he ever had a choice. Since they parted first time round, the pendulum has not swung Mourinho's way. Chelsea have continued to amass silverware while Mourinho has emerged from the Real Madrid maelstrom more than a touch dishevelled.
After a promising start in Spain, his reputation for inspiring loyalty in all his players was shredded by dressing-room malcontents. Nor could he handle the plutocrats who look down so icily from the presidential tiers of the Bernabeu. Mourinho walked into Madrid like a matador but ended up as a doormat for his enemies. In his desperation to escape he displayed his loss of power.
After Florentino Perez and Co, Abramovich might appear to Mourinho as a kind of angel. But he will still have to make a psychic leap in the direction of the new reality. With a flop spoiling his perfect record in Portugal, England and Italy, he is no longer in a position to stride into Stamford Bridge calling himself 'the Special One'. Hence, perhaps, his change of direction in favour of "love" and affinity with the fans.
At 50, and with his family known to be keen on a return to London, Mourinho is ideally placed to improve a side with many virtues, not least the mental fortitude first instilled by him from 2004-07. The character of the side is not in doubt, even if it is quick to insurrection when a manager upsets the senior players. It should not be hard for him to reinforce the weaker areas, at centre-forward and centre-back.
Equally, the Premier League looks ripe for plunder by a manager who already knows how English football works. The biggest obstacle – Ferguson – has stepped away after 26 years.
Roberto Mancini, who would have offered Mourinho a proper fight at Manchester City, has been dispensed with. In his place, Manuel Pellegrini will need time to acquaint himself with City's players and the competitions. At United, David Moyes is bound to encounter culture shock before he shapes the team in his own quieter image.
So no wonder Mourinho sniffed an opportunity. His assistants, Rui Faria, Silvino Louro and Jose Morais are part of the package. There is no risk of isolation on the training ground.
And he has already won one political point off Abramovich, signing Frank Lampard to a further year. Which just leaves the problem of John Terry, who will drop even further down the defensive order if Mourinho signs another centre-half, as he will have to, if David Luiz leaves, or the new manager moves him permanently into midfield.
With all this in his favour Mourinho must be confident he can keep Abramovich off his back with rapid progress. A summer splurge by City could alter the rosy picture but Chelsea are unlikely to hold back either. But there will come a day when Mourinho feels the oligarch above him is exceeding the bounds of acceptable involvement and is messing with his team.
On that day, blowing kisses to the fans would not save him from Abramovich's ruthlessness or whims. (© Daily Telegraph, London)