James Lawton: Mourinho plays dangerous game of presumption

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It was fine for Jose Mourinho to think it, but he should not have said it. When he did he offended one of the oldest rules in football. You never say a title is won three-and-a-half months before it is over. That is a bit like forgetting to tell a Shakespearean actor to break a leg before he goes out to do the Scottish play for the first time.

It was fine for Jose Mourinho to think it, but he should not have said it. When he did he offended one of the oldest rules in football. You never say a title is won three-and-a-half months before it is over. That is a bit like forgetting to tell a Shakespearean actor to break a leg before he goes out to do the Scottish play for the first time.

You would have thought Mourinho would have known better after his pulverising march through European football, but maybe he is picking up some bad habits in the Premiership. Maybe he thinks managerial mind games are obligatory.

The truth is they are not. They are an invention of today's over-hyped product. Once, back in the early Seventies when the avant-garde Malcolm Allison, then the brilliant coach of Manchester City, said that Bill Shankly's Liverpool were a shot force and were no kind of threat to his bounding City in an upcoming Cup tie, the Anfield manager took the trouble to call him. "I'm just a wee bit concerned that you've gone stark, staring mad," bellowed the Liverpool manager. Don Revie said that Allison's uppity talk was a disgrace to the game.

Times change, of course, but some rules are eternal. One is that you never say what Mourinho did this week. He declared that the season could be over today when Chelsea play Portsmouth at Stamford Bridge. Naturally, Mourinho did it eloquently. He said that you don't worry when you are first, you don't feel the pressure of second and third place currently pressing down on Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. When you have a 10-point lead and you lose you just simply win the next game and you're still seven points ahead. Football men of greater age, and pain, will surely have one very basic reaction to that last declaration. They will say that life would be wonderful if it was always like that.

Portsmouth, who ran Chelsea so close at Fratton Park recently, are entitled to sniff the air and detect a whiff of self-belief that might just be in danger of slipping over the top. Certainly, the possibility will be raised by their coach Joe Jordan, who was a close-up, dismayed witness when a similar lead to Chelsea's evaporated in Arsenal's double year of 1971.

Jordan was newly arrived at Leeds United when the team of Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles and Jack Charlton coolly contemplated a crushing title win.

In February, a full month closer to the finish than Chelsea are today, they sat on a seven-point lead in those days when two points only were awarded for a win. Their nearest challengers Arsenal had the same challenge as their successors do now. They had to make up three wins and a draw on the league leaders. It didn't help when Leeds beat Arsenal on the run-in, but the team of Frank McLintock, George Graham and Charlie George did it.

Yesterday Giles recalled the gut-wrenching process and added his weight to the belief that Mourinho had marred some brilliant work with his suggestion that the battle was just about over. He said: "You just cannot win the Premiership in January - or February, for that matter. At Leeds we had reason to think we had it wrapped up in February. We led by those seven points. But Arsenal beat us to the title. We didn't crack up. We didn't have any great injury crisis, which can come to any team at any time. We finished with 64 points - which was one point more than the mark considered to be the title-winning standard then - win all your home games and draw all of them away in the 22-club league.

"What happened was that Arsenal just kept plugging away brilliantly. They lost to us, but otherwise they were incredible - and they took the title by a point when they won at Tottenham in their last game, just 48 hours after beating Liverpool in the Cup.

"Now Mourinho in a few years has seen so many things in football, and he has won so much, and with such intelligence, it is impossible not to admire him deeply. But I'm very disappointed he has taken this line. He should have stayed aloof from the Ferguson and Wenger style. He had given himself a beautiful edge and he should have kept it. Because he is not actually God he doesn't know what's round the corner - he doesn't know that John Terry or Frank Lampard, the absolute foundations of a great run, are not going to get injured tomorrow. He doesn't know that Manchester United, for example, are not building to the kind of run from Arsenal which caught my Leeds team 34 years ago.

"Though United had setbacks with draws at Fulham and at home to Tottenham - they were so much better than the opposition they should have won both games comfortably - you can see a real bite to them now."

That's one voice of bitter experience. Another one belongs to Kevin Keegan. Nine years ago he led United by 12 points before buying the brilliant but erratic Colombian World Cup star Faustino Asprilla and thereby unbalancing a team which had worked superbly with a system and a confidence which had previously been utterly consistent. Two years ago Arsenal became unhinged at Bolton Wanderers, and lost their momentum, and now they are deeply troubled by the fact that it happened again last weekend.

These are facts, not theories, which flew by the intellect of Jose Mourinho when he looked into the future the other day. He should call them back with some urgency. In football, he should know better than anyone, games are won on the field not in the mind. What happens when you lose that first game - as Arsenal did last October at Old Trafford and played mostly like nervous wrecks ever since - if you don't go on to win your next? There is a possibility you panic a little because the great Mourinho, no less, told the world it could not happen.

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