Jose Mourinho is Tottenham Hotspur’s manager. Still sounds odd, doesn’t it? Juvenile, almost. Like the kind of scenario one might exuberantly play out on FIFA career mode with child-like intrigue: what would happen if this semi-mythical fallen giant of management took over this historic but enterprising new-comer to Europe’s top table?
On face value, it’s a mismatch. Forks, plug sockets. Orange juice, toothpaste. Mourinho, Tottenham. In their entire history, Spurs have won 26 trophies, in the last 17 years Mourinho has won 25. Spurs’ chairman Daniel Levy is famously tight-pocketed, Mourinho has spent the most money of any manager of all-time. But narrative has a curious power in football and this might just be Mourinho’s redemption song.
At Old Trafford, the label slapped on Mourinho’s side was ‘boring’. One week in and his fledgeling Spurs career has been anything but. On Saturday, Spurs went 3-0 up before surviving a late fightback against West Ham. In his first Champions League game, they did the fighting back themselves, overturning a two-goal deficit to win 4-2 against Olympiacos in Mourinho’s first game at New White Hart Lane. Is this an early indicator that at some point in the last 11 months – perhaps when sat in the crossfire of another increasingly high-pitched Neville and Carragher exchange – that Jose Mourinho had his Road to Damascus moment? Well, maybe.
If he engages the media like a world-class manager, commands his team like a world-class manager and wins trophies like a world-class manager, he’s probably a world-class manager. But in his previous position, Jose Mourinho met none of these criteria, although how much of this was his fault is fundamentally up for debate. There are no objectively bad managers at the top level – or at least very few – only bad fits. The Manchester United job was arguably the only outright failure in Mourinho’s career for many reasons outside his control, maybe even more within it. But he wasn’t a bad manager, Manchester United were a bad fit.
Football is ruled in the court of public opinion. It’s the ultimate melodrama. A player loses form for a month and he is damned. With managers, it’s the same – only intensified. The quick-fix is to get rid. Despite the lucrative pay-off, the finality of a sacking for a manager is brutal in ways which are rarely experienced by players. Few managers are dismissed from their job with their heads held high, let alone with their reputation enhanced. The fact that Jose’s forerunner Mauricio Pochettino did both proves how exceptional the Argentine’s achievements with the club were. But Mourinho is the man in charge of protecting and repurposing the team he built. In terms of narrative, this is practically an odyssey.
No foreign imports – other than maybe Stella Artois and Carlsberg – are as central to English football’s cultural canon as Jose Mourinho. His Clough-esque hubris, magnetic force of personality and ties with Bobby Robson made the love affair which endued inevitable. This is his fourth stint as a Premier League manager. But for a clause in his contract that prevented him from signing for another Premier League club until two years after his dismissal, Mourinho might have joined Tottenham after his first spell with Chelsea in 2007.
Later that year, Mourinho – on the advice of his wife, Matilde – rejected the chance to become England manager. Imagine. Instead, the F.A. gave the job to Fabio Capello and the rest is history, thoroughly miserable history at that. At the peak of his powers at the time, it’s hard to imagine the Portuguese ballsing it up any harder than the Italian whose soulless, needlessly disciplinarian and schismatic regime is remembered as the most abject of abject failures.
Had it been the former Chelsea gaffer at the helm, John Terry would have worn the captain’s armband in South Africa, not Steven Gerrard. Presumably, Stevie wouldn’t have tried to wrestle the captaincy back off Terry as Terry did to him. The pernicious infighting need not have ensued. As for tactics, Eileen Drewery could probably have done a better job than Capello. Who knows what Jose Mourinho – who in the same year as the 2010 World Cup won an era-defining treble with Inter Milan – would have done with one of the best international squads of the past 20 years at his disposal.
But ifs and buts, as England have learned in the decade since, are no currency to trade in. As it happened, Mourinho returned to the domestic game and after leaving Inter Milan joined Real Madrid where he won a La Liga title and a Copa Del Rey. From there he returned to his spiritual home in England with Chelsea where he won his third Premier League title before a player revolt brought about his dismissal. Then came Manchester United. There he won the Mickey Mouse trio – Community Shield, League Cup and Europa League. But by far his most significant contribution to the club was casting in urgent light the myriad glitches in its steadfastly unprogressive system.
In Manchester, we were re-acquainted with the angsty Mourinho, the one who thinks the whole world both revolves around him and is conspiring against him – the Jose Paradox. It was the same in his End Times with Chelsea. He already appears more content at Tottenham. Whether this is genuine or a concerted effort to shake off his sullen reputation we’ll find out, as the Mourinho train prances and grumbles through its tenth Premier League season—let’s hope it’s a special one.