THE INEVITABLE happened, the end of the Mourinho era at Old Trafford. Football is a funny game, it tip-toes to the abyss with alarming regularity, making bad and expensive decisions that play to the wisdom of trends time after time. Nobody, but nobody, should be surprised about the outcome, the media have been talking about nothing else for 12 months, looking for signs that the armour has been pierced, that the three-year cycle was about to be repeated.
José Mourinho didn’t look too upset as he left his bolt-hole hotel, but then a pay-off, a holiday and a new job will merely be the start of another adventure. Or will it?
Leaving Manchester United is not like vacating any other chair in football management. United is the pinnacle, the most sought-after job in the industry – well, it would be if history allowed the current incumbent the chance to operate with a blank canvas. There have been only two truly successful United managers in 50 years – Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. Together, they have created a legacy that is virtually impossible to live up to. It took almost three decades for United to get over the departure of Busby, and so far, they haven’t done a very good job of replacing Ferguson.
In both cases, United did not handle succession well. In the 1970s, they succeeded in making the job an unattractive and thankless task and with Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho all falling short, they’re in danger of repeating the error of their ways. The difference is, today’s environment will not allow United to go 26 years without a league title.
But who will take on a job that will, almost certainly, tarnish the rest of your career? If United sits at the peak of the football world, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, then surely it is downhill from being shown the door in Salford? Look at David Moyes, a capable man with decent credentials who struggled at United and stood and watched as light aircraft flew past with instructions for the board. Since then, his career has floundered and he’s almost disappeared from view.
Of course, Mourinho will not go so quietly. For a start, he has Jorge Mendes as his agent, and secondly, he’s a hired gun that operates across borders. There will always be someone who will want to give him a job, if only to win some silverware before waving him on to pastures new.
Mourinho has an incredible CV – Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real and United, but you have to wonder where he will go next, indeed where he can go next.
Former United managers don’t tend to do that well after leaving the club, their stint at Old Trafford tends to be the high point and then life starts to get more mundane.
Consider that post-Busby, Wilf McGuinness ended up at York City after a spell in Greece and was out of the management game by 1977. Frank O’Farrell, after leaving United in 1972, went to Cardiff and had two spells with Torquay after sampling life in Iran. Tommy Docherty, sacked after admitting to having an affair with his physio’s wife, tried his luck at QPR and Derby County, but was never as compelling as he was at United.
Dave Sexton had a good long period in the England set-up, but his club career had effectively peaked when he left Old Trafford in 1981. And then there was Ron Atkinson, who departed the club in 1986 after failing to break the Liverpool monopoly.
Mourinho’s win rate of 58.33% was better than all of these men, indeed better than Busby’s (50.45%). Ferguson, with a win rate of 59.67%, was the most successful in so many ways. But whereas Ferguson was given time (five full seasons and half of 1986-87 before winning the title), nobody enjoys the benefit of patience any more.
Mourinho’s ways are tolerated while the club is successful, but once the tactics and approach do not yield results, c-suite members start to become agitated by the quality of the football on offer and the manager’s rhetoric. But Mourinho’s employers should have known what to expect, he has adopted this style since he first came on the scene and it has brought him instant success in many cases. When United appointed him, it was a case of caveat emptor, but you sense that they were desperate to win something in the post-Ferguson world. They knew that with Mourinho, they would do just that, even if the baggage would become an issue.
He undoubtedly works best in the role of underdog – as seen at Porto, Chelsea and, to some extent, Inter. In more recent times, success has been harder to come by because he has been working with a club that expects success – Real Madrid, Chelsea a decade into the Abramovich era and Manchester United.
It is conceivable that his time has gone, that other coaches have overtaken him. Whether he has his own plan B is debatable, but he’s an intelligent man, he will surely know if his current model has become outdated. It probably has.
What nobody really has a grasp of is whether being sacked at United, five years after leaving the other blue riband job in his CV, will leave a stain on his record. Some cynics will sneer and suggest that he failed at United, the job he coveted for so long. They will also point to his aborted second appointment at Chelsea as a failure of a sort, despite a third title with the Blues. The conclusion will be that his career is on the wane, although all things are relative – there will be, at this precise moment, somebody considering Mourinho as their next manager.
What he may need is some time out of the limelight, a job with less profile, with less expectation, that will enable him to reboot his code. It is sometimes difficult to reassess strategy when you’re on the hoof because football managers are expected to hit the ground running and produce the goods. Because, after all, you have – at best – three seasons – and that applies to everyone, not just the most famous temporary manager in history.