Tuesday 22 May 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Jose Mourinho's tarnished reputation is on the line

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

As Jose Mourinho takes over at Manchester United he finds himself in what is a most unusual position for him. For the first time in his career he enters a new job with a lot to prove. For the first time in his career the curve of his fortunes is showing a steep decline. And for the first time too doubt has entered the equation.

For most of his career Mourinho has been like one of those cartoon characters who blithely carry on running even when they've gone over the cliff and journeyed into thin air. But lately he's started to look down and, feeling round with his feet, realise that he's bound by the same rules of sporting gravity as everyone else. If he plummets into the ravine at Old Trafford it will lead to the unravelling of a reputation once second to none. The Special One has an awful lot to lose if things go wrong at his new club. Failure will be regarded as proof that he has become yesterday's man.

You couldn't have imagined this happening just three years ago when Mourinho was named third best manager of all-time in a poll carried out by World Soccer magazine, behind Alex Ferguson and Rinus Michels. OK, these polls don't mean a great deal and are absurdly slanted towards the contemporary, 21 votes for Mourinho and 18 for Pep Guardiola when Udo Lattek (a European Cup, a Cup Winners' Cup, a UEFA Cup and eight Bundesligas) received one and Miguel Munoz (two European Cups and 10 La Ligas) none at all.

But it was a pretty accurate summation of how Mourinho was regarded in the game. With Ferguson on his last lap, the man from Portugal had no rivals as undisputed numero uno. No manager had been so successful so quickly. None had exuded quite the same air of brilliance, of having the whole thing worked out. Anyone else calling himself The Special One would have seemed absurdly arrogant. With Mourinho it seemed a simple statement of fact.

Winning the Champions League with an unfancied Porto team in 2004 which was notably short on outstanding individuals would have been enough to earn Mourinho a permanent place in the managerial annals. Wresting Premier League dominance away from Manchester United and Arsenal when those clubs were at their height was remarkable enough but crushing both rivals so comprehensively on the way to two successive titles with Chelsea reinforced the idea of Mourinho as a manager of a quite different order.

His first sacking by Chelsea was seen as reflecting poorly on Roman Abramovich's judgement rather than Mourinho's ability and it set the stage for perhaps his greatest achievement of all, the 2010 Champions League victory of an Inter Milan side who started as outsiders against both Chelsea and Barcelona but beat both of them before defeating Bayern Munich in the final.

Watching all this unfold, I was reminded of a quote by the great film critic Penelope Houston about Citizen Kane: "On seeing it for the first time, one got a conviction that if the cinema could do that, it could do anything." There appeared to be no limits to what Mourinho could achieve. The phrase gets overused in sport but he really did seem to be a genius. And when in 2012 he steered Real Madrid to the La Liga title, denying a previously unstoppable Barcelona side a fourth title on the trot, Jose Mourinho was at the peak of his fortunes, a kind of footballing Alexander the Great whose biggest problem might be running out of worlds to conquer.

I remember reading an interview with him in Sports Illustrated around this time. They billed him as the greatest manager in the world and he was relaxed and engaging, even telling them he might like to finish his career by managing the US. Like the rest of us, they lapped it all up. We all knew that Jose Mourinho would always be able to decide where he went next. He really was the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.

And then came the 2012-13 season. It may be that this will be seen as Mourinho's equivalent to Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the campaign after which he was never quite the same again. It wasn't just that Real lost their La Liga title to Barcelona, it was that both manager and team fell apart as the season went on. Alienating fans and players, engaging in slanging matches with the press, perpetually carping about referees, for the first time in his career he seemed to have lost control.

Previously the outbursts, the bullying and the tantrums, had seemed to be something Mourinho could control, deploying them to gain advantage in the manner of Ferguson's 'mind games'. Now they looked like the public manifestations of an extremely unpleasant personality. This wasn't just business, it was personal. Mourinho was managing to lose ugly.

Since leaving Madrid three years ago Mourinho has looked a diminished figure. His first season back at Chelsea was marked by constant complaints about not having the ideal team to challenge for the title, an odd attitude from a man who had engaged in such memorable sow's ear conversion surgery at Porto and Inter. He may have won last season's title but it came in a Premier League achieving all-time record levels of mediocrity, something underlined when Chelsea were succeeded as title-holders by Leicester City.

This season's shambles saw Mourinho cut an increasingly pathetic figure. Chelsea floundered and as key players apparently embarked upon a work to rule strategy, it appeared that Mourinho had not so much lost the dressing room as torched it. An emotion previously unimaginable in relation to the Chelsea manager began to emerge. We felt sorry for Jose Mourinho. He hardly wanted that.

Now, as he heads to Old Trafford, Mourinho is no longer primus inter pares. Guardiola has moved ahead of him in the reputation stakes and snapping at his heels are Diego Simeone, Luis Enrique and the Italian pair of Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri.

Had Mourinho been given the United job 12 months ago chances are now he'd have a league title under his belt and his reputation as the ultimate winner would have been restored. Instead he will be taking on the most important assignment of his career at the same time as Guardiola, the closest thing Mourinho has to a nemesis, and Conte take the reins at Manchester City and Chelsea. A Jurgen Klopp given the chance to build his own team at Liverpool will also be a dangerous opponent. The 2016-17 season promises to be the most competitive Premier League in many years.

Mourinho and Manchester United are well matched. Both are giants whose reputation has taken a big hit in recent seasons. After one season of Moyes and two of Van Gaal, United seem to be finally realising that they're not going to return to the top by force of reputation. Add in the last few seasons under Ferguson and it's nearing a decade since the club were the same kind of world-class force on the pitch that they are on the balance sheet.

Once upon a time Liverpool's dominance seemed an immutable fact, one destined to be perpetuated by the mysterious power of the 'Anfield boot room'. But once Liverpool slipped from the top, they never got back. Look at AC Milan, who can't even make the Europa League these days. Like Mourinho, United need to make this opportunity count or the decline may become irreversible.

There's a lot of chatter about some perceived conflict between Mourinho's preferred way of playing the game and United fans' 'demand for attractive football'. But that's nonsense. The big problem with Van Gaal was not his cautious approach but his inability to make the team challenge for the title or compete in Europe.

So it was interesting to see Paul Scholes quoted as saying that he was sure Mourinho would provide United fans with this entertaining football they apparently value above all things. Of course Scholes has no idea what kind of football United will play under Mourinho and is well aware that the aesthetic demands of the fans will be very low on the new manager's agenda. But what Scholes is doing, after being one of the most wounding of Van Gaal's critics, is making his peace with the club in the anticipation that under Mourinho the glory days will soon be back again. He may be correct.

Should United win next year's Premier League no-one at the club will give a stuff how it's been achieved. The winner, as Jose Mourinho knows, is always in the right.

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