James Lawton: The beauty of football is a moveable feast, not seduction by the gluttony of success

Our Chief Sports Writer's open letter to Jose Mourinho, which was prompted by the Chelsea manager's behaviour at Highbury on Sunday and his club's ethos, has brought strong reactions from readers. James Lawton replies to his critics
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The Independent Online

Sooner or later it comes to most of us. We are obliged to leave one closet or another, generally reluctantly but perhaps with a lifting of certain pressures. Such a time has come to me in the wake of a rather fierce reaction to a piece - really it was more of a lament - about the coarsening of the style of Jose Mourinho and his all-conquering Chelsea.

It was not meant to offend the denizens of Stamford Bridge, and least of all those fans who down the years have nursed their hurts and preserved their love of a team who always represented a bit of colour and romance, if not a consistent presence among the heavyweights of English football.

Chelsea had an allure, a romance, most beautifully expressed by John Moynihan in his superb exploration of the appeal of the game, still, some 40 years on, one of the best books ever written about football and the emotion it generates.

It seemed to me that Moynihan most perfectly captured the feelings of the pure football lover. In one passage he wrote heart-rendingly of the end of an affair, in Paris, which was redeemed only by the fact that the woman he loved, who was telling him that she had found a new interest, had her back to a café television set which was providing him with a grainy but utterly unequivocal picture of the unfolding genius of the teenaged Pele.

In his writings Moynihan did not disguise his love of Chelsea, his local team, and rivalled any man in his admiration for the likes of Tommy Lawton and Roy Bentley and Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, but plainly his mind and his reactions were not closed to the merits of other teams and their players.

However self-serving it sounds, I have to align myself with Moynihan as I leave the closet with a confession that may surprise some of my fiercest critics this week. I do not have a team, not as such, and though this may have something to do with my upbringing as a nomadic RAF brat, I like to think there are other causes.

I like to think that, because of my own lack of some genuine tribal passion which, if part of my job was not to try to write dispassionately about the national game, I might envy in someone born to some emotional attachment to Manchester United or Liverpool or, indeed Chelsea, I see football as a moveable feast. And that if you care for a team it is not because of some accident of geography, or some sudden bloated success, but because the manager of that team has good values and invests in the wider appeal of the game as much as his own prestige and success.

In this day and age that may be asking a lot, but when I criticised Mourinho it was not because, as quite a number of e-mails suggested, I wished his success for my "own" club and envied that of Chelsea.

That wouldn't seem likely in any passably grown man. It was because I don't like the way both Mourinho and Chelsea are going. I didn't like his conduct in the Anders Frisk and Ashley Cole affairs. I didn't like the increasingly cynical play of his £24m signing Michael Essien, and I hated his lambasting of Sky Television for rerunning that player's atrocious tackle on Liverpool's Dietmar Hamann, and this was not to mention his ignoring of the beaten Arsène Wenger and subsequent nonsense concerning the latter's failure to acknowledge a Christmas card.

Mourinho has everything a football manager could dream about: a superb record, an extraordinary ability to draw the best out of players like Frank Lampard and John Terry, unlimited, unprecedented resources, and he has already displayed a high intelligence and charm. So why would you attack him? Because he has certain duties that he is neglecting in a crass way. He is elevating himself beyond the achievements of his team, and, let us be honest, it is a team that is infinitely more efficient than lovable.

It does not enchant anyone but those who see in football the chance to lord it over their rivals, who see victory, any kind of victory, as the ultimate goal. Mourinho dismisses all opposition to a point well beyond any doubt that his self-description, "the Special One", carried something more than a generous slice of appealing self-mockery.

In criticising his style, and the increasing effect of his team's success, I like to think I was doing no more than electing myself to that company which see in football so much more than some arbitrary allocation of success and failure. If I do admire any team at this moment in football time, it is probably Liverpool, and the reason for that is because of the example being set by their manager, Rafael Benitez.

It is not unconditional support; it is the assessment that of all the leading managers operating today the Spaniard has least cause to look in the mirror and wonder if he is doing his best for the game that has rewarded him and his family so lavishly.

Benitez is building a highly competitive team on nothing like the resources of his predecessor, Gérard Houllier. He has won the Champions' League, the Uefa Cup and the Spanish League, and in a season and a half he has returned Liverpool to the status of authentic members of the élite in the English game. He has done it without bombast, without traducing referees, without giving himself the airs of anyone but a working football man. Yes, I glory in that, but it doesn't mean that Liverpool is "my" club. It means merely that currently they lay a claim on my admiration.

Mourinho did that when he won the Champions' League so brilliantly for ill-considered Porto in Gelsenkerchen two years ago. He persuaded me to wager a good dinner and decent wine with an esteemed colleague that he would win the Premiership at his first attempt. Back then, I didn't calculate the degree of indigestion that would come with his reaction to his success. The postprandial feeling has to be that neither he nor his team have come on in the way any open-minded football devotee would have hoped.

For and against... your views

In my whole life I have never felt the need to comment on something I have read in a newspaper. Actually, that's not true, it's just that normally it's because my blood is boiling, and today it's the exact opposite. Yes, Mourinho is a footballing genius, tactically at least. He is the new breed, maybe, but what are we sacrificing for the modern game? The fact is that it took the Russian (Abramovich) the best part of £300m and the recruitment of the Porto man to buy himself a slightly above average team at a time when that is good enough to win the Premiership. Does anyone honestly think that if Barcelona have a good night, Chelsea stand a chance? In this country we are terrified to stand up against success, as if success in itself is enough. You will probably find you are the lone voice, but you are not alone. Some of us can see through the masks, and it makes our blood boil. - MIKE BENNETT

Why do you hate Chelsea so much? Someone has to be the richest, and it's the height of irony that you feel sorry for Liverpool, who for all my time as a kid cherry-picked the best players from the lower leagues and Scotland. How? They had the most cash and were funded by the Littlewoods family. Sure, Chelsea's wealth is incomparable, but the situation is comparable to what other teams have been in a position to achieve. - ONATHAN J GIBSON

I want to congratulate you on your open letter to Jose Mourinho. You have captured so many people's various opinions of the increasingly bizarre/paranoid/whatever Mourinho and your piece is absolutely outstanding. I would in the past have been rooting for Chelsea in Europe with our Damien Duff playing. Sadly, Damien doesn't appear to have been willing or able to take on a player for the past 12 months, and the upcoming Barcelona game will see me very much hoping that the flair of Ronaldinho, Messi and Eto'o triumph over the near abomination that Chelsea are becoming. - PHELIM WARREN, DUBLIN

I am a Chelsea fan but today's article by James Lawton was really beyond the pale. The degree of bile was completely unnecessary, as is the insistent mythologising of how wonderful Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are. Where do we start? Tapping up players - Sol Campbell, Louis Saha - has always happened, always will. Physical players - Souness, Vieira, Keane - were all key reasons for these clubs' success. As for buying titles - the richest clubs have always won the League. All clubs know that to win you need the edge at every level and will ruthlessly do so - I see nothing different in Chelsea's behaviour. - SIMON PORGES, BRIGHTON

James Lawton makes Mourinho out to be a selfish, inward-looking, self-involved egotist who takes attention on to himself because of insecurities about a lack of a playing career. That makes no sense at all. He's a great manager, so doesn't need to worry about any discrepancies as a player, and has anyone thought that a lot of it may be just an act for the media? The writer calls Wenger a great manager and implies Mourinho is not one, yet in five years as a manager Mourinho has won both European trophies while in 10 years at Arsenal (and in his entire managerial career to date) Wenger has yet to win one - and as I remember he wasn't exactly a great player either. The reason Mourinho puts the spotlight on to himself is to take pressure off his players, which seems to work quite well! He has been doing it for years (even at Porto) and continually sucks the media into thinking he's serious with all this stuff when it's all a tactic. I don't think Mourinho would have such a strong marriage and family life if he really was that self-centred and arrogant. - JAMES PRESCOTT

I just wanted to congratulate you on an excellent and insightful piece. No longer can the man called Mourinho claim to be "the special one" when he has lost the backing of the British public that once so craved him. It's very gratifying to see your praise for Rafa Benitez. As a shareholder at Liverpool FC I can honestly say I could not ask for a better manager to lead my team. Rafa is the real special one as you rightly say, but does not shout from the highest rooftops proclaiming that he is. - JONATHAN GRIFFITHS, MAIDENHEAD

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