James Lawton: Mourinho must regain the plot or greatest story ever told will end as disaster movie

What if an unthinkable mishap occurred? What if Drogba was injured?
Click to follow
The Independent Football

In the formative stage of his Chelsea empire you could still be amused by the breathtaking self-regard of Jose Mourinho. The sharpness of his wit seemed like a permanent guard against the worst effects of a rampaging ego, but then suddenly this week he has appeared much less of a protected species. For the moment, at least, the loss of old certainties is looking like a wound.

Maybe inevitably it has recalled the time, halfway through his first conquering season, he brought a gale of knowing laughter to a big, doting gathering at Stamford Bridge. Frowning deeply, he dismissed a mildly discouraging scenario with the stern command that no one should impose their plot projections on him, of all people. He was, after all, starring in his own movie. It was true enough, and who didn't know the title of the film? It was The Power and the Glory and it promised at least as many sequels as The Godfather.

The trouble with football is that problems can't be solved in a script conference or a call to the casting director. If your most bankable star goes missing for one reason or another there is no guarantee the new man, however expensive, will create the old chemistry. For one thing there can be no rehearsals, no reshooting.

If he didn't know it before, the Special One knows it now. The most worrying prognosis on John Terry is that he could be out for three months, though Chelsea appear very confident that he will be back much sooner than that. However, in football, like politics, a week can be a long time. Of course much less than three months can change everything, especially when, for the first time in three seasons, you have a genuine fight on your hands. For a manager, in particular one who has been given unprecedented resources, whose grip on domestic affairs became so strong that the club's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, was emboldened to say the Premiership race had come to involve a "bunch of one", the worst of all developments is the possibility that you have been sleeping on the job, that you have begun to believe your own publicity. In Mourinho's case, the chilling realisation might be that calling yourself the Special One is not, in the end, a joke but an article of faith as vulnerable as the belief that the world is flat.

Mourinho's chief problem now is that no one in any corner of football has had less reason to be caught off guard.

His strength in the transfer market has been so uniquely strong it has achieved what might have seemed impossible even as recently as Milan's stranglehold on the European Cup a decade or so ago. It has provoked Uefa discussions, somewhat naïve no doubt, on the possibility of limiting the financial power of any one club.

So how can it be that the loss of one player, Terry, is capable of creating such a panic in the powerhouse - and the counting house - of European football? The brutal truth is that, as Chelsea go hurtling into the transfer window, they are no longer seeking to augment an already vast advantage over their rivals, including the Premiership leaders, Manchester United.

They will be trying to remedy basic weaknesses. If Terry is indeed out of the action for a decisive phase of the title race, where does Mourinho turn? Not, surely, to the blundering hard man Khalid Boulahrouz or the makeshift full-back Paulo Ferreira. Nor to the powerful but scarcely formed defensive talent of the Manchester City full-back Micah Richards. In this context, the acrimonious departure of the versatile William Gallas seems more than ever an act of negligence, as does the disappearance of Robert Huth.

There have to be other points of concern. What if Mourinho's charmed life as the manager of relentlessly fit key players like Terry and Frank Lampard continues to deteriorate after that devastating afternoon when the superb Petr Cech went down with a head injury. What if the now unthinkable mishap occurred? What if Didier Drogba was injured?

It would mean that, with Damien Duff sold and Joe Cole injured, Andrei Shevchenko misfiring so relentlessly that some hard judges believe his career is sliding beyond recall, and Michael Ballack so indifferent in midfield he, too, is being spoken of as possible emergency replacement for Terry, Mourinho is desperately exposed before the impatience of Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich. This, remember, is, in the view of many, Mourinho's pivotal season at Stamford Bridge. The objective was to push on beyond the boundaries of domestic success and land the trophy the oligarch craves, the European Cup. Now even the home base is threatened by Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who through the last two years of Mourinho's pomp has always insisted that in football a deadly ambush is always lurking around the next corner.

Ferguson's refashioning of Manchester United is, on one level, striking evidence of dramatically reinstated nerve. More than that, however, it is another triumph for the oldest trick in management. It is the one that Mourinho must now produce. It is the ability to survive the hard times, to re-seed your team with new talent and ambition. Ferguson has weathered the loss of Roy Keane, who was so utterly fundamental to the ethos of his team - as Terry has been been these last two seasons and a half - and replaced Ruud van Nistelrooy almost as though he never existed.

On a fraction of Mourinho's resources, and despite potentially crippling injuries in defence and the loss of his captain, Thierry Henry, the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, has displayed the basis of a new and thrilling team in the progress of Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor. This is truly special work from special men like Ferguson and Wenger.

Mourinho's greatest challenge now is to remake the achievement that had apparently so completely defied the old football belief that, ultimately, you cannot buy success, you cannot have talented footballers fretting on the bench, even while their fortunes grow more spectacular each week.

His position, one theory insists, was weakened by the imposition of Shevchenko and Ballack from above. That, with very little compensation in performance, deeply unsettled the balance of his team and his squad.

None of this will matter, however, when Roman Abramovich and the rest of football come to judge Mourinho's latest performance. He is, as he once said, supposed to be the star of football's ultimate movie and he must know that no one will be interested in the number of casualties on his cutting room floor.

Glib excuses for lack of team spirit miss the point

Most of England's Ashes excuses have been glib, and none more so than the coach Duncan Fletcher's brief dismissal of the decision to promote Kevin Pietersen in the batting order midway through another Test disaster in Melbourne.

As Fletcher explained it, Pietersen, having earlier laid down his preference for the No 5 spot, had said he was tired of going through the motions - for such it was - of protecting the longest tail in cricket.

Fletcher made it seem like the merest detail. It wasn't. The Australians seized early on the aberration of having far and away your best batsman protected from the likelihood of battling with the new ball attack.

It is hard to escape an unfortunate conclusion, one that has been underpinned by Pietersen's most recent body language. It is that some members of the England team went to Australia with an undeveloped sense of the team.

Pietersen no doubt is a star in terms of talent. But there is a little more to it than that. The Aussies have been underlining the point with some emphasis for over a month now. Maybe the penny will drop in Sydney. Or maybe not.

Reed's qualifications prove a badge of mediocrity

Bruised by criticism, Les Reed, the fallen manager of Charlton Athletic, sent a long and rather self-serving memo to a newspaper.

He claimed that he was the right man for the right club but at the wrong time. A key phrase in Reed's missive: "My position had become untenable in circumstances not of my making and beyond my control."

Before his 41 days in charge at The Valley, Reed had much experience in the game, as an assistant to Alan Curbishley, coaching for the Football Association, as a development officer, an assistant to Kevin Keegan when he was England coach, and four years as technical director. However, he never managed a League club and in stints as a player at Cambridge, Wycombe and Wealdstone he never played a League game.

The point is that, according to the regulations of modern football, Reed was eminently qualified for the job of coaching a Premiership club. He had all the right badges, unlike say, Eddie Gray, who while manager of Leeds United was hounded by the League Managers Association for his lack of credentials.

He had merely had a superb career as a professional for Leeds and Scotland, and made a crucial contribution as a coach to some of Elland Road's better days since the success of the team he enhanced so beautifully in the Sixties and Seventies.

Comments