Mourinho, United, & The Winds of Change

by | Feb 6, 2016

Much as it might all be idle speculation for the time being, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that a conflation of events elsewhere might have been significant in bringing Jose Mourinho and Manchester United together. At the start of last week, Pep Guardiola – who surely would have been United’s first choice to succeed Louis Van Gaal once the current incumbent finally completes his apparently inevitable departure from Old Trafford – signed his life away to Manchester City. In the middle of last week, a seven-nil defeat against Barcelona left Gary Neville’s future at Valencia hanging by a thread. This may well have left Edward Woodward wondering about the wisdom of replacing Van Gaal with a member of the Class of ’92 with little actual managerial experience. So, perhaps not good news for Ryan Giggs.

The timing of the leak could, conceivably, be significant. After all, Manchester United travel to Stamford Bridge in the Premier League this weekend and such a story could, perhaps, unsettle a few heads of a Chelsea persuasion over the course of the forty-eight hours between its emergence and the moment of kick-off tomorrow afternoon. From a Public Relations point of view, supporters who have been clamouring for the removal of Van Gaal may well be placated by such news. This week has seen their undoubted first choice throw his lot in with their local rivals, whilst in Spain, a contemporary of the assistant manager is having a terrible time in his first managerial position.

Of course, the timing of what looks distinctly like a deliberately timed leak doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether there’s any truth to it or not. That Mourinho has coveted the Manchester United manager’s job has been a reasonably open secret for some considerable time. The question in this case has long been whether Manchester United could or would countenance taking on a manager who comes with the amount of baggage that Mourinho does. At first, it was broadly believed that the club didn’t, that there was a “United way” that precluded his occasionally reductionist playing style and overall demeanour. Over time, however, this understanding has come to fall away. Whether it’s merely the effect of a third consecutive season without a serious bid for the Premier League or Champions League titles coupled with Mourinho’s track record of bringing success to a club by hook or by crook, aesthetic concerns over Manchester United’s next managerial appointment seem to have diminished since he left his position at Stamford Bridge.

That question of aesthetics will hang over any Mourinho spell in charge of Manchester United. If there is a cogent argument against him taking control of the club that extends beyond personal dislike, it goes something like this: Manchester United’s current league position isn’t particularly disastrous. The team is in fifth place in the Premier League and is still in touch with the Champions League places. It’s still in the FA Cup and, whilst early elimination from the Champions League was clearly an undesirable position for the club to find itself in, the Europa League is a winnable tournament. Where Louis Van Gaal has come in for considerable criticism this season in the stultifying performances of his teams in the process of acquiring these results. This is the biggest single reason for his expected departure, but Mourinho is not best known for open, flowing football. So, is he going to bend, or is the club?

There might only be one set of supporters who are breathing a sigh of relief over these reports, those of Tottenham Hotspur. Since the wobbliness of Van Gaal’s position first became apparent earlier this season, some Manchester United supporters have been casting their eyes around for the manager who best fits their sense of entitlement, and Pochettino, who has built perhaps the best Spurs team in more than fifty years, has been deigned of sufficient quality. This, of course, is an opinion that would likely rapidly change were Pochettino unable to wake United from their current slumber, and it’s by no means nailed on that a manager who was thrived on being relatively out of the spotlight, constructing a team from canny signings and highly motivated young players will be successful at a club at which the demands for success are constant, that this success must be more or less automatic – United supporters have found over the last three seasons that a patient approach is much easier to espouse when you’re sweeping all before you than when you’re not – and that “box office” means a lot in a football context, these days.

At the other end of the “relief” scale sits Ryan Giggs. We can only speculate over whether Giggs has ever believed that his ascension to be the manager of the club had any air inevitability about it, but the rumours of the last twenty-four hours throw his position at the club into some degree of question, and this cannot have been on any list of things that he would have been expecting. Perhaps he will need to leave the club to dip his toes into the managerial waters elsewhere, ending a relationship that has lasted for twenty-nine years. A profound link with the club’s past. Perhaps he’ll go away, prove himself elsewhere and return to Old Trafford in a few years’ time. Sideways glances towards Gary Neville’s experience in Valencia coupled with the extreme difficulty in breaking through the Premier League’s glass ceiling, however, makes any return in a coaching capacity less than certain, however much the sentimental might wish this to be otherwise.

If the Mourinho story does turn out to have legs, though, there might be a case for saying that he’s a better match for Manchester United than some might like to believe. Alex Ferguson could be charming when he wanted to and there’s no question that he was a brilliant manager, but he was capable of being a horrible bastard, as well. And much as some may wish to eulogise the expansive talents of some of those who contributed towards more than two decades of success the like of which English football has never seen before and may never again, the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona could all be horrible bastards when they needed to be. But here’s the thing – the supporters of all football clubs think theirs are “special,” in some way or other. Perhaps success allows those feelings of “specialness” to ferment and to some to feel especially vindicated. Ironically, the appointment of the man who identified himself as “the special one” might disavow a few of the notion that Manchester United are the special ones. And there’s long been a culture of taking horrible bastards to out hearts when they’re on our side.

They’re being offered one of the most successful coaches in Europe on a plate. Jose Mourinho can be a horrible bastard, but he’s an extremely successful horrible bastard and, in terms of his career, his experience at Chelsea over the course of his bizarre first half of the season is the outlier. In the current culture of the Premier League, and over the last twelve or thirteen years, he has been amongst Europe’s most successful coaches, and when the financial imperative is so high, when the stakes are deemed to be greater than ever, perhaps it is inevitable that the club, the PLC, the directors and investors, will eventually end up hiring him. Winning at all costs is just a part of the game, these days. We started tacitly accepting that years ago. And should the stories come to nothing, the fact that such a rumour can provoke such interest and such debate is significant in itself, in a way. These stories may emerge into life very soon. They may never fully materialise. Whether true or not, though, we’ve reached – almost by default – a through the looking glass moment in English football. But perhaps what matters more than anything else is the fact that an horrible bastard can be okay, so long as he’s your horrible bastard. We shall see.

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