Manchester United vs Chelsea: Why Jose Mourinho refuses to go down memory lane

Mourinho was assistant to Van Gaal at Barcelona

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The Independent Football

Jose Mourinho recalled on Friday that the last time he managed a team at Old Trafford, he trespassed a few yards over the touchline and upended the opposition’s winger. If Angel di Maria passes him on Sunday, he joked, he might just do the same.

The game in question was the Soccer Aid match in June for which Mourinho was a guest coach and the winger he tackled was the singer Olly Murs, although the Chelsea manager had no recollection of him. What he did remember was the referee that day, Phil Dowd, who will also be the referee at Old Trafford on Sunday, because Mourinho is good with those kind of details.

As for discussion of his mentor Louis van Gaal, one of the two managers, along with Bobby Robson, who he learned under as an assistant, the discussion was limited in the extreme. Mourinho was polite at first, identifying Van Gaal as one of the “important people” in his career. “I have never hidden the respect and relation and his influence,” he said. “But this is my opponent. Don’t make me speak well about him for half an hour.

“I’m not going to speak more about it. He knows what I feel about him. The world knows, because I never hide. What can I add? There’s nothing to add.” Later, when he was reminded of the tribute Van Gaal paid to him at a Football Writers’ Association dinner in January, and whether he would ever reciprocate he replied: “Ask me next week.”

It has long been the suspicion that the key message of Mourinho’s Friday press conferences at Cobham, especially the first, on-camera section, is primarily for the benefit of his own players, watching at home. It is here that Mourinho begins the narrative for the weekend, with an unwillingness to back down in any conflict – be it with Arsène Wenger or Roy Keane – before presumably asking his players to do exactly the same.

He could have been nice about Van Gaal and told some stories about learning from the Dutchman over three years at Barcelona, but that kind of backslapping bonhomie is not the mood he wants around his team before they arrive at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Mourinho keeps that distant past locked down, especially the past when he was an assistant rather than a manager, learning the trade without a high-profile playing career to sustain him. It is a less useful part of the persona that he has developed in a remarkable 14 years as a manager over which his reputation and his force of personality have become some of the most useful tools at his disposal.

In 2000, when he left Barcelona, at the same time as Van Gaal, to return to start his own management career in Portugal he was just 37 and virtually unknown.


Fourteen years on, with two Champions League titles, and seven league titles won in four countries, that Mourinho at the turn of the millennium is a much harder person to imagine. He once admitted that he earned more as an assistant manager at Barcelona than he would have done from the offers that started to come his way in the late part of that decade to manage in Portugal, although he always knew that he would have to strike out alone one day.

In the 2004 semi-official biography of Mourinho by the journalist Luis Lourenco, the manager admits that in his final year at Barcelona he became frustrated. “During the day I would work at Nou Camp, the serious and faithful assistant I had always been,” he says. “At home I was far more critical, often thinking about how Van Gaal had taken this one off and put that one on, whereas I would have done this and that. So I was already an anguished assistant coach.”

The one competitive game they have faced each other in – the Champions League final of 2010 – was won by Mourinho, and his overall trophy haul has already surpassed that of his mentor, having been in the profession nine years fewer. More importantly for Mourinho, he is remembered less these days for his past as a humble assistant and interpreter.

There is nothing wrong with the path he took; indeed, it is a remarkable story of achievement. But, from Mourinho’s point of view, it is less suited to the pre-match narrative he wants to establish. His prerogative these days is not to bow at the knee to any manager, even Van Gaal, if he can help it – especially with three points at stake.