It was May 2013. Atletico Madrid had just beaten their neighbours to win the Copa del Rey. The mournful Real Madrid manager declared: “This was the worst season of my career.” It had ended without a trophy and, while this was the norm for his counterparts elsewhere, Jose Mourinho wasn’t accustomed to it.
It was legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who said: “If you’re second, you are nothing.” It feels like Mourinho’s motto.
And last season, for the first time, a team of his finished third. Chelsea were semi-finalists in the Uefa Champions League, the kingmakers, not the kings, in the English Premier League. The title was contested by his estranged protégé Brendan Rodgers and his enemy Manuel Pellegrini. It was unlike Mourinho.
Winning the League Cup was much more Mourinho-esque. It was his first honour in England, a decade earlier, and the Portuguese coach has always recognised the significance of winning the most winnable trophy and of securing silverware before the season reaches its business end. The 21st title of his career came two-and-a-half years after the 20th. Little wonder Mourinho said the wait felt like 20 years.
The most relentless winner of his generation is defined by his medal collection. Since he returned to Chelsea, Mourinho has talked about bringing through a younger generation of players and about sharing the club’s commitment to Financial Fair Play, which brings commensurate complications for those with high ambitions.
However, his most telling comment came at Wembley Stadium on Sunday when he suggested trophies were like food to him. The Mourinho diet requires regular success.
Sir Alex Ferguson is the closest comparison in that respect. They share a sense that the first objective is to win the domestic league and a recognition that the cups provide a chance to ensure a season cannot be dismissed as a failure.
Mourinho’s first Chelsea team secured two records – the most points in a season and the fewest goals conceded – and his Porto were the only club outside the continent’s four major leagues – England, Italy, Germany and Spain – to win the European Cup in the past two decades, yet these are details he rarely mentions.
The most important part was winning. His place in history will be secured by his trophies, not how he clinched them.
This is Mourinho’s particular brand of realism. His validation, his vindication, comes from a personal haul.
He has not tried to reinvent football. Few have suggested that his teams, unlike Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, have taken the beautiful game to new heights. He has not financed the building of a stadium, as Arsene Wenger did.
Having taken Porto into the European elite he, unlike Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone or Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp, moved on. The manner of his exit from both Porto and Inter Milan showed the ruthlessness of a winner.
While he has returned to Chelsea and while he no longer has the restlessness of youth, he has never stayed anywhere for longer than three-and-a-half years. Mourinho has never been about the past or the future as much as the present.
He has left a legacy at clubs – Porto banked millions because their exploits under Mourinho inflated players’ values while he constructed such a formidable outfit at Stamford Bridge that they ran on autopilot after his departure and still formed the basis of a Champions League-winning side almost five years after his sacking – but not in the way that Shankly, Ferguson, Johan Cruyff and Arrigo Sacchi did, or that Wenger will after his eventual exit.
That is not Mourinho’s priority. If others’ inheritance is fruitful, it is a by-product of his prowess.
Instead, he lends a sharp intellect to the here and now. Tactical astuteness, motivational prowess and transfer-market expertise tend to be the common denominators in his triumphs. So they were again when Tottenham Hotspur were defeated at Wembley on Sunday. This was an exhibition of power and a display of pragmatism.
It illustrated that Mourinho remains the man for the big occasion. His record in major finals, with 10 wins in 12 attempts, is remarkable. It came in a week when four rivals – Wenger, Pellegrini, Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino – suffered setbacks in their own attempts to secure silverware. Mourinho has his first honour of the season. A second, the Premier League title, beckons.
Normality has been restored. Mourinho’s famine is over. The seeds of his latest success may have been sowed in failure, when Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa were part of the Atletico team who beat his Real two years ago, but that he heeded lessons from a loss and installed both as key members of his Chelsea team. The winner gained even from a loss.
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