'He was never my friend': Jose Mourinho opens up about frosty relationship with Roman Abramovich
It was the Roman Abramovich question that halted Jose Mourinho in his tracks and left him searching for something to say, while sticking to the script you sensed was all worked out in his mind.
He was holding court late on Thursday night in the press conference theatre, down in the depths of Old Trafford. The very fact that he spoke almost uninterrupted for ten minutes or more, without his press secretary trying to call a halt, underlined how important the message was, ahead of his return to face "a lot of good friends" at Stamford Bridge, with Manchester United tomorrow. The conversation was well under way when his relationship with the man who has sacked him twice came up. "Is Abramovich still one of those good friends?"
"He was never my friend," Mourinho finally ventured to say. "We always had the relationship of owner-manager. Very respectful relationship. We were never friends. We were never close to each other. So, no. He is just a person that I keep very respected…"
That seems rather hard to believe. Even Rafael Benitez, the caretaker who picked up the pieces at Chelsea four years, ago knew the Russian's hospitality, going around to his Kensington place for dinner after Chelsea's 2-1 win over Arsenal in January 2013, for example. That particular soiree ended up with the Spaniard playing indoor football with Abramovich's children.
Mourinho certainly would have considered Abramovich his friend in the days when he was new and exceptional in west London, 12 years ago, delivering Chelsea unprecedented success. And perhaps again when, having returned in 2013, he claimed there would be less interference from the owner this time and that the relationship first time was "very good."
The Portuguese, who has that feigned indifference shtick off to a fine art, is clearly wounded by what happened last winter. It was his talk of "the Bridge" which told you so - and the fact he wanted to say so much about the place. He actually said the word 'Chelsea' twice. He has steadfastly avoided it since they cast him out again.
"When some managers leave clubs, they like to ... I don't know the right saying … but in Portuguese it is 'wash the dirty clothes,'" he declared.
"It means 'speak about what happened. Go back and speak and speak and speak.' I leave clubs with a very good feeling, the feeling of doing everything to succeed.
"I gave everything to the club. I don't like to go back and speak specially about the bad things. I want to keep the good things - and at Chelsea I had so many good things, in terms of results, friends I have for life, an amazing empathy with the supporters, the supporters didn't change their relationship with me because of last season and a couple of months of bad results. I keep all these good memories. The things that - I don't forget, I keep it, but I keep it to myself."
Though there seemed something slightly theatrical about Mourinho wracking his brain for such a familiar English expression, the Portuguese indeed do have a much used phrase 'Não lavo roupa suja em public'.
His reluctance to engage in it reinforced that unmistakable sense that more of his heart resides in London more than Manchester. The capital is still the place he calls home, taking a suite at Manchester's five-star Lowry Hotel and returning south every week to see his family.
Fair enough, perhaps, for an individual with children, operating in a profession with limited long-term security. But his discussion of London a few years ago created a sense of affection that the north-west will do well ever to match.
The capital was "the only place in Europe where I can keep these little things of life" he said; a place where he could walk anonymously on Sloane Square or Bond Street, as he put it, or "go to school and wait for my son and daughter and the parents feel me as another parent."
He has certainly not been averse to sending a little poison in a Chelsea manager's direction in the past 12 years.
Mourinho accused Carlo Ancelotti of being part of a malign Italian football establishment when his Internazionale side met Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League in 2010.
He was at war with the Italian football authorities at the time and Ancelotti had said that all of Italy, bar Inter's fans, would want the Premier League club to advance from the last-16 meeting.
They didn't. Mourinho won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge and 3-1 on aggregate. That is his only other appearance in the Stamford Bridge opposition dugout since Chelsea first hired him.
Insignificant details for a Chelsea support base which will welcome him because of all that he delivered. The events of last season are forgotten, though Chelsea were imploding so violently that even the previous season's title had come to count for nothing. Abramovich held onto Mourinho for longer than he might.
"It's like bumping into an ex-girlfriend you haven't got over," one fan said on Friday. "He is the man who has won three of the club's five league titles and three of the four in living memory for many. The man who beat the badge on his chest at Anfield, who told us to keep our chins up at the Emirates and [told] his entire squad to throw their shirts into the crowd after winning at Ewood Park en route to our first title in 50 years in 2005."
"To say I care is not true," Mourinho said of the response he might get - which didn't sound true.
"When I go to a football match I am not focused on that. I am more focused on the game. I try to prepare myself for the match, so I cannot say that I care.
"What can I expect? I don't know. They can think about me and remember our great relation and have a good reaction. They can look at me and say, 'For 90 minutes he is Man United manager and he is playing against us, so he is not someone we like at this moment'.
"They gave me their love and they gave me their support. That is the most important thing. If now I go there as Man United manager and they decide to have a different approach I will always respect them. But from me, you are not going to have, ever, is a bad word." (© Independent News Service)
Chelsea v Manchester United, Live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow, 4.0