Mourinho Returns

David Runciman

As someone who struggles to remember basic facts about my family (middle names, dates of birth), I’m grateful when online security questionnaires give the option of naming the sports team you most want to lose. I know the answer to that one: Manchester United. I have sometimes wondered how much use it is as a security filter. Isn’t almost everyone’s answer to that question Manchester United?

Now I face a dilemma. If the question asked me to name my favourite manager I’d also have no trouble supplying an answer: Jose Mourinho. That, I realise, is a more unusual response. I’ve been writing about him in the pages of the LRB for more than ten years, not because I like him – clearly he isn’t very likeable – but because I’m fascinated by him and the reasons for his success. Mourinho seems to offer some glimpse into the hidden workings of the sport, because his methods are so distinctive and so reliable. He arrives, he succeeds (usually in his second season, sometimes into his third, but never beyond that) and then he leaves, trailing broken bodies and hurt feelings in his wake. He works his players into the ground until they can’t take it any more, at which point the whole thing blows up. The question is not why he can’t sustain it but how he manages it in the first place: why are these pampered, overpaid young men willing to break themselves for him and sometimes for him alone? Ah, the endless mysteries of power.

The attraction of seeing another Mourinho team come out on top is that it promises to peel away one more layer of the mystery. I enjoyed the season when his Real Madrid side got the better of everyone’s darlings at Barcelona, because it showed that he could overturn even the most precious reputations. He is great at cutting through so much of the sanctimony that surrounds what is only a game. If the familiar pattern repeats itself at United, it will confirm that Mourinho does have something special. And maybe this time we’ll get closer to seeing what it is. But that will require United to win, which is where I have my problem. Can it be worth watching joy break out again at Old Trafford for the sake of pursuing the next stage of the Mourinho project? One of the reasons I can’t stand United is the air of sanctimony that hovers over the club. If Mourinho takes them back to the summit it ought to puncture that – it’ll show they’re no better than anyone else, just another plaything for the great man’s ego. But it won’t, of course. It will convince the club’s fans of how special they are.

Still, there are already compensations. It seems Mourinho will get rid of Ryan Giggs, who has come to embody the team’s sense of its precious history and traditions. So much for those then. Mourinho has also confirmed one key feature of his management style. When I last wrote about him here, it was to comment on how he had let himself go: he left Chelsea with the air of a man who had given up on trying to look the part. Whatever else he has been doing since, he has not been indulging himself. He sauntered into Old Trafford looking back to his best: leaner, hungrier and dressed to kill. It was as though he had been grooming himself for a date with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which in a way he has.

In the end I think I want Mourinho to succeed at Man U. Others will have to fail – including the moneybags at Chelsea and Manchester City – which is always fun to watch. Plus there is the final consolation that success for Mourinho is success for Mourinho, not for the clubs that he manages. If he works his usual magic, United will end up in worse shape than he found them, whatever highs he gives them along the way. That, for anyone who loves to hate Manchester United, is a comforting thought.


  • 27 May 2016 at 6:35pm
    Graucho says:
    Surely the answer to the online security questionnaire is Arsenal.

    • 31 May 2016 at 3:13pm
      lordarsenal says: @ Graucho
      United and Jose combine two objects of loathing for this self-loathing Arsenal supporter. Tired of Wenger's overstay, I want the likes of Steve Bruce to take the reigns of my sleepy club. After all, if you can drag Hull by the scruf of the neck back into the vast riches of the Premiership, surely Steve the Bruce can handle the reigns of the Gunners.

    • 31 May 2016 at 4:47pm
      DrJarv says: @ Graucho
      Strange, I always thought that was "Liverpool".

  • 27 May 2016 at 10:18pm
    CasaCaliente says:
    Traditionally, as Runciman states, the answer for all right-thinking people was Manchester United but in the last ten years or so many of us have changed it to Chelsea. That's due in no small measure to Mourinho's work for Roman Abramovich in creating a club of which John Terry is the embodiment. Now with Mourinho's latest move, the question will require greater thought.

  • 29 May 2016 at 10:02pm
    Mat Snow says:
    As a Spurs fan, for decades I would have agreed with Graucho. But, as CasaCaliente notes, Terry, Abramovich and Mourinho have changed all that: it has to be Chelsea.

    Here's another reason to reserve an extra level of loathing for Chelsea (or 'Chav$ki', as they are widely known): they have disrupted a perfectly good local rivalry of a century's standing. Scratch a Spurs or Arsenal supporter and you will find a fan who is forced to admit he now hates Chelsea even more than the other lot, and who prays for the day when normal service will be resumed.

    That happy day may not be far off. With Terry on the verge of collecting his pension and Conte faced with rebuilding a side from which Mourinho may well have lured at least one of its better players even before the new guy Conte has properly seized the wheel at Stamford Bridge, that leaves only Abramovich to lose interest and then Chelsea will return to its proper station as a mild irritant bobbing between the top two divisions with a 15,000-strong fan base evenly split between Surrey ponces and racist thugs too thick for Millwall.

    • 30 May 2016 at 11:01am
      sol_adelman says: @ Mat Snow
      Mat, don't allow them the satisfaction. Their rivals are Fulham and QPR.

    • 30 May 2016 at 1:44pm
      Mat Snow says: @ sol_adelman
      I would agree, Sol, save for the moneybags Terry/Abramovich/Mourinho dynamic having changed everything.

      But not, as I hope we shall soon find, irreversibly. I long for the day when Chelsea is of no greater concern to me than Brentford, and I suspect most of North London on both sides of the divide would share that sentiment.

    • 31 May 2016 at 3:42pm
      Robin Kinross says: @ Mat Snow
      Amen. (Spurs since 1960.)

    • 31 May 2016 at 5:14pm
      DrJarv says: @ Mat Snow
      This blistering resentment of the Chelsea treasure chest, unloaded off the back of Abramovich's yacht, is as futile as it is delusional. That bundle of cash ended up at Chelsea, another one has washed up at City and there will be more gob-smacking unexpected lottery wins for other clubs any day now, quite possibly at Tottenham (or whatever part of London that club ends up).

      That's the Modern Game for you. I agree it's crap, and as a Chelsea season ticket holder of 20 odd years I would much rather have the days when we were kicking about mid-table and considered a win against Arsenal or United as our Cup Final – less so Spurs, because we always expect to beat them – rightly as it turns out. Genuinely, I loathe the way the money and the personalities it's attracted have twisted my club out of all recognition and we now have a squad full of underperforming, overpaid, give-a-toss foreign mercenaries and stands half full of tourists who couldn't sing the National Anthem let alone any of the club songs. But that's just the way the game has gone and sure as hell it has a lot further to go down this road – so we'll see how you respond when your club is bought by a Korean fast-food mogul and puts in a bid for Lionel Messi.

      What I really don't get is the bilious sense of superiority coming from a Spurs fan. Have Spurs performed like Man U for the last 45 years and I missed it? Memory serves it is 45 years since you won the League, 25 since you had the FA Cup in your trophy room – and weren't you relegated to Division Two also in that time? Did you win the European Cup while I was out? No, since those heady, black and white glory days of 1961, Spurs have (also) been the serial underachievers of the First Div/Premier League and their fans the most hubristically disillusioned and sanctimonious – the "Liverpool" of London, without the history.

    • 31 May 2016 at 8:03pm
      Mat Snow says: @ DrJarv
      You're missing the point, DrJarv. It's not that we at Tottenham can't bear another club winning things; those of us with memories of the 'Sieg Heiling' Shed End fans (especially on Hitler's birthday), the brisk sales of National Front and British Movement literature, the monkey noises whenever an opponent's black player was on the ball, and the antisemitic, Holocaust-celebrating songs trotted out in games against Spurs can't bear Chelsea winning things — at least not while their fans remain so entitled, so boorish and, to this day, so frequently racist, as the Paris Metro incident shamefully proved to the world beyond football. As CasaCaliente points out, John Terry embodies the modern Chelsea, whose fan culture is a perfectly recognisable descendant of that of the late '70s and '80s — a billionaire Millwall.

      I doubt you are of that number, DrJarv, and nor are several Chelsea-supporting friends of mine who share your distaste with aspects of your own club. Strikingly, while Manchester City are no less the windfall beneficiaries of overseas billionaire investment, they remain relatively unloathed. No less strikingly, Manchester United-supporting friends of mine commonly hate Chelsea far more than they do their traditional local rivals at City. One might even argue Chelsea inspire a positive spirit of unity in the otherwise chronically divided English game: we all hate the bastards.

    • 31 May 2016 at 9:07pm
      DrJarv says: @ Mat Snow
      Thanks Mat – I kindof get why my club is loathed, but I note that it's only since we got rich quick that the dissent has been so vocal. When we were crap – which was a long, long time as you and I know – no one seemed to give a toss, but since 2003 suddenly we're the anti-Christ. Surely Chelsea FC in the 60s and 70s didn't have a monopoly on racist hatred? I've heard Liverpool fans sing about Munich and just about every club in the land sing about Heysel. Are you proud of the Spurs chant about Sol Campbell – the one that ends with: "And we don't give a f*ck if you're hanging from a tree, you Judas c*nt with HIV" – you like that one?

      My only point was that you and many others seem to be leveraging lottery win Abramovich cash to disguise an ages old tribal hatred. And when it happens to your club no doubt it will be different somehow. The only reason the City windfall doesn't provoke such bitterness with Spurs and Arsenal fans is because City's not a London club.

      So it does feel that the new intensity of bile projected at my club is down to a quiet and unspoken envy about the money – but trust me Mat, you don't want this money – it's pretty much stripped the heart and soul out of my club (yes, we did have both) and I can see it doing the same everywhere it touches.

      Opposing fans choose to forget, that in the season before the Abramovich takeover we finished 4th (Spurs were 10th),and in Champions League qualifying spot. We had that idiot Ken Bates as owner but we were doing OK, and we had new 2016 Champion Claudio Ranieri as manager! Those were the days, eh?

    • 1 June 2016 at 11:36am
      Mat Snow says: @ DrJarv
      Your response merits a more detailed rebuttal than I would imagine most LRB blog readers will find very compelling, DrJarv. But since the LRB is something of a journal of record, here goes anyway:

      You would be right about racism being endemic in football until its general waning from the mid-'80s when it became blazingly apparent that without players like John Barnes the England squad would be a pretty sorry outfit. However, at that time I would say, without being too sanctimonious, that Spurs, with our traditional Jewish identity having provoked antisemitic chanting and jibes for years, was collectively least prone to racism of all the major clubs. And while I can happily slag off Arsenal from here until the cows come home, racism was not one of the sins that could often be laid at their door either, notwithstanding the infamous frieze of Arsenal fans the club once erected to mask building work on a stand that contained not one black face.

      But West Ham and Millwall were bad; Alf Garnett's West Ham allegiance was all of a piece with his character.

      And so, especially from the late '70s, were Chelsea — outstandingly bad, in fact. The Shed was a happy hunting ground for National Front, British Movement and Combat 18 recruiters who sold racist, even neo-Nazi literature openly, while fans also formed an alliance with fans of Glasgow Rangers to support loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

      Now, DrJarv, you have tried to muddy the waters of this discussion, first with the suggestion that Chelsea are only hated because they are envied for winning the oligarch lottery, when the same simply cannot be said of fellow winners Manchester City. But second, to support your claim that Chelsea is no more racist than other clubs, you have invoked Liverpool fans singing about Munich, "just about every club in the land sing about Heysel" (not true at Tottenham), and the Spurs chant about Sol Campbell ending with, “And we don’t give a f*ck if you’re hanging from a tree, you Judas c*nt with HIV.” All of this is repellent but none of it is racist. And just in case anyone imagines that Spurs fans, in not giving a f*ck if Sol Campbell, a black player, is hanging from a tree because they are gleefully evoking Southern lynchings, you will recall Matthew 27, verses 3-5: "Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, 'I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.' They said, 'What is that to us? See to it yourself.' And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself." On the subject of Sol Campbell Spurs fans may not be very charitable but we are not racist.

      To conclude (for the time being, at least), in the Ken Bates era Chelsea played some intermittently nice football, Zola and Gullitt being outstanding, as was Ranieri as a manager, but at the time their rise from mid-table mediocrity seemed as ill-founded and precarious as that of Leeds United. Then, just as the financial wheels were about to come off the club, Abramovich with his ill-gotten billions makes an offer which Ken Bates, in the circumstances, would have been insane to have refused. At that point Chelsea vaulted from being a chancer club with pockets of very nasty fan culture surviving well after having fallen from fashion at other major clubs, to being the best-funded club in the country, playing unlovely but extremely successful football under Mourinho.

      Success can make any set of football fans unbearable to other fans, but with success Chelsea fans were in a different class — supremely entitled, boorish and, yes, in pockets still racist despite owing their success to the money of a Jewish owner and the prowess on the pitch of such black players as Drogba and Makélélé. And it is the combination of three key but toxic individuals in Chelsea's recent story — owner Abramovich, manager Mourinho and captain Terry — with a substantial section of the club's fans supercharging yesteryear's repellently racist boorishness with today's moneyed, entitled arrogance that has made Chelsea the club that every other English football fan loves to hate.

    • 1 June 2016 at 5:35pm
      Robin Kinross says: @ DrJarv
      "quite possibly at Tottenham (or whatever part of London that club ends up"

      The club is staying in Tottenham, I think partly due to fan pressure – many of us would have given up if we'd moved to (for example) Stratford.

      Part of the criticism of Arsenal is that they should have stayed in Woolwich.

    • 1 June 2016 at 8:16pm
      Mat Snow says: @ Robin Kinross
      At root, Robin, all the criticism of Arsenal is all about that. Spurs played them from time to time when they were still Woolwich Arsenal and it was always a friendly fixture. But the 1913 move and the shady dealings surrounding it created not just a new local rival but an interloper on our turf, for which they have never been forgiven.

    • 2 June 2016 at 9:27am
      robert higgo says: @ Mat Snow
      As a City fan I have been astonished to find that I do indeed loathe Chelsea more than the Red filth from Stretford, and for exactly the reasons given by Mat

    • 2 June 2016 at 8:47pm
      DrJarv says: @ Mat Snow
      Yes Mat, I suspect this terrace exchange isn't what most LRB devotees log on to immerse themselves in. But the discussion is at least a notch better than you'd find on (I imagine) and here you get Biblical quotes to boot.

      I accept everything you say about my club's fan history in the 70s and 80s – Stamford Bridge was indeed a cess pit of racism and yes, among a Neanderthal minority it still exists. I don't entirely think that phenomenon is unique to Chelsea; there are pockets of mindless idiots at most big football clubs – possibly yours is the exception. Then again, maybe not. Here's a YouTube link showcasing Spurs fans singing their now famous Adebayor chant (when he played for Arsenal): "Adebayor... your dad washes elephants, your mother's a whore".


      With your encyclopaedic knowledge of the gospel of Matthew you will also be intimate with verse 7:1: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?".

      Combined with your pronouncement on the Sol Campbell issue that racism = bad, homophobia = OK, you must be looking around dazed and confused at the moral high ground and thinking: "How the hell did I end up here?".

    • 2 June 2016 at 9:57pm
      Mat Snow says: @ DrJarv
      Fair point about the anti-Adebayor chant, DrJarv. I had hoped to have wiped that horror from my memory banks in order to preserve my moral sanctity as part of the Spurs collective until you reminded me. So thanks a lot for that.

      Which certainly takes the wind of indignation out of my sails at your utterly erroneous and unsupported claim that as far as I am concerned "homophobia = OK".

      Shall we leave it there or should I enquire whether you want some outside the LRB Cake Shop at some date and time of our mutual convenience?

    • 3 June 2016 at 11:28am
      Dominic Rice says: @ Mat Snow
      Given the demographic trajectory of football fans since Hillsborough, the LRB cake shop could one day be the venue of choice for a chelsea-spurs riot. ("He was observed slamming the plaintiff's nose in a book a Seamus Heaney poems, m'lud").

    • 4 June 2016 at 10:24am
      DrJarv says: @ Mat Snow
      Yes Mat – a post-modern literature-fuelled ruck is definitely the way forward for terrace thuggery. Alternatively, I'll buy you a pint at the Hollywood before the next Chels/Spurs game.

    • 5 June 2016 at 9:51pm
      Mat Snow says: @ DrJarv
      I'll take you up on that, DrJarv, and happy to reciprocate at The Two Brewers. Just don't wear your colours or else you may find a heated debate ensuing with the regulars whose taste in literature stops short of the post-modern.

    • 6 June 2016 at 9:26pm
      DrJarv says: @ Mat Snow
      I have good Yid mates Mat, I drink at the Bell and Hare before the Spurs/Chels game so I'm familiar with the local (sub) culture.

      Let's hook up on Linkedin and have that beer.

    • 7 June 2016 at 7:21pm
      gary morgan says: @ Mat Snow
      An amusing conclusion to an interesting set of exchanges. I for one enjoy the LRB because it occasionally covers football - Runciman excellent on 'home advantage' a good example - and this is a pleasant improvement on the Guardain.
      As a Hammer I am sorry that we have our horrible fans - still don't know what they'll not forgive Lamps for - and that we have traded Upton Park to become Taxpayers' United.
      Incidently, anyone know why everyone insisted on calling our gaff 'The Boleyn Ground' in its final season? ( Reminds me of everyone giving upo using the woird 'sympathy' and parroted 'emapathy' instead.]Best wishes,
      Gary Morgan (Hammer; occasional Brighton fan. Now that Mr Hughton, he's a really nice bloke).

  • 31 May 2016 at 5:31pm
    Mickstick says:
    The real pleasure will lie in watching the side flounder. What will happen to the brand and global sales then?

  • 1 June 2016 at 4:11am
    Pauldev says:
    As an exiled Mackem, I find that the PL London clubs get far too much attention from the media. The most egregious recent example being the tosh which was written about West Ham leaving Upton Park. This eulogizing did not occur when other, mainly non London based, clubs moved from their "venerable" homes. Add in the dubious nature of the transaction surrounding West Ham's move and it all emphasised why the PL is a flawed concept.

    • 1 June 2016 at 9:02pm
      Mat Snow says: @ Pauldev
      The reason that West Ham's move became a national story while Sunderland's move within the same city did not is because West Ham are moving into a stadium paid for by the UK taxpayer for the national purpose of staging Olympic events, and there they will continue to be effectively subsidised thanks to a peppercorn rent. Sunderland have not tied into the national narrative in that sense at all; they are self-supporting, are they not?

    • 7 June 2016 at 7:28pm
      gary morgan says: @ Pauldev
      A fair comment and us becoming Taxpayers' United has not been a pretty sight.
      PL run by a lot of pygmies; "flawed concept" and best fun to be had in Barnsley (remember them?) voting for it thus ensuring their own entrapment in the Lower Depths as they were relegated at the start and hermetically sealed down thereafter.
      Bert Millichip's response to PL was hilarious [see David Conn's essay in 'The Beautiful Game'), grinning inanely as his own ship sank while he loaded the 'little clubs' aboard.
      Brighton a nice club though. Y'all should visit.

  • 2 June 2016 at 9:29am
    Anthony Battrick says:
    As a Manchester United fan I can quite understand the dislike of the sanctimonious elements in the club and support. However, as anyone who listens to the UWS podcast will be able to testify this is far from what typifies the 'core' United supporter. Personally I regard United as a glorious soap opera of scandal, fleeting brilliance, philandering and periodic melt-down. Mourinho suits that perfectly.

    • 9 June 2016 at 12:57pm
      Robert says: @ Anthony Battrick
      If I understand you correctly it's much better to have foreign owners who seek to bleed the club. How we should envy Man U then!

  • 2 June 2016 at 11:01am
    semitone says:
    So the answer to the security question differs as to geography and prejudice, with a few near-constants running through: Arsenal from Spurs fans is an example of a bipartisan rivalry, from everyone else it's because they moved away from their fan base for commercial reasons. Those who abhor big spending or arrogance might hate Chelsea or Man United. No one at the moment seems to hate Leicester, perhaps because they are the team least like any other team, and therefore least representative of what football has become.

    What we end up with (I think) is a lot of football fans hating the particular teams that seem to them most typical and illustrative of a corporatized, morally repugnant, low-scoring, often boring game with flashes of brilliance and high demands for skill, endurance and luck, played by overpaid, pampered cheats who would rather milk a penalty than pay their fair share of tax.

    • 2 June 2016 at 1:29pm
      Anthony Battrick says: @ semitone
      Until their team manages to secure a benefactor who buys them glory cf. Man City fans who went from irritating, unimaginative self-parody (while acting the 'big club' to those in the lower leagues) to spurning a decent man like Pellegrini and failing to turn up for Champions League ties within a few seasons.

      Of course, it should be noted Leicester also have foreign owners who pumped millions into the club. They don't begin to resemble clubs in the lower divisions.

      One of the central characteristics of the vast majority of football fans is an insouciant hypocrisy. It just adds to the tribal rivalry which makes it more appealing than any other sport to so many.

  • 7 June 2016 at 7:33pm
    gary morgan says:
    Can I just say that I don't hate any club. Well though it is a business to some and, famously "much more important than [a matter of life and death"] in what must surely have been a Shankly joke, to me it is a game.#I'd rather watch West Ham lose 3-4 in a terrific game than grind out a narrow, ugly win.I'm not the only Corinthian-type out there surely?

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