Football at the elite level exists on steep curve, where the smallest steps of progress are the most difficult. First the elite club needs to get money, then they have to qualify for the Champions League. Then the top manager. Then the star player. Then the silverware. Then the final challenge is one of building an “identity”.
Jose Mourinho has never been one for club identity. Forever burned by his experiences with Barcelona, Mourinho moves much like McDonald’s and Starbucks, unveiling his own version of franchise football when he comes to town. Big brutish centre backs backed up by snide defensive midfielders. One, and exactly one talented wide forward to bring a sprinkle of stardust, while shouldering his defensive duties. And the tip of the spear, one six foot tall battering ram to gobble up half chances, wind up centre backs and be the presentable front of house.
Mourinho’s trick is going to Year Zero Clubs, building his franchise football and letting that become the bedrock of the club for years to come. He did it at Chelsea, he did it at Inter Milan. He did it at Real. All absorbing teams, all built from similar parts. If Jose is a painter who uses the same five or six colours again and again and again, he’s bloody good at getting them to make different pieces of art.
And much like he did during his first spell at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho is beginning to build his franchise at Manchester United with a core contingent of black players.
Blackchester United pic.twitter.com/W3FWOY7SOf
— Ⓜohamed Jama ?? (@DatGuyJama) October 28, 2017
For where Chelsea of the 2004-2012 era called on the talents of players including Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou, Jon Obi Mikel and others, this new Manchester United looks to be built on the talents of Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly. And sometimes Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard come along to play too.
Between Martial, Rashford, Pogba, Lingard and now Lukaku, the club really is Blackchester United going forward. pic.twitter.com/RXpK6WFpKt
— Yasiin Beyoncé (@RealSimbalism) September 21, 2017
Identity is the secret final chapter of the elite club; it’s that special intangible that turns a heavy hitter from *a* option for a young player to sign for, into *the* option. For non-native football fans, it is the identity that grabs you. There are dozens of immigrant households who support Tottenham Hotspur for their love of Glenn Hoddle in his 80s pomp. Find the right Afro-Caribbean Liverpool FC fan and they’ll tell you how it was John Barnes that gave them their love of the Reds. Thierry Henry is royalty in North London for similar reasons. The Ivory Coast loves Chelsea because of Didier Drogba. If the joy of football fandom is handing your identity over to a football club, for a little bit, it is no wonder those clubs boasting players of various identities from around the world tend to find themselves with global followings.
This is quietly happening with Manchester City, slowly becoming the club of choice on the bedrooms of young Argentinian boys. Read the list of players who have represented La Albiceleste and The Cityzens: Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Pablo Zabaleta, Nicholas Otamendi, Martín Demichelis. The next 17-year-old Argentine wonderkid, if given the choice between signing for Manchester City or say a Liverpool, may just pick City. Not for the wages, not for the manager, but perhaps because they know they if they play well, and want to come to Europe, there is something there for them in Manchester City.
Last week: Bailly, Pogba and Lukaku dance after training.
Saturday: Bailly, Pogba and Lukaku score.
— United Xtra (@utdxtra) August 20, 2017
Be it by accident or design, Jose’s franchise football is beginning to forge a new identity for Manchester United. Fans on Twitter may be playfully calling it Blackchester United, but Jose’s young black contingent of players could well form the spine of the side for half a decade. If Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole’s strike partnership captured young Afro-Caribbean fans attention after two seasons of free flowing goalscoring, imagine what the Bailly-Pogba-Rashford-Lukaku combination can do.
Black footballers doing it, on the biggest stage, for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Scoring goals, smashing stereotypes on pace and power and winning trophies all at the same time.
Blackchester United is here. And I can’t wait to see where it takes us.