When Jose Mourinho became the manager of Manchester United he claimed that he had always had a special relationship with our fans. I’m not sure whether this was something his ego genuinely allowed him to feel or whether it was an attempt to endear himself to our fanbase.
“I always had that good feeling, for sure, and I think the fans feel the same,” he said. “I remember playing at Old Trafford and the way to the dugout was always nice. It was never like in other stadiums. There was always a connection. Then can you end up being their manager one day or not? I always felt that what has to happen happens and it happened so…”
While I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of all United supporters, my impression was there was nothing but intense dislike felt from us towards him. He came to Chelsea in one of the darkest seasons United had suffered in recent times, with it feeling as though United were in decline thanks to our performances on the pitch, and that we had lost our soul thanks to the Glazer takeover. His Chelsea team, funded by Roman Abramovich’s endless dosh, looked as though they were going to dominate English football indefinitely and childishly I hated him for it.
It wasn’t just that though. It was his unacceptable criticism of Cristiano Ronaldo for being poor and uneducated, the lies he told that lead to referee Anders Frisk getting death threats and retiring, and his need to blame all of his team’s failings on anything or anyone but him.
Sir Alex Ferguson got the last laugh then, convincingly beating Chelsea to the title in Mourinho’s last full season in charge during his first stint, months before they first sacked him. But he came back for more and this time he was even worse, somehow worn down by the draining years he’d spent in La Liga, when sticking thumb in the eye of Tito Vilanova (something he initially refused to apologise for) and falling out with the club’s legendary players.
Mourinho’s treatment of Eva Carneiro was nothing short of scandalous and, for all the criticism he courted for it, was let off relatively lightly for ending her career in the Premier League.
Upon appointment at United, he was right to argue there was “always a connection” with United fans, but it was not a positive one. The amount of times we sung at him to “fuck off” or “sit down” ensured he was singled out for worse treatment than any other manager, including Arsene Wenger in later years. We did not like him. We didn’t like the football he played. We didn’t appreciate the way he shunned youth progression. To suggest that was always a “good feeling” was misguided at best and totally delusional at worst.
Yet it was hard to get past the niggling feeling that one day he would be our manager. How many others had the CV or ego to cope with taking over after Sir Alex Ferguson?
If he ever had to become our manager, the time was the summer of 2013. Maybe Fergie had the ego problem there, preferring a plucky, unproven boss to someone who might come in and rival him for some of his success. Mourinho reportedly cried when he found out that David Moyes had been offered the job, as many United fans also did internally when hearing the news, but Fergie’s decision came back to bite us in the arse. Mourinho won another title with Chelsea while Moyes and Louis van Gaal set us back years.
The extent of the job that Mourinho was faced with was huge. He will likely claim it was more impossible in the coming weeks or months, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that so much of the legacy carefully built by Ferguson was torn down by the two managers that followed him. The lack of confidence, the transfers and the style of football meant United were a totally different club by the time Mourinho was finally given the job. Had he inherited the champions of England in the summer of 2013, maybe it would have been a different story.
That said, the job Mourinho did for the first two years was decent enough. On the day we won the League Cup in 2017 we were four points behind second placed Manchester City. The title was beyond us but we were capable of a strong league position.
Mourinho opted to prioritise the Europa League though, a decision we can all agree was the right thing to do, and we qualified for the Champions League through winning the less elite European competition. If someone had told me a decade ago that seeing Wayne Rooney lift the Europa League would go down as one of my best nights as a red, I would never have believed them, but it was genuinely one of the most incredible feelings I’ve had following United. This was almost certainly aided by hearing the day before of a terrorist attack in our city, but the feeling of pride and unity was immense.
Manchester la la la. Love this club. Love this city. pic.twitter.com/eLMifTP4pU
— Scott Patterson (@R_o_M) May 30, 2017
I had attended the MUST event at the Printworks, a stone’s throw from the MEN Arena. Pouring out on to the streets in town after the game, chanting “Manchester la la la!” at the top of our lungs on repeat, bouncing about with total strangers, will long remain one of my favourite memories supporting this club. And it was Mourinho who gave us that.
It was Mourinho who looked at that young, talented Ajax team and came up with a game plan that snuffed them out completely. It wasn’t the most exciting football we’d seen, far from it, and that’s what we had to know was in store for us as soon as we learned of his appointment. The opposition had an incredible 69% possession, but we had more shots on target than them and, most importantly, two more goals.
The second season didn’t have the same highs, with us ending the campaign with a defeat in the FA Cup final against Chelsea, after Phil Jones did a Phil Jones and gave away a stonewall penalty to decide the game. But we finished second in the table, a mile off City, but ahead of the likes of Liverpool and Spurs.
United fans had expected Mourinho to topple Pep Guardiola’s City, just as he had got the better of that once seemingly unbeatable Barcelona side. Mourinho secured a record for La Liga points and goals scored ahead of Guardiola taking a year off football. A repeat of that was what he would need to do to be considered a success, but even Ferguson would have been given a run for his money when faced with Sheikh Mansour’s team.
United fans had wanted Mourinho to work miracles, as we had been so accustomed to seeing during the Ferguson era. We were all acutely aware of what a genius Fergie was at the time, but his legendary status continues to grow with every passing season.
Making a starting XI out of players with the most appearances, this is the team that Ferguson won the league with in 2013 (with their ages). De Gea (22), Rafael (22), Ferdinand (34), Evans (25), Evra (31), Valencia (27), Carrick (31), Cleverly (23), Giggs (39), Rooney (27), Van Persie (29). There’s arguably not a manager in the world who could walk to the title the way United did that season with that team. And that’s what we wanted from Mourinho, the so-called Special One.
Mourinho was never going to be able to finish ahead of City. Guardiola had inherited a far superior squad, including the likes of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany, among others. There’s not a chance that Leicester would have won the league in 2016 had Guardiola’s appointment not been announced in the January. City were just three points behind Claudio Ranieri’s team at the time the news broke, with a better goal difference, and were clear favourites to win the league. They ended up finishing the season fourth, nose-diving after Manuel Pellegrini was informed his time was up at the end of the campaign, but that was not an accurate picture of the quality of the squad. United finishing fifth was a fair position.
There was a huge difference in quality and Guardiola outspending Mourinho every season only saw that chasm grow.
Still, the biggest bug bear for United fans was the way United played, rather than the number of points we picked up. This shouldn’t have come as any shock and while there were some supporters who were unhappy to hear he got the job, most were prepared to put up with the defensive approach if it meant seeing the title come home.
The problem was, the title didn’t come home and what you imagine will be tolerable, without experiencing it first hand, often isn’t. Knowing that every game, even against poor teams, was going to be a drag became boring. It wasn’t the same defeatist attitude as under Moyes, or the levels of sheer defensive football under Van Gaal, but it was bad enough. If he wasn’t sacked last weekend, it would likely would have been in the coming weeks, despite Mourinho’s assertion we’d finish the year inside the top four.
Last weekend was the turning point. In the end, we were only beaten by Liverpool because of two deflections, with them failing to find the back of the net cleanly with more than just one of their 32 other attempts. But the fact we posed so little threat was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Had we left with the 1-1 draw, Mourinho would almost certainly still be in charge. And his unbeaten record against Liverpool would be in tact, following the three previous draws and victory over Jurgen Klopp’s team. That’s ifs and buts though, and at some point enough has to be enough.
What is surprising is that the club chose to make the decision so early. Having seen Moyes and Van Gaal continue to the bitter end, it wasn’t expected that Mourinho would be dismissed before Champions League qualification became mathematically impossible. Christ, they let Moyes take the champions to seventh and still didn’t bin him off until we could no longer qualify for Europe.
But that doesn’t make it the wrong decision.
The wrong decision was extending his contract in January only to fail to buy the players we needed to improve on finishing second last season. Back him or sack him. In the end, that’s what the club did, but it should have come much sooner if that was their conclusion.
He was the right manager for a different time. He will likely go on to enjoy more success at his next clubs, whether that’s with returns to Real Madrid or Inter Milan or elsewhere.
I’ll remember fondly the times he took the piss out of Antonio Conte for having a hair transplant and being involved in match fixing. I loved watching him point to the United badge after we beat Chelsea. Winning those two trophies in 2017 while other clubs have gone for much longer without makes me feel gratitude. Seeing him twirl that United scarf in front of the Stretford End after progressing to the Europa League final was a great, but rare, moment where we saw how much winning meant to him.
But I won’t miss having a manager who singles out certain players for criticism after one bad game while playing his favourites week after week regardless of how poor their performances are. I won’t miss hearing him blame everyone but himself when things go wrong. I won’t miss his lack of enthusiasm on the bench. I won’t miss the football he makes our team play.
We’re taking a huge risk on Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Over the past few months I’ve heard plenty of reds claim “anything is better than this”, and now we’ll see if that is true.
But I don’t harbour bad feelings for Mourinho. He did an alright job and until significant changes are made at the highest levels at the club, it’s hard to imagine a different manager will have a considerably more successful stint. I’ve seen articles claiming he isn’t special anymore, just as United fans have chanted in the past and our rivals chant today, but there’s no taking away from the immense success he’s had in his career. When looking at the managers who are widely considered as the best now, it’s hard to imagine them replicating his CV. There’s not a chance, for example, that Guardiola would have won the Champions League with those Porto and Inter Milan squads when he couldn’t do it with the treble winning Bayern Munich team he inherited.
The fact that United is the only club where Mourinho hasn’t enjoyed incredible success, even in the short-term, says a lot more about the state of United than it does him, sadly.
But Mourinho is just another chapter in our history book that paints a bleak picture of the club post-Ferguson. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too much longer for something better.