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News & Comment

James Lawton: Jose Mourinho's return would make link between Chelsea and fans special again


Imagine the historic weight of Jose Mourinho’s confidently anticipated second coronation at Chelsea if his Real Madrid had conjured one more goal in the dying moments of their Champions League campaign and then come to Wembley to ambush the now mighty Bayern Munich.

The football world would, surely, have been prostrate before such a surreal climax to seasons of fierce strife and controversy in the life of football’s most successful club.

Nor was it such idle speculation when the brilliant Borussia Dortmund were required to scrap and scuffle for survival in the Bernabeu earlier this week. But then there is also a reality about the relationship between Mourinho and the following of Chelsea that for quite some time has not been dependent on the detail of results achieved by the Special One – and certainly not his extraordinary bid to become the first man to win the European title with three separate clubs.

Of course, his record is a wonder of consistent achievement in four countries but what Mourinho achieved at Stamford Bridge, with the sheer force of its emotional chemistry, plainly still runs deeper than any accumulation of success.

More or less everyone who manages Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea is, after all, guaranteed a degree of it.

One of the few denied such a fig leaf, Andres Villas-Boas, rather plaintively claimed a share of Roberto Di Matteo’s Champions League win and, as Sir Alex Ferguson rather slyly pointed out while handing Rafa Benitez a rare measure of praise, even the so frequently embattled and harassed Spaniard is likely to complete his ordeal with a modestly enhanced CV. The fact is that winning, at some level or another, has never been the issue at Stamford Bridge in the time of the oligarch.

If there was any faint doubt about this it could hardly have dissolved more completely than in the extraordinarily rancorous wake of Di Matteo’s dismissal early in a season that has rarely been less than convulsive.

For anyone who happened to be in Stamford Bridge on the night Benitez took up his duties, the dichotomy of his welcome and the reaction to the news of the death of the old Chelsea icon, Dave Sexton, could hardly have been more wrenching.

Along with the ritual homage to the fallen Di Matteo, there was evidence of a club which, beyond any gratification for the man who owned every brick and every soul, had not only lost something at its heart but also its point.

All that has happened since – including the good days of Benitez that in the last few weeks have intruded more consistently into the bad – has only served to underline the inevitable conclusion of that desperate night. It was that it would take more than the magical renaissance of John Terry and Frank Lampard, or some rediscovery by Fernando Torres of the best of his touch, to heal the wounds.

What if Benitez, breaking out of the confines of his interim status, had maintained Chelsea’s challenging position in the Premier League race – they were a mere four points off the lead when he took office, and with arguably the most talented squad in the land – and worked some miracle of instant unity? What if Abramovich had been won over, seen a hand of destiny shaping the chaos? Would the fans have lost their appalling sense that, for all the benefits Abramovich had brought, their inclusion in his hopes, and his whims, might at last be one of them?

You have to be sceptical. You also have to believe that the most valuable gift that Mourinho will return to Stamford Bridge if he is indeed reappointed is not only the certainty of a passionate commitment. It would also be the end of the disenfranchisement of the fans.

The glory of Mourinho at Chelsea was that he recognised and cultivated the fans. He needed their approval, even, he insists now, their love.

If there is an invitation to be cynical here, there is a danger it might be overdone. What you sensed most strongly that night when Benitez arrived trailing his baggage was not so much hurt on the terraces but a cutting awareness of a complete neglect of their feelings.

Abramovich may have taken a little advice but none of it had been fuelled by the conviction of the fans. This may not have been a new phenomenon but perhaps never before had it been expressed quite so roughly. It could only entrench the growing belief that this was a regime with just one recurring item at the top of its agenda. This was exclusively occupied by the moods and the whims of the owner.

Maybe we will never quite know how it has come that Chelsea appear to accept the inevitability of Mourinho.

We know Abramovich wanted Pep Guardiola before the great coach chose Bayern Munich, a decision which has been widely acknowledged as just about the last word in managerial discernment.

We know that 45-year-old Jürgen Klopp of Borussia Dortmund has a set of dazzling credentials – and an enviably easy rapport with a huge and full-throated body of supporters. There has also been talk of the extremely able Manuel Pellegrini of Malaga.

Yet in the beginning, in the end, and in all the chaos and emotional dysfunction that has gone in between, there has always been Mourinho. It has also been the compelling attraction of the man who threw his medals and his jacket into the crowd and who, in all his preening, never forgot the people who paid their money and liked to think they were part of the show.