Saturday 21 September 2019

James Lawton: Mourinho must make United feel like themselves again

Unlike Conte, the Portuguese boss has time, just not as much as he thinks

Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte
Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte

James Lawton

Can it really be true that at 55 Jose Mourinho is still to grasp it is a lot later than he may care to think?

The troubling fact, and most seriously for Manchester United, is that the evidence is accumulating faster than the pace of one of his old triumphant monologues.

Before, in his nerveless prime when he was picking up trophies as though they were not so much thrilling rewards as the natural consequence of his analytic and motivational brilliance, he didn't tot up matches that had been won and strides made, real or imaginary, as if on some time-worn abacus.

He didn't list the fine points which separate winning and losing seasons.

Certainly, back then you couldn't imagine him telling a glory-soaked club like Manchester United that winning the FA Cup - which, let's face it, became some decades ago the Cup of psychological convenience for big teams in pursuit of a scrap of solace - was the badge of a successful campaign.

Or claiming that finishing second rather than winning the league - a prize which for so many seasons under Alex Ferguson had come near to a formality - was another mark of notable progress, even though Manchester City had disappeared to another level like supercharged mountain goats.


But this is how Mourinho takes his talented but erratic and too often unfocussed team in against Chelsea at Wembley tomorrow night.

There was a time when he might have convinced United, and not least himself, that they owned the place. But those were the prancing days of touch-line exhibitionism, of scrawling notes as though he was etching in marble.

Days of insouciant glory filled with the expectation of fresh conquest and new polishing of an already glowing, if not totally lovable, image.

Days of dismissing Arsene Wenger as a serial loser and running down the touchline at Old Trafford with manic glee after the late goal which carried his Porto closer to their Champions League win of 2004.

Now there is a waking dread at Old Trafford. It is that while Mourinho voices his self-serving appraisal of a season which doggedly refused to produce more than a passing spark or two, United, despite the assurance of more huge spending in the summer, may have to brace themselves against the new equation.

It is the unwelcome one of Mourinho which says that winning the old Wembley silverware is more than paltry consolation for being dismissed from the Champions League in the round of 16 by the deeply unfancied Sevilla.

The echoes of that disaster will no doubt reach new and thunderous levels if Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool perform a miracle of ambition when they meet Real Madrid in Kiev next week.

If Mourinho has any kind of comfort tomorrow night it is that he, unlike his Chelsea rival Antonio Conte, is heading not for a shoot-out at the OK but the KO corral.

The suggestion that Conte, despite his superb work last season and his regathering of the troops for a mighty effort against Barcelona in the Champions League, has been a dead coach walking for some time now is surely a genuine football outrage.

No doubt it says so much more about the Chelsea hierarchy, and the waning commitment of a dressing room which a year ago shone with the authority of genuine, talented competitors, than it does a coach who has shown so often a superior ability to organise and inspire a team.

His pain may soften a little if he takes more than a passing glance at the fate of some of his predecessors, men like Mourinho, Champions League winner Roberto di Matteo, Luiz Scolari, who delivered a World Cup to Brazil, and the distinguished Carlo Ancelotti, who felt the knife just a year after winning the double.

Conte's current distress can only have been deepened this week by a twitter rash calling for his dismissal before the Wembley game, one presumably based on the belief that the Chelsea players might, for one night at least, find some of their old professionalism if released from the demands of their tyrant coach.

The problem for Chelsea, for all the success that a small legion of coaches has produced down the Abramovich years, is they cannot change what they are.

They are not a football club in the classic gathering of tribal passion, not like United or Liverpool - or Arsenal in all those years they waited unavailingly for Wenger to regain his genius for winning in a beautiful way.

No, Chelsea are not built on the passions of their fans and the popularity of a winning coach. They are a very rich man's indulgence.

So, win or lost at Wembley, Conte will almost certainly join the well-healed refugees from Stamford Bridge, men who proved that they could not only win football matches but also - perhaps fatally - a little popularity of their own.

For all the boardroom mis-steps down the years, this has never been a killing limit on the ambitions of Liverpool or United. Shankly, Paisley and Fagan (and now Klopp) became the leaders of Anfield, just so long as they won and made the people happy. The same was true at Old Trafford. Busby was deified, Ferguson remains lionised and now Mourinho, who arrived at United with the best record of all, is required to fight for the beginnings of such recognition.

He can shuffle blame on to his players for as long he likes, he can try to turn minor achievement into a foretaste of some of the old glory, but he must do a whole lot better than win the FA Cup tomorrow night.

What precisely? He must make Manchester United feel like themselves again. He must accept that his times have changed. He must start again.

He has been guaranteed a little time to do it but then maybe not as much as he once had good reason to believe.

Irish Independent

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