Mourinho and the Great Managers: One Crucial Difference

Put together any list of the greatest British football managers: the same names always recur. Chapman, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Don Revie, Alf Ramsey, Jock Stein, Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger.. and there’ll be one or two other names others would add to their own version of this list.

I’d add Jose Mourinho, who in four years has won every trophy available to him at least once, with two quite different clubs in quite different countries. Others wouldn’t, and one reason would be that “four years”: all of the names in my basic list went on for decades.

There’s a good reason Mourinho hasn’t, and in that might be a clue as to what he does next.

All but two of my basic list have one thing in common. They took over clubs that had either never been successful, or clubs that had been relatively moribund for years, and took them to unprecedented heights. Not Paisley, who took over at Liverpool and quite unexpectedly eclipsed his predecessor, and not Stein, who took over Celtic. And Wenger merely made erstwhile Arsenal look moribund.

Look at the others: Busby, taking over bombed-out Manchester United, for quarter of a century the second club of the city. Chapman, first coaching at Leeds City – Leeds then very much a Rugby League town – then at Huddersfield, another rugby place – then at Arsenal, when no club south of Birmingham had won a league title. Revie, taking over Leeds United, Leeds City’s undistinguished successor, a kind of Milton Keynes Dons of its day, soon to experience a Don of the real kind. Bill Shankly, rescuing Liverpool from Division Two when desperation had set in at Anfield. Alf Ramsey, winning Division Two and Division One in successive seasons with Ipswich, when everyone had told him he’d win nothing with veterans. Brian Clough (with Peter Taylor) at Derby, at Forest, clubs he’d present with a unique and irreplaceable part of their history. Alex Ferguson, reinstituting chuck-out time at the Old Trafford Arms. Who really remembers their long humiliation at the hands of Leeds, Forest and especially Liverpool – no one under 35, anyway.

For a manager to have time and space to produce what he is capable of (and, thus far, it’s always been “he” – that will change) he needs a club that feels they need him more than he needs them. (This doesn’t altogether describe Clough’s experience at Derby, but is just what he had at Forest). That’s to say, the club’s board must keep out of the way as much as humanly possible, or at the very least be amenable to psychological manipulation and tricks (Arsenal had wanted a cheapskate secretary-manager: Chapman hoodwinked them into spending on the grand scale).

Before he arrived at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho had long and bitter experience of clubs whose politics constantly impeded his career, his education in the game and his teambuilding. Persistence and patience (he set relations with board and club members at a high priority, lacking the class-based chippiness of a Clough or, at one time, a Ferguson) eventually led to his band of followers winning the Champions League with Porto. Chelsea came in with the offer of a free run and money to spend, and he arrived in England, telling the media that he thought he was “a” (not “the”) special one..

He imported his followers, won over the Chelsea regulars (Eidur Gudjohnsen is on tape declaring that he’d find it difficult to play under any other manager after Jose Mourinho), won the League Cup, the League title, and reached a Champions League semi-final, in which fair commentators would have to suggest that they were robbed of victory by the difficulty of refereeing close calls:


In theory, this should have been the moment when Mourinho was given his head to continue his work. A free hand, qua Clough, qua Busby, qua Ferguson. A dominant role for a man who values dominance. In practice, the opposite seems to have happened. But everything is rumour beyond this point.

One account sets out the next two seasons as ones in which quite a number of figures within Chelsea competed with Mourinho in taking credit for the rush of success. Peter Kenyon is alleged to have regarded his stewardship and his contacts book as primarily responsible. Similar things have been said about Frank Arnesen. All of that pales into insignificance when contrasted with the attitude of Roman Abramovich.

The story here is of a man who is wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice but not beyond those of Champions League glory. A man who regards his football club as a car tyre, which, performing well at the correct pressure, might perform spectacularly if one just keeps on pumping in the air. Or it might just burst. A proper manager versus Championship Manager, you might say, and in this instance the man with the computer game won. Gossip has Abramovich coaching Michael Essien in the Chelsea dressing room after what would turn out to be Mourinho’s last match in charge.

I don’t want to explore the circumstances of Mourinho’s departure more than that at this stage. Now that he’s gone, and Chelsea are embarked upon what is likely to be a slow and graceful spiral down to fourth and fifth place over the coming few seasons, what is Mourinho likely to do next?

All the talk is of either a national side – Portugal being the favourite, despite Mourinho’s own denials – or of another “top European side,” a Juve, an Inter, a Real or some other G14 member.

This might turn out to be true. But I don’t think the lesson of the last two seasons is lost on Mourinho. That lesson is, find himself an open playing field – the European equivalent of a Nottingham Forest. A club down to its uppers, desperate for competent help.

Perhaps even the real Nottingham Forest, if they can afford him. There are reasons why he might consider it.

First of all, Mourinho is a very considerable coach in pure coaching terms. He has a long track record of bringing great things out of mediocre players. He does not necessarily need a huge bankroll to bring at least some degree of success, and in any case, it’s likely that talent will always flock to him wherever he is from here on. He can draw good players to clubs that they would otherwise not consider.

Secondly, the band of brothers he has led through Porto and Chelsea are ageing together. Lampard, Ferreira, Carvalho, Drogba, all turn 30 in the next eighteen months. John Terry’s ambitions are ferociously attached to Chelsea, and consequently he has distanced himself. Wherever Mourinho travels next, he will have to find a new set of acolytes and leaders on the pitch.

The jobs he once might have been linked to have all faded away, one by one. Manchester United will be Ferguson’s for years to come, although Mourinho is the only man on the European stage big enough to fill his shoes. The England national side will be mismanaged by Englishmen for another decade, unless honorary Englishman Arsene Wenger has a serious and misguided change of heart. Mourinho’s already “done” Barcelona, under Robson, and Real are too fickle.

My advice to Mourinho, for what it’s worth! would be, go English, go small, go desperate. Martin O’Neill can build Aston Villa at his own pace, and one can already detect that beginning to happen. Choose a faded giant – from a proper football town or city. Crystal Palace or QPR are both potentially Premiership clubs, but are underneath a glass ceiling. Sheffield Wednesday, or Sheffield United, on the other hand – or one of the two Nottingham clubs – are one hands-off sugardaddy away from real revival (pace Colin Calderwood’s efforts at Forest, which are hampered by lack of real cash and by the personalities of some of his “best” players).

He probably won’t do it. Mourinho’s career, up to this point, has been carefully constructed, and the events at Chelsea may only deflect him from his planned and prepared goals. I doubt his thoughts are straddling the Trent or the Park Hill Estate. But give him either and ten years, and we’d really know if the Premiership’s top four was closed off by money.

9 Replies to “Mourinho and the Great Managers: One Crucial Difference”

  1. For what it’s worth, the decision that the referee made in the Liverpool semi final was not between giving a goal and not giving a goal, but between giving a goal or sending off Cech and awarding a penalty. He bottled it, obviously, but it is doubtful that Chelsea would have progressed either way. Which is a shame, as the team that demolished Bayern and Barcelona deserved a champions’ league final.

  2. Why go so far down as those clubs? Benitez at Liverpool should be looking over his shoulder.

  3. dearieme the reason to go further down as you put it, is because the interference at clubs like Liverpool, Spurs et al would too great. A man like Mourinho needs freedom to express himself.

    The reason Forest is a good example is that they are the only club to have had a personality as strong (nay stronger) than Mourinho and let him flourish. 2 European Cups sit proudly in the trophy room as a result.

  4. It would be great to see JM remain in England at a smaller club, and it would be interesting to see the press’s reaction – they miss him badly already and would treat him differently if he was at a club not so obnoxious as Chelsea (and I say that as a Chelsea supporter).

    But I think his plan is to win in Italy and then take Portugal into a World Cup. And then retire. I hope he achieves it and stops on his own terms, as he really did at Chelsea in the end, despite everything.

    And that latter fact points up something else: the man is one of the most gifted politicians I have ever seen in football, excelling at saying exactly what his audience (the fans) want to hear and leaving the impression he desires, even when it directly contradicts the evidence. He’s extraordinary, a Peronist.

  5. On Jose, my impression (which is as limited as any normal person’s) is that the only international team he would coach is Portugal. In his heart he’s got some affection for his home that wouldn’t let him take the England job. Let’s face it, if he really wanted it he could probably get the press to hound out McLaren tomorrow…

    Some will laugh at this, but there’s an interesting parallel with a man who was seeking (in some measure) to rebuild his reputation. Sven Goran Eriksson may just have been desperate, but at the same time you can’t help but feel (pace Thaksin losing the Thai people’s money back to them) he’s in a position at Man City to make an assault on the top 4 and show what his coaching and player selection can do, freed of the constrictions of international football.

  6. No Googling, James: who said this?
    “Supporters misunderstand the defining factor between winning and losing. It is not, as most Oikball fans opine after witnessing the England football team fail again, patriotism, heart, or commitment: it is making the right decisions under pressure, and then doing what is required.”

  7. Metatone, I’m with you on SGE. He is a good coach. I think he blew it at international level where maybe there were too many restrictions or his management style was not optimal with the players at his disposal. He still had a good record with England. However, I fully expect Man City to be up there in the top five with his free rein on choice of players… Chelsea and possibly Liverpool better watch out, especially as Aston Villa are quietly putting in the work to become a contender for a european place, more so UEFA than Big Cup. Still a threat under the management of MO’N and neither Man City or Aston Villa sides having big stars – one for all and all for one!

Comments are closed.