Sunday, June 01, 2014

Ten years after: still special?

“Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.” - José Mourinho, June 2, 2004

Yes, you read that right. Not the quote, but the date. Ten years ago tomorrow José Mourinho plonked himself down in front of the media and, to all intents and purposes, came as close as anyone in football will ever get to making as pants-ahoy an entrance as Blackadder's drinking pal, Lord Flashheart. 

Instantly, "a special one" (a phrase normally used by the unapologetic mothers of ASBO-wielding sons - "ooh, he's a special one, that one...") became adapted to newspaper headlines by the conversion of "a" to the definite article, and The Special One was made flesh and blood. As if it needed further qualification, Mourinho helped out the attendant scribes adding: "We have top players and, sorry if I’m arrogant, we have a top manager.” Well, that told them.

With that modest declaration, English football commenced what can only be described as a new era of football manager media relations. Indeed a decade made the more copy-friendly by conspiracy theories against referees, ghost goals, spats with other managers, bans, suspensions, sackings and laundry baskets.

Whatever you think of him - and he's certainly taken polarising to new extremes of distance - José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix reintroduced to the blandified realms of English football a degree of colour not seen since the era of Brian Clough (or, you could also say, the mahogany tan of Ron Atkinson).

In the days, weeks and months to come, "The Special One" - already a corruption of the quote that spawned it - became the definitive source of headline writing: "The Scowling One", "The Argumentative One", "The Banned One" and, inevitably, "The Sacked One".

From his very first moments in front of the press, Mourinho had sports hacks routing around in their tattered OEDs for adjectives and superlatives with which to describe the manager who, thanks to his meteoric rise from assistant coach to Bobby Robson at Barcelona (having begged and cajoled to get the job) to boss of the European Champions, had displaced Claudio Ranieri as head coach of the newly-minted Londoners.

Introductory press conferences are rarely so brazen. Normally, the object of the occasion sits down and grins incessantly while gently batting away impertinent questions with well mannered calm. Unless they are Roy Keene, of course. Then there is the obligatory photo call, with the new arrival holding up a club shirt or scarf, and then onto the serious business of preparing for the new season. 

"I am not worried about pressure,"Mourinho replied to one question. "If I wanted an easy job, working with the big protection of what I have already done before, I would have stayed at Porto – beautiful blue chair, the UEFA Champions League trophy, God, and after God, me."

Yer...what? Did he just say...? Yep, he did. Not quite John Lennon, but in football's arid conditions, Mourinho had already planted his flag in an oasis of quotability. Journalists gurgled with delight. Whether they would brand Mourinho arrogance personified, or hail him the new Messiah, their editors would be wrapped up in reams of quotes between then and Kingdom come.

We shouldn't have been surprised, quite frankly. The previous season, in the second leg of a Champions League tie between Manchester United and Porto, the Portuguese side were close to elimination on the away goals rule when Costinha scored, barely seconds shy of the full 90 minutes (or injury time according to Sir Alex Ferguson's watch). It was enough for Porto to win. Mourinho didn't celebrate arms-aloft, Fergie-style, or with the ever-so-slightly repressed fist pump employed by Wenger. No, he sprinted the full length of the pitch in a brazen, unreserved and decidedly unmanagerial display of swaggering delight.

When, one Champions League title and a Champions League winner's medal tossed eccentrically into the crowd later, Mourinho turned up at Chelsea with a £4.2 million-per-year contract in his pocket - it was clear the man Roman Abramovich had dipped into his deep pockets for was not going to be a shrinking violet.

So, what happened next? The potted version is this: by Christmas 2004 Chelsea were on top of the Premier League, a distinctly unfamiliar situation for the perennial underachievers, but no doubt helped by the £70 million-plus that had been spent on the likes of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Porto defenders Ricardo "Percy" Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira, the forgettable Mateja Kežman, and Tiago (reportedly coming back this summer). Chelsea had been accused of buying titles ever since Abramovich had taken over the previous year, but this outlay and subsequent trajectory hinted ominously for the rest of the league.

On February 27, 2005, Mourinho landed his first trophy as Chelsea manager, beating Liverpool 3-2 and winding up their fans in the process by 'shushing' them. It was the start of a new phase of contre-temps between the two clubs that would later intensify when Liverpool controversially knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League with a dubious semi-final goal (and would continue with the ill-advised appointment of Rafa Benitez as Chelsea manager in 2012).

Whatever disappointment was generated by the European exit was soon forgotten on April 30 when Chelsea beat Bolton 2-0 to win the Premier League at the first time of asking by Mourinho. 50 years of league title-less hurt was ended in a single season under new management. In the process Chelsea achieved Premier League records for the most points (95) and the most economic defence (just 15 goals conceded all season). 

In Mourinho's second season in charge, with his services already secured by a new and improved five-year contract, Chelsea led the Premier League from the opening match until their final game, in which they beat Manchester United 2-0 to win a consecutive Premier League title.

You would think, then, that with two league titles in two seasons - after a dearth of 50 years - the Chelsea hierarchy would have started making plans for erecting statues and naming stands in Mourinho's honour. Rumours, however, we're already circulating of behind the scenes friction between the Portugeuse and the pirate ship of associates and lick-spittles Abramovich had around him, including director of football Frank Arnesen, who'd been brought in from Spurs to deliver a Manchester United-like funnel of youth talent.

The rumours intensified in the close-season of 2006, when Abramovich appeared to personally bring in Andrei Schevchenko, by then European football's faded Hollywood star, whose knees were more knackered than those of a Bangkok brothel worker. Add to that the German national captain Michael Ballack, another once gifted individual but now far from his best, and the fuse on Mourinho's departure had already been lit.

In the 2006-7 season Manchester United reasserted themselves as Premier League champions. While Chelsea didn't end the season completely potless - Mourinho earned his first winners' medal from the venerable FA Cup - it didn't exactly net the Champions League trophy Abramovich so desperately craved.

And so, on September 19, 2007, following the shock 1-1 Champions League draw at Stamford Bridge to Rosenborg, and while yours truly was wheezing himself up a small Sicilianmountain where he learned the news via a flurry of text messages going "Ha-hah!” like The Simpsons' Nelson Buntz, it was announced that "Chelsea Football Club and José Mourinho have agreed to part company today by mutual consent." The only thing that appeared to make it mutual was Mourinho having the remaining three years of his contract paid up in full. I believe the modern parlance is "conscious uncoupling".

So that was then, this is now. Mourinho's return to Chelsea last summer had the ring of the self-fulfilling prophecy about it. Passed over for the Manchester United job, demonstrably heading for the exit at Real Madrid, and a combination of love letters to London and professionally romantic overtures pointing towards a thaw in his relationship with Abramovich, Mourinho seemed to be heading back to the Bridge. Plus Pep Guardiola had quite patently blanked Abramovich and moved to Munich.

It's what the fans wanted, after all. Appointing the hated Benitez had left the Chelsea faithful seething at a gesture of treachery on a par with Tottenham signing Arsène Wenger. Mourinho Mk II's appearance at Chelsea last summer was, however, a very different arrival to his first. 

He was at pains to stress that not only he but Chelsea itself was going to be a different beast to the 2004-2007 version. He acknowledged that his legendary team spine had collapsed with Drogba's absence, but clearly wanted to stress the presence of youth, with Oscar identified as his 'number 10' (-although he wears No.11), and the incoming Schürrle and loanees Lukaku and De Bruyne figuring in his plans.

A full season later, and Oscar has dropped in form before our very eyes, De Bruyne has been offloaded, Lukaku probably likewise, and "Don't call me" Schürrle hasn't established himself as a starter under Mourinho. The pledge on youth, though, has shone through, with Eden Hazard and the impressive Willian, amongst others, showing that Chelsea has a youth-a-plenty at its creative heart.

But what about Mourinho's future? Already the vultures of rumourdom are circling. Chelsea's trophy-free season, an anaemic exit of the Champions League to Atlético Madrid, a third place finish in the Premier League (of which they were top at various points), and prosaically pragmatic performances that challenged Stagecoach for bus parking excellence, have raised questions about whether the Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of football are heading for a second divorce.

The English tabloids have convinced themselves so. "Chelsea linked with SHOCK move to SACK Jose Mourinho and bring in Diego Simeone" shrilled the Daily Express recently, while the ever-reliable Daily Mail foretold that Roman Abramovich had grown tired of Chelsea's toothless displays.

What to make of this? There's no doubt that last season Chelsea displayed none of the attacking flair and creative midfield choreography Abramovich lusts after. And that in part reflects Mourinho's "I'd rather defend boringly than lose entertaingly" philosophy. But then there are genuine excuses, Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Samuel Eto'o being collectively one of them, an increasingly young side still gelling being another.

André Villas-Boas and Roberto Di Matteo (and even Benitez) all had the same challenge of bringing a more youthful profile to the visibly ageing squad that Mourinho had put together in the first place. And all paid the ultimate price when it didn't work. Mourinho has clearly given been more time to make this process happen, even if he's rewarded John Terry with a one-year contract extension. 

But with Ashley Cole as good as going, Frank Lampard seemingly going the same way, and Petr Čech possibly being cashed in to accommodate Thibaut Courtois, the nucleus of the sides with which Mourinho won those titles in his first stint in charge is shrinking fast. Which means that he doesn't have a great deal of time in which create a new one before his boss's notorious impatience shows itself once again.

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