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.