“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
Eric Cantona’s response to the press after winning his appeal against a charge of assault for attacking an abusive Crystal Palace fan in 1995 is arguably one of the most famous football quotes in Premier League history. Ok, it’s not directly about football and it wasn’t exactly spontaneous, but for sheer originality alone, it has to be up there with the very best. However, I would suspect leading the argument against with a fanfare blown from his very own trumpet would be a certain Portuguese football manager.
José Mourinho is now probably known as much for what he says off the pitch as for what his teams do on it. The self proclaimed “special one” would surely have the statement that announced his entrance onto the Premier League stage at the top of any list of Greatest Premier League quotes if there was one. He would likely argue that he has won the league in four different countries and that his quotes are about football rather than being some cryptic analogy about seagulls, (the press) sardines (news stories) and trawlers (footballers) spouted by a player who didn’t even win a Champions League – of which he has three. He would argue his point because it is true and right, but mainly just because he loves the attention that a good verbal bust up gets. But then again, maybe he wouldn’t argue at all. Maybe he would make a point of not arguing his point, knowing that his refusal to engage in the argument would in itself gain attention. Or maybe he would just sniff the air, claim he can smell a headline and leave the building in a laundry basket. He is the Special One. He does what he wants.
“I am a special one”
There used to be something about José that was quite interesting, quite intriguing. He is undoubtedly a very talented football manager, which his success has clearly proven. However, unlike the genuinely enigmatic, Gallic forward known by United fans as ‘King Eric’, José has become a bit boring. If Eric Cantona was John Lennon then José Mourinho would definitely be Paul McCartney – talented, yes, accomplished, yes, but perhaps he’s been around doing the same thing for too long to remain interesting or even relevant anymore.
Eric Cantona will always be better known for doing his metaphorical talking on the pitch than he will be for his surreal, verbal stab at the media and the kung fu kicking he gave an abusive fan. Despite reconstructing himself into a serious actor after his premature retirement from football aged 30, Cantona still retains his enigma and mythical status amongst the red half of Manchester. In contrast, the self-proclaimed ‘special one’ has become a little… predictable – dull even. And to be honest, the football his teams produce isn’t that much more interesting.
Perhaps it’s just me, but it appears that despite his impressive CV, José’s footballing achievements seem to have been overshadowed by his headline grabbing, media performances. The paradox being that, as he has increasingly come to believe his own hype, his concerted efforts to make every press utterance a quote-worthy headline seems to have bored everyone into indifference. When I watch Mourinho in a press conference I see a man painstakingly shepherding his thoughts and filtering his words to make them into something… something… more. More than what they are, which is just a bit of sport punditry. I mean let’s face it, he’s not presiding over civil war every week is he?
There have been times when José has deferred praise and come over all humble, but it’s just not convincing. However, if there is one person who José holds any reverence for, it is Sir Alex Ferguson. When Real Madrid beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Champions League in 2013, José’s apologetic submission that “the best team lost” carried the melancholic weight of a Greek tragedy – it was almost pathetic. Like watching Princess Diana’s butler cry after admitting selling her secrets to the tabloids for money. Despite his managerial talents, José is no actor. When he is trying to feign humility, the fact that he’s trying – and trying really hard – shows like a heavy layer of sweat, weighing his words down with a soggy contrivance.
There’s no doubt that José is a winner, but there are two kinds of winners in sport. There are those who think only of the result and their ego, and those who revel in the competition and the performance. The former would argue that the result is all that matters when making history, but I think for those in the latter category the result diminishes in importance if not matched by the performance. As a spectator I would agree with the latter. When I think of the great teams and the great athletes, I remember their performances.
In tennis Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras were great, but win or lose, I always enjoyed watching John McEnroe and Boris Becker more. Whilst Alain Prost may have won more Formula 1 titles, Ayrton Senna’s name will be long remembered in the hearts of the fans after Prost’s has been forgotten. And when we think of boxing, the names that spring to the forefront are Ali, Tyson and the two Sugar Ray’s – Robinson and Leonard. Can we say in 50 years time that Lewis, Klitschko or Calzaghi will stir as much reminiscent excitement? And whilst we all remember the great Brazil teams and their flamboyant displays on the pitch, we don’t always remember the solid performances of the Germans or the Italians, despite those nations having arguably parallel successes over the course of history. There is no doubt that José will be remembered in football’s history, but I wonder if any of his teams will be.
José’s brand of football seems to reflect his style of media delivery – dull, methodical, defensive, solidity, punctuated by occasional incisive, attacking moves and usually finished off by a big, hard, unflinching, direct striker. Relentless and monotonous are two words that spring to mind for both aspects of José’s career – coaching winning teams and soliciting media interest with a relentless conviction and monotonous regularity. But for José the off-field media play is as an important part of his game plan as his team formations and tactics. For José, it’s not how you play the game, it’s whatever you can get away with to win it.
Much of José’s game plan is about getting under the skin of his opposing managerial competition, but during his time at Real Madrid his inability to destabilise Pep Guardiola and upstage Barcelona got to him. Pep was younger than José, more dignified, composed, more respected and better liked than him. In his debut managerial job Guardiola had produced a Barcelona team that the footballing world were drooling over – the best football team to ever grace the field of play they were saying. No matter what José would ever do, he knew that nobody would say that about any of his teams. That type of accolade transcends winning trophies – which Guardiola also did – a domestic and European treble in 2009 no less. So how did José cope with his new competition?
Despite having the most expensive player in the world in his team (although not the best – parallels between Mourinho / Guardiola and Ronaldo / Messi can be easily drawn here too), José just couldn’t outplay Barcelona. So he resorted to kicking and violence. But the kicking and the violence didn’t work either and Mourinho suffered the most humiliating defeat of his career at the Bernabeu in 2010; Barcelona battered his team 6-2. This was followed by a run of 4 consecutive defeats against his Catalan rivals (including a 5-0 drubbing at the Nou Camp) only punctuated by a 1-1 draw in Madrid. But perhaps the most humiliating episode in José’s career to date is the petulant eye-poking assault on Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova that followed a flare up during the Super Cup in 2011. That act really unveiled the façade of composure that belies the inner tantrum of a sore loser. Perhaps more telling than ironic, Madrid actually won that game.
José left Madrid in 2013 after he finally managed to win a La Liga title, but many were glad to see the back of him. They felt that the dirty tactics he adopted to overcome his Catalan rivals tarnished Real Madrid’s image. By then Guardiola had already left Barcelona and rejected an offer to become Chelsea manager to take a sabbatical from the game. Meanwhile, Alex Ferguson, the one manager for whom José had nothing but reverential admiration for, was on his way out of Old Trafford. What next for José? A return to the place where he was loved – Chelsea (but only because Pep Guardiola turned down the job).
José’s return to the Premiership was relatively low key. He seemed to be more mature, less severe and a little softer around the edges. He played down his chances of winning the league and spoke of Chelsea as the “little horse”, and his “beautiful young eggs that need a mum”. This was a team he was building for an assault on the league title next year. The mediocre and typically uninspiring performances of his team reflected that. But it wasn’t long before the nasty barbs came out again and the targets were the obvious ones – anybody threatening his title challenge. So there were patronising backhanded complements given to Brendan Rodgers, the “young manager” who was once José’s understudy. There was mud slung at sexagenarian’s Arsene Wenger – who he labeled a “specialist in failure” – and Manuel Pelligrini with whom he already had previous, having mocked his appointment at Malaga after he replaced him at Madrid.
Now we’re at the money end of the season and Chelsea are title contenders, the abstract distractions – references to money, fixtures, players even the scent of goals – all these things are part of José’s arsenal of obfuscation that he utilises to attain victory. Unbowed by grace or humility, José will try anything to win. He is no respecter of age, rules, rights or wrongs. His aim is to make history and make a few headlines along the way.
For some, a simple statistic in the history books is all that matters. For others, a chapter that is retold over and over, telling a story of strength, desire, skill and passion means much more. In an era where every second of every football moment is recorded in posterity, I think those looking back from the future on the great teams of yesteryear will be enjoying the games involving Manchester United, Barcelona and even Arsenal more than José’s Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Madrid. It is very possible that in 50 years time people will remember José more than his teams. We will remember his post and pre-match interviews, his touchline performances and his increasingly self-indulgent ramblings, but how many of his incredibly successful teams’ performances will last in the memory?
Despite all of this, there’s still something about José that I like. For all his flaws he offers more entertainment value than Moyes, Allardyce, Martinez, Hughes, Hughton, Pulis, Rodgers, Pelligrini and even Wenger. In the absence of characters like Alex Ferguson, Harry Redknapp and even Roberto Mancini, post-match press conferences have become a wasteland of blandness this season. For all the criticism that can justifiably be landed at his doorstep, José does give an otherwise anodyne arena of sport the promise of something a little bit different, even if it is more of the same.