Let it be said that for many Manchester United supporters there’s a barely suppressed thought that the nadir of FA Cup defeat to a 21st-placed League One team, at Shrewsbury Town on Monday night, would bring a silver lining: the spectacle of Louis van Gaal marching off into the dark night and Jose Mourinho spinning past him through Old Trafford’s revolving managerial door.
Well, if that’s the case, be careful what you wish for. Manchester City’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, has a very shrewd perspective on Mourinho. “A potential source of conflict within the club” is how he viewed him when he was selecting a new coach for Barcelona in 2008. Mourinho, who is always busy on these occasions, delivered a “comprehensive PowerPoint presentation” at the interview, as Soriano recalls it. But Barça knew exactly what kind of trouble they would be storing up. That’s why they took a punt on Pep Guardiola instead.
This could be the week that brings a Van Gaal sacking by tomorrow and a Mourinho installation by Friday, but the collateral damage runs incalculably deeper than the embarrassment to United of their manager causing a row in an empty room. At stake are the club’s attempts to construct a modern academy out of what Sir Alex Ferguson left behind: a mission which is based on an understanding that young, often Mancunian, talent must be at the core of their identity. So many of the informal arrangements that Ferguson bequeathed were unfathomable to those who followed him. Reassembling things after Ferguson left in 2013 was akin to finding a “black box” flight recorder, one source said in the early days. Though Nicky Butt’s appointment as academy director last week was a welcome part of the rebuild, it still feels like the work has barely started.
It’s a travesty that Hughes’ big managerial moment seemed to have passed when City let him go
Van Gaal’s successor – and there must be one by this summer because the club is slipping into something irreversible – must be someone willing to see the significance and complexity of rebuilding United, in a football sense. Mourinho is pathologically incapable of that. His Old Trafford PowerPoint is no doubt ready to roll – as slick as the choreography of his weekly “come and get me” act – featuring mean and moody images of himself in a football crowd somewhere. But he brings the same short-term view of progress which only the self-absorbed can truly know.
The problem with the current discussion of who should be the next keeper of the flame is that it morphs into which of the supposed super-coaches might be available. The only names to have seriously entered the national conversation where United are concerned have been Van Gaal (failed), Carlo Ancelotti (out of the picture), Ryan Giggs (unprepared) and Diego Simeone, whose brand of football may or may not translate from the underdog environment of Atletico Madrid.
Sir Alex Ferguson on Jose Mourinho
Sir Alex Ferguson on Jose Mourinho
1/13 January 2005, after the Carling Cup semi-final first leg
"I think Mourinho has opened a can of worms for himself. We remember what happened in Porto. Look back a couple of weeks to the penalty decision that went their way against Liverpool and how Rafael Benitez handled that. But then Drogba reacted by grabbing Quinton Fortune by the throat, so I wonder whether the FA's compliance unit will be thinking about that."
2005 Manchester United
2/13 December 2006, after Mourinho suggested a five-point gap was only two as the teams had to play
"I'm trembling. It's good that I know we've lost the game in April, because we can have a rest that weekend. I'll put my reserve team in that day [April 14]. The first team can save their energy for the next game. Hopefully, we'll be 20 points ahead by then!"
2005 Manchester United
3/13 December 2006
"We will only be in trouble if we listen to Jose too much. I won’t be letting the players fall into the trap of thinking it’s won because all we have done is given ourselves a foundation. There are many hurdles to be navigated in the run-in. To win the league, you have to have great consistency, particularly around March and April. Historically, we have done okay at that time of the year."
4/13 March 2007, after Mourinho claimed Man Utd got decisions from referees
"His football club have been involved in so many things about referees over the years. It seems to me that, if you contest something at Chelsea and they don't get their own way, then something happens. Either referees or players are threatened and things like that. It's an incredible club. I think he should button his lip now for the rest of the season. I may be only just beginning because there is plenty for me to talk about with Jose and referees, and Chelsea and referees. I've got a catalogue of them, a big file, in my office if you want me to bring it out. But we'll leave that for another day."
2006 Manchester United
5/13 April 2007, after Mourinho again complained about referees
"Mourinho seems to be on some sort of personal crusade. I am surprised no action has been taken. It's calculated. We have four games to go now. If we get a penalty against us, Mourinho wins that war. That is wrong. It is a rant all the time now. I don't think it is fair to the game."
6/13 September 2007, after Mourinho was sacked
"It is a disappointment for the game. He was terrific for football and terrific for Chelsea. I enjoyed the competition with him. He was something fresh and new to our game. I don't know what I will do with my wine now. I wish him well."
7/13 March 2009, ahead of first leg clash with Inter
"I think that when Jose came that there was a great upsurge in Chelsea's position in the game. It happened suddenly. He came in, he uttered those words, 'I'm the special one,' and it seemed to galvanize the whole club."
2009 Manchester United
8/13 March 2011, in an interview with Sports Illustrated
"He's at the top, there's no doubt about that. You have certain criteria in terms of top management, and that is longevity of success—which is very difficult today—and what you win. You have to regard his achievements as really first-class."
9/13 April 2011, after Mourinho was linked with Mourinho under pressure at Real Madrid
“I am great friends with Jose and we often speak about his future. I can understand his desire to come back to England. There is more freedom from media attention for a manager here, you don’t have Marca and the radio programmes at midnight that he gets constantly in Madrid. But it’s a difficult one for me to tell him when this position will become available.”
10/13 December 2011, in a new book titled Jose Mourinho, The Secrets of his Success
"I look at Jose and I see myself reflected in many of the things he does. In the first year at Chelsea when I saw him running along the touchline at Old Trafford, he reminded me of my first years at Aberdeen jumping, raising my arms, celebrating. We're only human. We can't hide our emotions. They're always there, they're part of who we are, of our character."
2013 Manchester United FC
11/13 December 2012, in an interview
"He can manage anywhere, absolutely. I'm not going to put any forecasts on what is going to happen at this club. I won't last forever, but José can manage anywhere, there is no question about that."I would never think a guy who hasn't played a game could be a top coach but then you've got to look at his personality. He's got a marvellous, strong personality and that bridges that gap. I remember his first press conference [at Chelsea, in 2004] and I thought: 'Christ, he's a cocky bastard, him'. He was telling the players: 'Look, I'm the special one, we don't lose games'. Bloody hell, coming to England, he is only a young man and saying he is the special one! But it told all the players to have the belief they were going to win the league."
12/13 December 2014, speaking to Clare Balding
"It is unfair really. He’s good looking, he’s got that sort of George Clooney bit in his hair now. But I think he is a great example, he can speak five languages or whatever he can. He goes and becomes an interpreter for Bobby Robson, follows him to Barcelona, works under Louis Van Gaal; he is learning all the time. He has got a determination, he wants to be a coach. He never played the game, by the way – you tell me how many presidents would give a manager a job who has never played the game? None. But he has done it. Then he goes and manages a small team in Portugal, then goes to Porto and wins the league, wins the Uefa Cup, wins the European Cup, goes to Chelsea and wins the league. Goes to Inter Milan. That is an example to anyone who wants to do well, you shouldn’t let the barriers get in your way if you want to get there."
13/13 December 2015, 10 days before Chelsea sacked Mourinho for the second time
"He has sacked so many coaches... that I am sure he has learned by it. He has to trust and have confidence Jose can turn it around. There is no point in sacking one of the best coaches of all time. He's won the European Cup twice; he's won the league in each country he's managed in, he's won the big trophies. It would be foolish to take that step to sack him. That would be bad management; it's poor leadership, that. It's the first time he's been confronted with non-success. If you look at his whole career it's been nothing but a rise all the time, so for the first time in his life he's had to deal with bad publicity, adversity, and that's a challenge but there are signs he is getting back to a balanced level even though they lost on Saturday... For Jose, all good leaders will eventually find a solution. He will find a solution... It's not looking great at the moment, but I know the guy and work he has done in football and I can't see it lasting long."
2015 Getty Images
Since events at Chelsea and United in these past six months have deconstructed the cult of the super-coach, why is there no consideration of such an individual who knows United’s philosophies to their core, understands what it is attempting to recover as much as anyone and, so important in the age we occupy, articulates it in a way which United supporters expect? It’s a travesty – and an indictment of the way we throw away British talent – that Mark Hughes’ big managerial moment seemed to have passed when Manchester City let him go, though he has picked himself up from that indignity. It’s been more than six years: long enough for a rehabilitation.
Certainly, there is the embarrassment of what followed at Queen’s Park Rangers to factor in, and though there were certainly misjudgements along that particular road, the story of proprietor Tony Fernandes’ infernal and disastrous meddling in the club’s transfer policy and acquisitions has never been fully told.
Hughes has since emerged from that period to redefine the way Stoke City play, in the white heat of the Premier League. Defensive failings were considered to be his flaw at City, where it was the Abu Dhabi view that he lacked a willingness to accept their help, though that is no longer an accusation which can be applied. In his seven full Premier League management seasons since a difficult first year at Blackburn, Hughes has never finished lower than 10th and his mean average finish is 8.42.
Hughes clashed with City’s academy head, Jim Cassell, because he felt the younger players should be coming through to the first team far more quickly. Youth development was a part of his ethos. He bought well at City, at a time when good talents – Vincent Kompany, Carlos Tevez and Gareth Barry – did require some persuasion as well as slabs of cash. The technical director Hughes brought in, Mike Rigg, later proved instrumental to the signing of Sergio Aguero, Yaya Touré and others.
Those to whom the notion of Hughes over Mourinho is anathema will doubtless operate within the narrow confines of Stoke’s performance at Old Trafford earlier this month – anaemic, in a 3-0 defeat. There were factors at play. The absence of Ryan Shawcross is always significant, while the inside view from Stoke is that it is proving harder to get consistency from some of the foreign players in the depths of winter. Marko Arnautovic’s outlandish contract demands are not helping his own mindset, either. There is a vastly bigger picture than one defeat, of course. The assembly of a squad with Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan Krkic, Arnautovic and £18.3m Giannelli Imbula in its ranks reveals Hughes to be bold in his acquisitions and substantially unworthy of the “small club” tag which the super-coach cultists would attach to him.
“You’ve got to factor that for years, they’ve had no change, and haven’t really had to deal with change,” Hughes said of United recently, reflecting on his 13 years there as a player. “Now there are different ways of thinking and working, and some people can deal with it better than others. That’s right through the club as well. I’ve experienced that at clubs I’ve been at, where changes have been difficult for people.” It was a characteristically understated delivery which screamed “meet this man” to United.
The equation is not so very complicated, you see. Mourinho brings attention and dazzle and clickbait and Jorge Mendes and, let it be said, trophies. But you can pack up your academy, your first-team pathways and your Class of ’92 because his arrival takes the club on a road away from their glorious past. Hughes, with Butt and Giggs developing alongside him, might just bring the success while saving United’s soul. It would be an unpredictable move – with risks attached, you’d have to say. But that’s just how United have always liked it.
- More about:
- Manchester United