Wednesday 22 May 2019

James Lawton's final column: Pogba incident the latest episode of Mourinho betraying United's history

Friends and colleagues yesterday paid tribute to James Lawton after his sudden passing on Thursday evening. With permission from his family, today we publish his final column

This week’s training ground incident between Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba again highlighted the tensions at Manchester United
This week’s training ground incident between Jose Mourinho and Paul Pogba again highlighted the tensions at Manchester United

James Lawton

We may just have gone the full range of reaction to Jose Mourinho's graduation as the pantomime villain of Old Trafford.

Yet beyond dismay and disbelief, there has still to be one ruling emotion of anger - at least for anyone who remembers when Manchester United, love them or hate them, had the hard-won hauteur of one of the world's great football clubs.

A place where, for example, if the boss did what Mourinho did this week and treated Paul Pogba, a World Cup winner and widely agreed to be among the world's three or four most talented players, as if he was an uppity ball boy there would probably have been a call for the men in the white coats.

It's not so long ago, after all. Five years ago, United were champions of England and their manager didn't go out of his way to publicly insult his players.

Alex Ferguson hadn't merely taken one of the fancier jobs. He had inherited a destiny and a certain way of doing things. There were some things he knew instinctively - and perhaps because his ego hadn't run out of control - that he didn't do.

He didn't retire to his hotel suite as a glowering potentate convinced that his talent and vision, his sheer specialness, was integral to every moment of the club's success and if there was failure, well, there was no chance he might be part of that too.

He didn't strip one of the world's most gifted - though perhaps not always most seriously-minded - young players of his rank and his distinction with all his team-mates assembled for the spectacle.

He didn't forget for a moment that he was defending the reputation of an organisation which, unlike few others in any sport, had reached its standing through pain and blood and destruction which, rather than demoralising, had proved ultimately inspiring.

Buoyed So much for such historic pride right now. United is not so much buoyed by its history as haunted.

Mourinho's third season at Old Trafford has been born in chaos. Overwhelmed by Brighton and Spurs, held at home by promoted Wolves, knocked out of the League Cup by a once adoring protégé Frank Lampard, he is being outfought, out-thought, by some rivals who a few years ago wouldn't be recognised if they strolled by you in the street. It means that it is increasingly hard not to be drawn to the likelihood of a jarring conclusion to United's hiring of a coach still ranked, though ever more tenuously, among the world's best 10.

The truth is that Mourinho and United have never worked to an arresting degree, are certainly not doing so now - and to the extent that the odds against a sweet ending seem to grow a little longer every day.

The Mourinho-Pogba relationship has always been pivotal. You do not spend a world record £89m for a player who has been voted among the world's best, who has been coaxed and backslapped to Serie A titles - and a Champions League final - by Max Allegri and guided to the World Cup podium by France's Didier Deschamps, as a work in very early progress.

Of course, you want to improve him tactically, strengthen his competitive instincts, but first you take what you paid for or inherited.

Pep Guardiola did it famously with the sublime Lionel Messi. Carlo Ancelotti did it with Cristiano Ronaldo, accepted his foibles and gloried in his talent, and won the Champions League in the process - an attitude enthusiastically adopted by the serial winner Zinedine Zidane, who, ironically enough, is now one of the favourites to succeed, sooner or later, Mourinho at Old Trafford.

In the best of his times Mourinho did it too. He lifted the likes of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry to unimagined heights and when he left Inter Milan, after winning two Serie A titles and the Champions League, the notoriously hard-nut defender Marco Materazzi is said to have wept like a babe in arms.

This was not the least discountable of sentimental tributes when you remember it was Materazzi who provoked Zidane into the headbutt and red card which cost France so deeply in the 2006 World Cup by suggesting his sister was a whore.

But then where did Mourinho's personal, inspiring touch go. At Old Trafford, it has flashed like a very distant and infrequent beacon, lost in swirls of bombast and self-justification and endless reminders of what he once achieved.

Irish Independent

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