Friday 24 January 2020

James Lawton: Mourinho needs to discover his inner Ferguson to bring success back to Old Trafford

United manager's lack of energy in stark contrast to man whose shadow still looms at Old Trafford

Jose Mourinho still has selection dilemmas this weekend despite his injury and suspension woes
Jose Mourinho still has selection dilemmas this weekend despite his injury and suspension woes

James Lawton

As Jose Mourinho embraced victory over Manchester City in the League Cup - yes, the inconsequential League Cup - like some desperate supplicant, it was once again impossible not to wonder what was going on in the head of Alex Ferguson

You couldn't, of course, offer him a penny for his thoughts. In publishing circles these days it is understood well enough that you would probably have to start at around a million pounds.

Inflationary? Maybe not if you consider for a moment how it is that the power of his reputation continues, at the age of 74, to grow day by day since he resigned after delivering his 13th Premier League title three-and-a-half years ago.

The more Mourinho retreats into some strangely reduced, nervy parody of his old bravura style, the more the shadow of 'The Boss' expands.

Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho. Photo: PA

It meant that on Wednesday night, as Ferguson sat becalmed in the aura of all that accumulated prestige, Mourinho and his City rival Pep Guardiola seemed not so much the hugely acknowledged current masters of their trade as a couple of anxious triers down on their luck.

As it happened, it was Mourinho's fortune that broke for the better when Juan Mata, the player he banished from Chelsea two years ago because, so it was said, he didn't work hard enough off the ball, was ironically the heart and the soul and the scorer of the only goal in United's maybe life-giving victory.

No doubt it was some respite for Mourinho after his nightmare return to Stamford Bridge last weekend and the 4-0 undressing of his undercooked team, but the shadow of Ferguson will again loom over him when United seek some much-needed league momentum against Burnley tomorrow afternoon.

It is as though Mourinho, like the fallen - and still falling - David Moyes and Louis van Gaal before him, has been trapped in a Ferguson time warp.

What does Mourinho have to do to escape it, to create something of his own at Old Trafford that will make the brilliant work which made his reputation seem less like a fast-fading memory?

For a start, he has to look much more reminiscent of the man who once seemed to have all of football by its tail. He has to re-assert something in himself that Ferguson used to emit with every breath when he was battering his way to the unchallenged title of the most successful manager in the history of English football.

      He doesn't have to whinge publicly about the trauma of living in a five-star hotel and agonise on whether he should go shopping for a mansion in which to entertain his family whenever they can prise themselves away from the gentilities of London. Certainly he shouldn't lecture someone like Antonio Conte, his conqueror last weekend, on the evils of whipping up the crowd. Nor, perhaps, should he be seen imploring his hugely expensive players to remember they were separated by just one last minute from the glory of a place in the quarter-finals of the League Cup.

When Ferguson retired it was not without some strands of criticism. He was said not to have re-seeded his team in the way he did after his first assault on the glory, that when Moyes was called into the vacuum he found a squad not fit for the highest purpose.

Manchester United's Paul Pogba

Yet Ferguson did a have a workable riposte. They were good enough for him to guide to still another title and it was not as though he left a club on its uppers. Nearly £500million has gone into the team's re-construction but still they do not suggest an appetite for any immediate storming of the high ground. Indeed, £89m Paul Pogba, the young lion of Juventus, has yet to wipe a look of bewilderment from his face as he considers the scale of his challenge.

It might also be said that when Ferguson arrived from Scotland in the mid-eighties his overwhelming, transforming effect was less than immediate. But then one question was never placed against his name and it is one which, if he ever comes out on the record, he might well put to his successor.

Ferguson never compromised his style, his passion, his old-fashioned belief that if a team wasn't developing a pronounced competitive instinct it wasn't going anywhere. No-one could ever ask Ferguson where he had mislaid his rage to get the best out of his team.

Phil Neville, one of those players driven to their limits and sometimes beyond when Ferguson reached the peak of his powers, has already touched, though quite mildly, on the division between Mourinho's strident, but hugely successful past, and his currently enigmatic performance on the touchline and in front of the TV cameras.

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He said: "The United fans are not unhappy but they are waiting for the real Jose to come out. When I see him in interviews and on the touchline he looks a little reserved. I want him to come out and show that he's fighting the world like he was at Chelsea. He went to war with Pep when they were at Real Madrid and Barcelona and you just hope he does it again. Alex Ferguson did it all time with managers who were competing with him. With a couple more wins under his belt, I hope we will see that kind of Jose again."

That old image received a small resurrection yesterday when the Football Association charged Mourinho for his criticisms of the appointment of local resident Anthony Taylor as the referee for the recent game with Liverpool at Anfield, for which he is expected to be fined. Ferguson, of course, ran a gauntlet of such censure throughout his unflaggingly self-driven career.

He also ran along the Nou Camp touchline like an exuberant schoolboy when his team miraculously rescued the Champions League final of 1999 from the grasp of Bayern Munich. He was 57 at the time or, put another way, four years older than the Jose Mourinho who today lectures on the proprieties of touchline behaviour and frets over home comforts and a lack of privacy. Maybe the issue is not a case of declining appetite, or loss of nerve, just the need for a little more stamina.

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