Portsmouth's campaign to retain their Premiership status may have seemed an improbable one a month ago, before successive wins offered the prospect of survival, but one player knew it was well within the bounds of possibility. After the fantasy season he once experienced, anything in football seemed feasible.
So when the ball twice dropped to Pedro Miguel Silva Mendes on the edge of the Manchester City box three weeks ago, he set about making things happen. A week later, at West Ham, he did it again. Mendes' three long-range goals have given Portsmouth's supporters hope, but he never lost it. How could he after his year with Jose?
In May 2003, Mendes had just completed what he described, when we met this week at Portsmouth's Eastleigh training base, as "a terrific season". Playing for his home-town team, Vitoria Guimaraes, they had come fourth in the Portuguese league. A fine achievement in a competition traditionally dominated by Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon but one which did not even carry the reward of a place in the Uefa Cup.
If that was a terrific season, the next was the stuff of miracles. He joined Porto. "Straight away we won the Portuguese Super Cup," said Mendes. "Then we won the Championship, then we went to the final of the Portuguese Cup. We lost to Benfica but a few days later we won the Champions' League."
Some season. The big medal, "the one with gold stars", is at home in Portugal, with "the ticket and the souvenirs they gave us" but the memories have travelled with Mendes to the South Coast. "In your career you can have one chance maybe," he said. "If you are somewhere like Arsenal, you have a chance every year, so I am surprised to hear they have never won it. I was lucky, everything went so well for us."
Maradona heads the list of élite players who have never won the European Cup/Champions' League. It also includes Bobby Moore, Dino Zoff, Lev Yashin, Jürgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthäus, and, to date, Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Pavel Nedved and Michael Ballack.
Mendes raise his eyes at the names. "You need to be at the right club at the right time," he adds. "I was one season at Porto, the best season."
It is a point that may not be lost on his old manager, Jose Mourinho, who has yet to duplicate, with Chelsea, his triumph with unheralded Porto.
"I think he is a little frustrated not to win the Champions' League with Chelsea," said Mendes with unconscious understatement. The impression Mourinho is giving in England is of a man who cannot take defeat.
Was that the case at Porto? Mendes pauses. "In the league season I can only remember once playing in a losing side, it didn't matter because we already had a big lead, but he was angry. Then we lost the final against Benfica. He said "unlucky, we should have won this, but now let's concentrate on the Champions' League". It was a pleasure to work with him. He is very organised, a very technical manager."
Porto's team did not so much break up as disintegrate, with Mourinho heading for Chelsea and his players disappearing to clubs across Europe, from Barcelona to Moscow. One of the last to go in that frantic summer sale was Mendes.
"I wanted to play in the Premier League," he said. "The week before the season started my agent said 'Do you want to go to Tottenham'?, so I came to London." Mendes played every minute of the first 12 games, then the man who signed him, Jaques Santini, resigned. In the following match, under the then caretaker Martin Jol, Mendes was substituted. It was a sign of things to come as Mendes was first pushed out of the centre to the right flank, then omitted, failing to play at all after January. It was typical of his luck that when he chipped Roy Carroll from 60 yards the linesman failed to notice the ball had gone over the line before the Manchester United goalkeeper dragged it back. This season he was again overlooked and, come the transfer window, was desperate to move.
"I wanted to quit Tottenham" he said. "It was not good for me. My agent told me about Portsmouth, about what the chairman wanted to do with the club, the fantastic future the club could have. I said 'OK, let's fight for Portsmouth'."
In his first match, against Everton, he got cramp for the first time in his career. "He'd not been playing regularly," said Harry Redknapp, Pompey's manager. "Playing once a fortnight for Spurs reserves at Stevenage is not the same as playing in the Premiership. But he was still one of the [nine transfer window] signings who hit the ground running."
"It will always take time to settle new players into a club," said Mendes. "I'd not been playing for two and a half months, more or less. It takes time to get fit and get into the routine. Now we are fit and all together.
"It was disappointing when last week's match against Arsenal was called off. We were looking forward to it and now we have an extra game to play. There are only six weeks to go and we will have to find a lot of strength but we can keep the momentum going. The good thing was the other results last weekend went our way. I didn't see them, I only have Portuguese telly at home so I only see Portuguese games, but I was happy with the results. We are still only three points behind West Brom and level with Birmingham, and now we have one game in hand. It is better than ever."
Portsmouth are at Fulham today but with three difficult home matches coming up over Easter, including the re-arranged fixture with Arsenal, it is their home form which may decide whether they stay up or drop. Mendes is happy with that.
"Fratton Park is a lovely place to play as the home team. The crowd is fantastic. It is always behind us. The facilities are old but they are good enough for the home team, frightening enough for the away team. You want the away team to come to Fratton Park and feel they are in a fight against everyone."
Mendes and his young family have settled in one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in Britain, Branksome Park in Poole, adjacent to Redknapp's Sandbanks residence. "It is by the beach," said Mendes, "it's almost like living in Portugal, except the weather is not so good." His daughter, now two, has just started at nursery "so she learns to speak English", he also has a five-month-old boy.
Mendes' own English is excellent, the legacy of a good schooling and plenty of practice on holidays. "Whenever you meet people, English is the language you talk to them in," he said. "Being able to speak it was very helpful when I moved to London."
Whether his knowledge of the vernacular is good enough to understand Redknapp, his first English manager, is another matter. A more contrasting figure to Mourinho could hardly be found but Mendes appears to have hit it off with the game's great wheeler-dealer.
"Harry has his own style. He is good to work for. You have your responsibilities. Everyone knows what they must do, but he wants you to enjoy your game. That's good. Of course, if you don't win there is no point in playing good football, but if you win you enjoy it all the more."
Mendes is less effusive about Felipe Luis Scolari, his national manager. While careful not to be critical he is clearly perplexed at the stalling of his international career after just two caps.
"I was playing at Vitoria when I got into the national squad," he said. "Then I went to Porto and started winning things and I was not picked again. But he's doing well. We reached the final of Euro 2004 and easily qualified for the World Cup, so he's probably a good manager."
Time remains on Mendes' side, especially as Scolari is likely to move on after the World Cup, possibly to England.
"He [Mendes] is still only young," said Redknapp. "People think he's 30 because he's won the Champions' League but he was only 27 in February."
He also has the necessary quest for self-improvement. Our interview is delayed as he is practising his shooting, a regular ritual and one which has paid off.
"Everything needs practice," he said. "If you want to get results at the weekend you have to practice during the week. The best goal? Not the one against Manchester United because the referee didn't count it. Probably the second one against Manchester City, the winner, because of everything it can represent for us. It has given us momentum, suddenly everything changes, we have belief, we can believe more than ever."
"We needed to score goals and he's hit three great ones," said Redknapp. "His goal against City was the sort of thing that makes you feel things are going your way, when I was at Southampton they went the other way.
"We were the condemned man heading for the gallows, now we've been given a reprieve."
League of their own: European Cup winners plying their trade in the Premiership
* ASTON VILLA
Milan Baros (Liverpool, 2005)
* BOLTON WANDERERS
Ivan Campo (Real Madrid, 2000)
Paulo Ferreira, Nuno Maniche, Ricardo Carvalho (Porto, 2004), Claude Makelele (Real M, 2003)
Nuno Valente (Porto, 2004)
Fernando Morientes (Real Madrid, 1998, 2000 and 2003), Jerzy Dudek, Steve Finnan, Dietmar Hamann, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Djimi Traoré, Luis Garcia, Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, John Arne Riise, Djibril Cissé, Harry Kewell (all 2005)
* MANCHESTER CITY
Andy Cole (Man Utd, 1999)
* MANCHESTER UNITED
Edwin van der Sar (Ajax, 1995), Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (all Man Utd, 1999)
Pedro Mendes (Porto, 2004)
Edgar Davids (Ajax, 1995)
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Nwankwo Kanu (Ajax, 1995)
WEST HAM UNITED
Teddy Sheringham (Man U, 1999)Reuse content