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Mourinho’s Place in United Pantheon? Simply Part of a Botched Succession

Mourinho’s Place in United Pantheon? Simply Part of a Botched Succession

Wednesday, 26 December, 2018 - 07:45
Winning the Europa League in 2017 was as good as it got for Mourinho at United. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
London - Paul Wilson
A couple of months ago, around the time his Manchester United side were due to play against Chelsea, José Mourinho was asked whether his present club could ever hold the same place in his affections as his former one.

Diplomatically, he chose to turn the question around, suggesting that he would always be held in special regard by Chelsea supporters for back-to-back league titles, Didier Drogba, John Terry and all the fun that was had in his first period at Stamford Bridge, but it might take a while to produce the same effect at United, who had known successful managers before and given the latest incumbent a lot to live up to.

It could be argued Mourinho was always fighting a losing battle against United’s storied past, attempting to restore former glory at a time when they were not even the slickest football operation in their home city, let alone the country, though it should not be forgotten that losing battles have become something of a Mourinho speciality.

He knows where he stands in the overall Chelsea pantheon: he is the nearest thing the club can boast to a Sir Alex Ferguson-type figure – a transformative manager who not only brought unprecedented success but reshaped the entire footballing operation in his own image.

The question now is where Mourinho fits in to the United pantheon, in the history of a club that has its own Sir Alex Ferguson, not to mention Sir Matt Busby. Ultimately, one feels, he will simply come to be regarded as part of a generally botched succession. He might be vastly more experienced and medal-strewn than David Moyes and a more entertainingly volatile character than Louis van Gaal, but all three’s Manchester United experience amounted to a similar sort of failure.

Mourinho won the League Cup and Europa League in his first season, which was something, just as Van Gaal managed to have his photograph taken with Ferguson while holding the FA Cup, though it is plain that the club’s trajectory in what may now come to be regarded as five interim years has been a downward one. Not even the prodigious amounts spent on marquee names such as Paul Pogba, Alexis Sánchez and Ángel Di María has been able to hide the fact that United are struggling, casting around for inspiration, and may be for some time.

Perhaps even Ferguson in his pomp would have found it hard to cope with the money and the manager City presently boast, while it is also true that Liverpool and Tottenham look stronger now than at any point in the Premier League era. So maybe Mourinho was just unlucky, to catch a flabby United on the way down. Maybe he was right after all to make such a fuss of finishing second last season, for the available evidence suggests it may be a while before United reach such heights again.

Mourinho deserves to be remembered at United more fondly than Wilf McGuinness or Frank O’Farrell, those clearly out-of-their-depth managers who floundered in the wake of Busby, yet the past few years will not be recalled with the sort of smile that accompanies memories of Tommy Docherty or Ron Atkinson, men who at least knew where the club ought to be aiming.

Smiles were fairly thin on the ground during the Mourinho years at United. There was a sourness in Manchester that was a poor fit for the Theatre of Dreams. While few would grumble if that hackneyed epithet were also to be retired in time for Christmas, Manchester United managers are among those expected to play along with the hype. In the end this one managed to make a supposed dream job look like an unwanted stay in a forced labour camp.

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