When I was a kid, a manager of a professional football team was invariably working-class, no-nonsense, hard-drinking, ridiculously male, and middle-aged from the moment he stopped playing. The only variant was between dour and terse (Bill Shankly, Jock Stein) or exuberant and characterful (Malcolm Allison, Brian Clough).
And they’re still like that: if they’re British. Alan Curbishley, Harry Redknapp, Steve Bruce, Sam Allardyce – they could all have been managers in 1954. The first time I saw a manager not like that – not like, essentially, Tommy Brown, Melchester Rovers’ sheepskin coat-wearing manager in the Viz Roy of the Rovers parody Billy the Fish (before he was revealed to be a woman in disguise) – was Jozef Venglos, a Czech who, in 1990, arrived at Aston Villa brandishing a PhD in Physical Education and Psychology. And glasses. Glasses! He was like someone from another universe, as if the top job at Villa Park had been given to Franz Kafka.
It was then we realised that you could be a football manager without looking like someone who would consider drinking less than 15 pints a night to be slur on his masculinity. But generally, these foreigners were bookish, they were profes- sorial: Arsène Wenger, Sven-Goran Eriksson.
None of them was – well: the thing furthest away from the British manager mould – sexy. None of them was charismatic. None of them was a star.
Which brings us to Jose Mourinho.
I’m on the top floor of the BT Tower. There are a lot of journalists here, for the launch of BT Sport’s new upgraded Premier League coverage.
That, of course, isn’t true. They are here because the “ambassador” for the launch of BT Sport’s new upgraded Premier League coverage is Jose Mourinho.
We have all seen how Mourinho’s manner in post-match interviews and press conferences – dismissive, lofty, amused, swatting away questions like flies – has made him a star on TV. And from my seat 50 yards away at Stamford Bridge, I have seen how commanding a presence he is in the technical area. But to really feel his star power you have to be in the room with him.
As soon as he enters – casually dressed, slightly smaller than you imagine – the top of the tower falls silent. It feels as if the whole of London, surrounding us through the windows, is suddenly watching. There is a sense that wherever Mourinho is, that’s the centre of the world. He is asked a series of questions by an interviewer, some by the floor. He is dismissive, lofty and amused. I notice that he gets a lot of laughs, but he himself is only rarely jokey: it’s almost as if the laughs are nervous, from a crowd cowed by his presence.
Afterwards, I am granted 15 minutes with him.
I have been a Chelsea fan since I was six. So I am nervous: part of me thinks of Mourinho religiously, as my saviour, the man who finally fulfilled the dream of making the club I supported through 30 years of mediocre drudgery a great, league-winning side. I am also conflicted. I have been told by Radio Times not to be too football-heavy – to find out about Mourinho the man, not just the manager. But of course I want to ask him about football. And I only have 15 minutes.
So I take a middle route. I ask him about the thing he’s most known for: winning. It’s a word always associated with Mourinho, but it’s not, in his case, an entirely positive one. The bad myth of Mourinho is of a manager who wins very, very ugly, parking buses all over the pitch, intimidating officials and generally laughing at the whole stupid idea of the beautiful game.
I have always defended him against this caricature. That’s not true, is it, Jose? I say. When you first came to Chelsea we used to regularly win games 4–0, 5–0: beauty and attacking play were overflowing, then. So your philosophy of football must be more than just: win at all costs. Mustn’t it?
“You know, what can I tell you?” he says. “Football is about winning, yes, but football is also more than that. Football is also a show and I think there is not possible a show without real competitiveness. We can make one of these testimonial matches where people invite the old stars and they do their tricks and they agree between them almost the result and every game finish 5–5, 5–4, but this is not the reason why football is a sport number one in the world.
“Football is football because of the competitiveness and you don’t compete in the real sense of the word if you don’t play to win. So football will be always about winning and I think a team should play with that in mind and the style of play should be adapted to that.”
Right. Hmmm. I think he started off wanting to agree with me, but then couldn’t be bothered. It sounded to me, more or less, that indeed, all he does think about is winning. He somewhat confirms this by adding, “Football will be always about winning and the day football will not be about winning, it is not football any more.”
I try a different tack. Love. Frank Lampard told me once, I say, that he loved you. It was an unusual word to use, I would’ve thought, but you do inspire a very emotional and passionate commitment from your players.
“Yes,” he says, “but it’s something that I don’t work to be like. It just happens. What I want the players to feel really is that I am a very good coach. I don’t want them to respect me because I am what you say in England a lot, ‘the Gaffer’.”
I want to say that I personally, as an Englishman, don’t use the phrase “the Gaffer” very much. But I only have 15 minutes. And anyway, I notice by this point that once Mourinho starts talking, he’s quite hard to interrupt.
“For example, today I met one of our new players, [the Brazilian] Filipe Luis, and he was telling me that he’s a big friend of Kaka, which was my player in Madrid. And he told me that Kaka spoke about me wonderful things and push him to come and work with me.” He pauses for a second here. Which slightly panics me, as I’m not expecting a pause, and don’t know what my next question should be.
But, luckily, it turns out to be a dramatic pause. “Kaka,” Mourinho adds, with a small smile, “was not playing with me in Real Madrid [he didn’t pick him]. He was not happy with me. So this for me means a lot.” In the short time I have had with him, I have picked up something about Mourinho, which is: he doesn’t really admit to the possibility of the negative in his life. Which is why he likes this story. He did indeed fall out with Kaka, who cost Real Madrid €65 million in 2009 – some would say it was one of Mourinho’s most costly errors of judgement. But he can reframe it now as a demonstration of how much respect he will always eventually garner, even from someone who should hold a grudge against him.
Does he, I wonder, have any regrets. At all. Ever. Or at least, sadnesses, vulnerabilities. For example: you tried, I say, to make it as a player, when you were younger…
“I didn’t try,” he says, interrupting firmly. “As every young kid likes football, I don’t think at ten years old a kid wants to be a manager. A kid wants to be a player.”
Right, I want to say, so you must regret a little that that didn’t happen, but he is continuing: “The feeling I was getting was that I can play – at the professional level. Low level, second division. But that’s not what I was born for.”
This is key; this self-certainty. He was born to be a manager. Therefore he need take no time to regret his failure to become a top-level player. I push this a bit by talking about the only British manager with whom Mourinho could ever be compared, not least in the realm of self-certainty. Brian Clough, I say, was a very good player and then he got injured and had to retire at 29; and I often wonder if the fire of not having fulfilled his potential as a player is what made him a great manager. Because you must, you simply must, have dreamt of being a great player? And Mourinho says, with absolute conviction: “No. I never felt that. I never felt any kind of frustration for not be a… no, never, never.”
My time is running out. I ask some more questions, of the kind that I think RT really wants, and he answers, “Portugal is home, but even if I leave Chelsea, we will stay in London, for the stability of our family. We cannot jump and move the way we did over the past years”; “My wife is fantastic, she makes my kids understand that I am just a father”; “My daughter is 17 and my son is 14 and with Fulham – but we just want him to enjoy his football…” But what interests me is this incredible self-conviction.
I once said, when asked in an interview if I had any regrets: “I am constantly assailed by regret, as is any thinking person.” Mourinho is a thinking person, but I can’t imagine him ever having any regrets, or any truck with the idea that, sometimes, it’s our wounds that drive us on. I have simply never met anyone so sure of himself: of his opinions, his abilities, but, most importantly, his destiny. Of how events in his life that others consider setbacks are clearly not: they are just signposts on the road to his destiny.
As I take the lift down the BT Tower, away from the heights, away from Mourinho, I realise: this is what makes him a winner. And, of course, a star.
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