The bounce has gone from his bungee, as Wallace said of poor Gromit. Is that what’s happened to poor Jose Mourinho? Because he’s no fun any more. Ever since he became manager of Manchester United at the start of the season – apparently his dream job – he’s been in the grimmest of grim old moods.
There’s no jollity, no swagger. In his prime, his body language said: “Aren’t I lucky to be wonderful me?” These days the vibe is quite different: “I’m Jose Mourinho. You’re not.” Ever since he took on the Manchester United job, he’s come across as a man who has given up enjoying life and has made up his mind to endure it.
The football season is coming to the endgame, and Mourinho and his team are playing their part, if not exactly the part he hoped for nine months back. He has one objective left: to sneak a place in the Champions League next season. He has two possible means of achieving it: by scraping into the top four in the league, or by taking the back door route of winning the Not-Tonight-Thanks competition, sometimes called the Europa League.
Hiring Mourinho is a classic Faustian pact. You know you’re going to win some big stuff, that’s more or less guaranteed. But you also know you’re going to end up quite horribly embarrassed. You’re never sure how or when, certain only in the knowledge that it’s going to come some day, slightly too soon.
The ref’s biased, this rival manager is a voyeur, there’s an anti-Mourinho conspiracy involving Unicef, let’s poke an opposition coach in the eye, then have a public feud with the club’s best player, then criticise the doctor for the crime of looking after patients… oh yes, Mourinho’s always capable of finding a completely original way of making a football club look daft.
So far at Manchester United, neither part of the pact has been realised. His predecessor, Louis van Gaal, was fired mostly for putting together a singularly dull football team. Mourinho always puts out dull football teams, but his tactic has always been to distract people from that reality by showing off. Alas, this time it’s not really working.
And Lord, his current team is dull. Pretty sound defensively, pretty short of spark in attack, specialising in draws (12 in the Premier League alone as I write). He’s made public criticisms of his players, always a drastic policy. In the close season he acquired Paul Pogba, the world’s most expensive footballer at €105 million, and Pogba has been quite devastatingly dull. Now Mourinho is talking about a still more massive splurge in the summer.
And all the time, never a smile. Of course there’s always been something sinister about him, but he carried things off with panache. There was that touch of mischief: the story of Mourinho, banned from Stamford Bridge, but smuggled into the dressing-room in a laundry basket. These days that seems like a story about someone else.
What prompted this change? Was it his second sacking at Chelsea? Was it Chelsea’s instant revival under his successor, Antonio Conte? Was it some crucial fracture of confidence? Is he cowed by his stated ambition to build a dynasty at United, rather than supply his usual short-term solution? Is it something to do with extended periods of hotel living?
Or is he, at 54, beginning to feel just a little bit out of step with younger managers and modern footballers? Are the players no longer buying his act as they used to? Is his Master of the Universe stuff getting a tad dated?
Mourinho has had the world’s longest run as an enfant terrible: perhaps he’s worried about how he’ll cope as a geriatric terrible.
Europa League: Manchester United v Celta Vigo, Thursday at 7.30pm (kick off 8.05pm) BT2, 8.05pm 5 Live.