If Mour­inho can’t man­age the United job, then who can?

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

What if Jose Mour­inho is right and it re­ally is every­body else’s fault? Fri­day morn­ing’s Manch­ester United press con­fer­ence lasted just three min­utes and in his short, muted an­swers, Mour­inho seemed not so much re­signed as in­dif­fer­ent to his fate. There was no light in his eyes and noth­ing of the old de­fi­ance or chutz­pah.

His fu­ture at United seems lim­ited; a de­feat to New­cas­tle United in this evening’s 5.30pm kick off could well prove the fi­nal straw. For weeks, be­fore the sea­son had even be­gun, there has been a macabre pub­lic sport in watch­ing Mour­inho be­come in­creas­ingly iso­lated, rail­ing against the world, quot­ing Hegel, de­mand­ing re­spect, feud­ing with Paul Pogba and, all the time, not win­ning games. Old Traf­ford has been a haunted house since Alex Fer­gu­son va­cated the man­ager’s of­fice and Mour­inho, tasked with re­cal­i­brat­ing the win/loss ra­tio of the most glam­orous club in English foot­ball his­tory, looks set to join the list of men who found Fergie’s shadow just too long.

In his first few sea­sons in English foot­ball, Mour­inho pre­sented him­self as a dash­ing fig­ure with an un­con­tain­able en­ergy and a com­i­cally boast­ful be­lief in his bril­liance. He was young and at once amus­ingly and pre­pos­ter­ously vain. He won ti­tles, just as he had promised he would, pro­pelling Chelsea to their first league ti­tle in half a cen­tury in 2005, field­ing a team that was breath­tak­ingly ef­fi­cient and then back­ing it up with an­other ti­tle in the 2005/06 sea­son, af­ter which he ca­su­ally fired his win­ner’s medal in the crowd at Stam­ford Bridge (They handed him min­utes later: he chucked that, too). When he moved to In­ter Mi­lan in 2008, he spoke al­most en­tirely in Ital­ian in his first press con­fer­ence; he breezily claimed to have mas­tered the lan­guage in just three weeks.

Unas­sail­able faith

Mour­inho had such unas­sail­able faith in him­self it never oc­curred to those around him not to share it. He was al­ways a short-term spe­cial­ist, with his com­bat­ive, de­mand­ing per­son­al­ity lead­ing to in­evitable per­son­al­ity clashes and con­tro­ver­sies and, sooner or later, his de­par­ture. But he al­ways had that glit­ter­ing record as his call­ing card. You look, now, at the man in charge of United and won­der where that Mour­inho has gone. Where is that ab­surdly self-as­sured fig­ure who sat back in his seat at Chelsea, not so much man­ag­ing as re­gally sur­vey­ing his em­pire at work?

That Mour­inho was a style icon: tai­lored suits, som­bre shades; the pub­lic school uni­form look adopted by Pep Guardi­ola; win­ter scarves. The Mour­inho at Old Traf­ford of­ten looks as if the alarm didn’t go off on match day, forc­ing him to rum­mage around the floor of his wardrobe in the Lowry Ho­tel for what­ever pair of track­suit bot­toms and fleece came to hand be­fore rush­ing out the door, cof­fee on the run. It’s as if he has come to the con­clu­sion that ev­ery­thing is bull­shit, in­clud­ing fash­ion.

Yes­ter­day, Mour­inho was re­minded United have gone four games with­out a win and the club hasn’t gone five with­out a win once since 1990. He was asked if he would ac­cept that kind of a run wasn’t good enough for a club of United’s size. “Yes,” he replied wearily. “I ac­cept.” Of all the re­sponses – long-winded, self-glo­ry­ing, funny – that brief re­ply may be among the most sig­nif­i­cant of his press-con­fer­ence his­tory. It felt like a plea of guilty. Right now, Mour­inho is out of friends and all but out of chances. Last week came the pub­lic dress­ing down of Paul Pogba. This week, An­to­nio Va­len­cia of­fered a hasty so­cial me­dia apol­ogy af­ter in­ad­ver­tently “lik­ing” an In­sta­gram post ad­vo­cat­ing the sack­ing of Mour­inho. Some­where, Matt Busby weeps or, per­haps, laughs.

Against Va­len­cia on Tues­day evening, United were goal­less and lacked clear pur­pose, in­ven­tive­ness and en­ergy; they looked like a bro­ken team. They sit 10th in the Premier League and the sea­son has been re­duced to a sham­bolic power strug­gle be­tween Mour­inho and Pogba. And if Mour­inho can­not or­gan­ise his play­ers into a shape ca­pa­ble of beat­ing New­cas­tle – who are with­out a league win and with just four goals scored – what hope is there for the rest of the sea­son?

Be­cause of all that, this evening’s game feels mo­men­tous. The mad thing about this sit­u­a­tion is Mour­inho’s es­sen­tial claim – that he is one of the great­est man­agers in the world – is true. His abil­ity to come into a club, to then bull­doze through the cul­ture of ap­a­thy and build teams ca­pa­ble of storm­ing to suc­cess has been ex­tra­or­di­nary. He has re­cently ar­gued, both pre­dictably and per­versely, that guid­ing United to sec­ond place in last year’s Premier League ranked among his best-ever achieve­ments. He was hint­ing, with cus­tom­ary em­pha­sis, that his squad, de­spite its salary scale, was over­rated and not that good. And maybe that is true.

Sum­mer sign­ings

You get the im­pres­sion Mour­inho is seething. That he is fu­ri­ous with Pogba’s dis­en­chant­ment and his feigned in­dif­fer­ence. Fu­ri­ous be­cause he feels trapped by Ed Wood­ward’s re­fusal so sanc­tion a sum­mer sign­ing any more sig­nif­i­cant than Brazil’s Fred. That ev­ery­one can’t wait to tell him what Paul Sc­holes has just said. That the English me­dia adore Pep Guardi­ola. That Jurgen Klopp won’t stop smil­ing. That ev­ery­one seems to think Mau­rico Po­chet­tino, who has won noth­ing, would be the ideal man to take over at United. That he can’t es­cape Fer­gu­son. Mainly, he seems be­wil­dered and a tiny bit sad that ev­ery­one seems to have for­got­ten he had all this magic.

Auras dis­ap­pear. If United don’t win this year’s league – and they won’t – then six years will have passed since Fer­gu­son’s farewell ti­tle. The money and power and mo­men­tum have shifted across town to City. It feels as if United have reached their first great cross­roads of the Premier League era. If the Spe­cial One is forced out, United will have dis­pensed with three very dif­fer­ent man­agers in less than six sea­sons. And if Mour­inho found the task of rein­vent­ing United im­pos­si­ble, who is to say his suc­ces­sor will have any bet­ter luck? The pres­sure to res­tore that aura of in­vin­ci­bil­ity be­comes greater; ev­ery bad streak be­comes a calamity; sup­port­ers and the board be­come ner­vous and soon come the calls for an­other sack­ing.

In their pomp, United fans used to en­joy the sight of Liver­pool’s fail­ing and start­ing from scratch, ev­ery year an­other fur­ther re­moved from their glory. There were eight dif­fer­ent man­agers at An­field while Fer­gu­son chewed gum and won English league ti­tles. Now, United’s fans are be­gin­ning to get a feel of that cli­mate of ner­vous­ness and pan­icked change.

Mour­inho’s re­cent pub­lic pro­nounce­ments have be­gun to sound like the des­per­ate pleas of a de­fen­dant al­ready con­demned. Yet he was a Premier League-win­ning man­ager just over three years ago with Chelsea. And yet he took 81 points with United just last year. The world won’t lis­ten but if it is true that man­ag­ing United has bro­ken Mour­inho’s spirit, then the Red Dev­ils are in trou­ble.

You get the im­pres­sion Mour­inho is fu­ri­ous with Pogba’s dis­en­chant­ment and his feigned in­dif­fer­ence

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