Seeing Jose Mourinho win the Conference League was almost a pleasant experience. Given who Jose Mourinho is, this mind-boggling turn of events simply cannot be ignored.
Objectively speaking, 19 years is a long time. Way back when, in the sepia-tinged nether-reaches of the footballing past, the 2002/03 season saw Blackburn Rovers finish seven points off a Champions League spot. Gareth Southgate was still playing for England. Steve Staunton played 32 times for Aston Villa. Gianfranco Zola bagged 16 goals. Manchester City sported a frontline of Darren Huckerby and Paolo Wanchope. A little-known, pugnacious Portuguese fella was growling his way to a first European trophy, with a hard-fought victory over a side that included Chris Sutton.
Nineteen years on, with the entire career of Mark Noble having been and gone, that same man could be spotted this week in Tirana, leading one of Europe’s grand old clubs to one of Europe’s lesser prizes in a tense, tight encounter. However, along with the fact that Europe’s premier competition was won that year by a certain Mr. Ancelotti (just saying), it is there that the similarities end.
The man pacing the pitch on Wednesday night, holding four fingers and a thumb aloft to the world as the tears fell, has undergone quite the rise and fall since then. From his remarkable achievements with Porto, through the astronomic success of the Special One years at Chelsea and Inter, to the fractiously earned silverware at Real and back at Chelsea again, the ignominious descent at United and Spurs, to here – it has been like something from an old Russian novel: brutally excoriating and often glorious, with a protagonist who has both grown and diminished with the plot.
But what is this version of José Mourinho we are now faced with, as he settles into his fifth – and perhaps final – act? What chunks have been bitten out and which lumps have hardened? And, most pressingly, is it okay that, in spite of all the manager-baiting bullshit, the sexism and intolerance and generally incorrigible twattery of the past 19 years, I find myself liking him?
Because, the thing is, there was something genuinely quite lovely about seeing the “daft old bugger”, as John Brewin fondly termed him on Wednesday night, win something again. Something to the scenes from the open-top bus, as Mourinho held a performative palm to his chest and the Roman masses sang his name, that brought a smile to the face. That was almost, kind of, warming. And this is in urgent need of inquiry.
Maybe, without knowing it, we have always loved him. Perhaps, just like with the genius-madman dichotomy, the line between being a total prick and actually a right laugh is an exceedingly thin one, and a genuine appreciation for the entertainment he has brought has been successfully masquerading as bored annoyance all these years. However, this doesn’t quite wash. If we think about it, while his barbs and bristles were probably box office for a bit, and whilst the Arsène Wenger Peeping Tom chat will never not be funny, the narcissism and the public flagellations grew sad and tired a long time ago.
Maybe, then, it is just that he has changed. Perhaps that scowling curmudgeon chucking his players under the bus has himself grown less sad and less tired, revitalised by an Italian fanbase who still remember him as a winner, but with the added maturity of years under his belt. It certainly fits with the optics. The silvered hair and the slightly puffy cheeks, the general bespectacled softness of his Instagrammable uncle persona, giving Mourinho Mark Five the air of an altogether nobler version of his old self.
Still though, nah. It’s only a few months since he publicly blasted his Roma side for being “too nice and too weak,” and for having “a psychological complex”. In February he was banned for two games for screaming accusations at a referee that he had been paid off by Juve, Calciopoli-style. Like the roguish lover we just can’t fix, nothing will ever really change José. He will always be a bit of a prat.
Neither, too, can it be fully explained away by distance. In the same way as the reverence that he still commands in Italy is less to do with the fact that they didn’t have to deal with him for a decade, and more to do with the fact that his 2010 Inter season was a uniquely staggering feat, we have not softened to him over here simply because he is over there. It is 2022, and the way that we consume football – on multiple feeds and sites and platforms – means that a Mourinho figure will cut through from anywhere, almost weekly. Yes, not having to witness his sullen, shaven-headed complaints after a dismal defeat to someone-or-other on quite such a regular basis does perhaps account for a slight easing of hostilities, but not all of it. Piers Morgan coming back on the tele doesn’t make you detest him any more than you did before. It simply reminds you that he, and his detestability, exists.
Congrats Jose Mourinho – the new Emperor of Rome. pic.twitter.com/xwIKcBTDO8
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) May 25, 2022
So, then, it must be circumstantial. It must be something to do, not so much with us or with him, but with where he found himself this week. And really, upon reflection, it is.
There he was, out in the footballing hinterlands of Albania, leading a team who hadn’t won a European trophy since the 1961 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, with a side that had Chris Smalling in it, to a third-rate European title that Brendan Rodgers didn’t even know existed, and caring so deeply about it all that he cried his eyes out. Feeling such pride in the achievement that he kissed his medal and embraced his players and saluted his fans, in exactly the same way he would have, were it the Champions League. The same way that he did when it was.
This isn’t sniffiness; or not completely, anyway. It is too easy – and not accurate – to dismiss the Conference League as some sort of Mickey Mouse competition that doesn’t matter. Yet the fact remains that it is a far less prestigious competition than Mourinho Marks One-to-Four used to challenge for. And it is here that the provenance of the newfound fondness resides.
Contrary to what the symmetry might suggest, this is a Mourinho who has fallen a long way in the time since that first European crown. One who the sharp end of the game has left behind, and who is now scrapping it out in the middle reaches, where his anti-football and all his nonsense can’t befoul the very peak of the game. He is now an aside, a curiosity, a quaint midweek adjunct to the main proceedings, and all the more tolerable as a consequence.
Not only that, but in the pride and joy that he is finding there, in his unbridled worship of success of any kind – no matter how provincial – which has managed to remain pure for so long, in a game almost custom-designed towards cynicism, there is even something quite nice about him. Something wholesome and untarnished. Even, you could say, an innocence. And in that, the starkest proof that 19 years is a veritable f**king age.