by Joe Butterfield
They often say that good things come in threes. Premier League points, Musketeers, Lord of the Rings films, the possibilities are figuratively limitless. As Bob Dorough once famously sang, “three is the magic number”.
José Mourinho is a man whose career can be defined in many ways by the number three. Taking his career back to the start, it was his third job in management at Porto which saw him rise to European prominence. In his second season at the club (his first full season), Mourinho won a treble – the Primeira Liga, Taça de Portugal and the UEFA Cup.
In his third season at the club, Mourinho really hit the big time. It was a goal at Old Trafford which gave Porto their third goal of the tie and taking them 3-2 ahead on aggregate in the Round of 16 which saw Mourinho make a name for himself in England, as footage of him running down the touchline of Old Trafford, punching the air and running with his arms aloft, was major news all over the country. His image was plastered over the back pages of every paper in Europe as they upset one of Europe’s elite in their back garden. Mourinho then went on, of course, to win a Champions League trophy the club would have thought well out of reach when Mourinho took over the club halfway through the 2002/03 season.
After pulling off a Football Manager-esque achievement at Porto, Mourinho took the next step and became the face of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea project, beginning the reign of “The Special One”. He dominated the league in his first season, accruing 95 points, a feat which has only recently been bettered, conceding 15 goals, a feat which has never been bettered, and losing only one game, a feat which has only been bettered once before. He successfully defended the title in his second season and, throughout his tenure, won a further two League Cups, an FA Cup and a Community Shield. He left Chelsea in 2007, after three years in charge, as Chelsea’s most successful manager.
In June 2008, Mourinho moved to the Italian League, succeeding Roberto Mancini at Inter Milan. In his opening press conference, he spoke only in Italian, claiming to have learnt the language in only three weeks. In his opening summer transfer window, he brought in three new players to the club; Brazilian winger Mancini, Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari and Portuguese winger Ricardo Quaresma. In Mourinho’s first season at the club he won the Serie A title after having won the Supercoppa Italiana in the summer of his arrival. This was the third domestic league in which he had managed to win the title. It was in his second season, however, where he would become a club legend.
Mourinho steered the club to a famous treble of the Serie A title, Coppa Italia and a Champions League triumph. His Champions League victory was not short of drama, naturally, as a particularly memorable game at Camp Nou in which the club held on to lose only 1-0, ensuring a 3-2 win on aggregate for his Inter Milan side, saw Mourinho sprint across the pitch at Camp Nou, pointing up at the Italian fans. Victor Valdes tried to restrain Mourinho, insisting that to do such a crazy thing as celebrating with your team’s fans is incredibly lacking in class. Mourinho would later call the 1-0 defeat at Camp Nou “the most beautiful victory of my career” and, having been overlooked for the Barcelona job in the summer of 2008 in favour of Pep Guardiola, it’s hard to think he wasn’t telling the truth.
In winning the Champions League, Mourinho made Inter Milan the first ever Italian club to win a complete treble. Mourinho became the first ever manager to take three clubs to manage three separate clubs to a Champions League semi-final. Mourinho became the third manager to ever win the Champions League with two separate clubs. Mourinho had become more than a legend of Porto, Chelsea and Inter, he had become a legend of the game. It was this incredible success, helped in no small amount by the humiliation of Barcelona along the way to the Champions League win, that had attracted the attention of Real Madrid and, with a heavy heart, Mourinho said goodbye to the San Siro and set on his quest to dominate a fourth league.
It is often said that death always comes in threes. Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon. Alan Thicke, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. There are at least ten examples of this that can be found on the internet. Whilst Mourinho’s career (nor Mourinho, thankfully) is not actually dead, it is fitting that Mourinho’s rule of threes must also be intrinsically linked to the downfalls of his career as well as his successes.
Taking a step backwards to his time at Chelsea, it was after three years at the club that the issues started to arise. Claude Makelele spoke of how, in the midst of Mourinho’s third season at the club, Mourinho made himself more distant from his playing squad.
“The brotherhood spirit that united us was harmed… The chairman asked the players to express themselves more freely on the pitch, but Mourinho stubbornly refused to change his methods… I was stunned to see how Mourinho forgot the value of his players and claimed all the credit for everything.”
The relationship between Mourinho and Abramovich had broken down to an irreparable degree and, as Makelele alluded to, the Russian owner had started to interfere with the management of the team and Mourinho had, somewhat understandably, shut himself off from much of the club and refused to adjust to the whims of the owner. This was no longer Chelsea vs the world, this was now Mourinho vs the world, and that included the upper management at Chelsea. He still won a domestic double of both the League Cup and FA Cup in the midst of this turbulent season as the senior influential figures in the dressing room, Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba, were firmly in Mourinho’s camp. However, after a summer transfer window in which the relationship had soured even further and an indifferent start to the 2007/08 Premier League campaign, it was decided in mid-September that manager and club would part ways.
Skip forward to his time at Real Madrid and, off the back of his success at Inter Milan during which he rediscovered the man management skills that he had seemingly thrown aside during his final season at Chelsea, much was expected of him. His Champions League defeat of a Barcelona team which had gone on to win La Liga with 99 points in the 2009/10 season gave both the fans and board alike hope for the future.
What came was something spectacular, though not in the way the Madridistas would have hoped. Mourinho won three trophies during his time at the Bernabéu, which is nothing to sniff at, bringing Mourinho’s managerial total up to 20 trophies in a decade. However, this haul still left a sour taste in the mouths of Madrid fans and board members when compared to the seven that Barcelona won in the same amount of time, six of which were won in Guardiola’s time at the club, including a Champions League semi-final defeat which saw Barcelona go on to win the competition. Duncan Castles would tell you that this is sure-fire evidence that Mourinho “tactically and mentally bested” Guardiola during his time at Madrid, though the Madrid hierarchy would probably beg to differ.
The third season would again be Mourinho’s undoing at the club. Relationships had started to break down within the club once again and there was a very clear divide within the dressing room of players who were Mourinho In and Mourinho Out, much like the fans themselves. Mourinho had taken issue with Iker Casillas in particular, benching him in the midst of the 2012/13 season and instead opting to play Antonio Adán. After they lost the game 3-2, Mourinho defended the decision to play Adán, famously claiming that “for me and my coaching staff, Adán is better than Iker”. He took issue with Cristiano Ronaldo, implying that he was unable to take criticism, saying Ronaldo “maybe thinks that he knows everything and that the coach cannot improve him anymore”. By the end of the 2012/13 season he had been involved in plenty of controversial incidents, including touchline bans, poking Tito Vilanova in the eye and constantly complaining about refereeing decisions and implying that Barcelona received special treatment from UEFA. Madrid fans and officials alike were sick of him and so, unsurprisingly, three days after a Copa del Rey final defeat to local rivals Atlético Madrid, he left the club a year after being handed a three-year contract extension.
This opened the door for a return to his beloved Chelsea. He had referenced during his final season that he was loved by many clubs, “one club in particular”, and the seed was planted. Within two weeks, Mourinho had turned down the opportunity to manage Manchester United and had returned to Chelsea to finish what he had started. The issues with Abramovich had seemingly been buried and he was ready to settle back into life in the Premier League.
His first season back in charge of the club was not successful though it lay the groundwork for the season to follow. He made the controversial decision to sell Chelsea’s then-current Player of the Year Juan Mata in the January window, benching him for not being as good at tracking back as Oscar is. The following year the decision was somewhat vindicated, as he took Chelsea to their third Premier League title win under Mourinho in the 2014/15 season, winning another League Cup earlier in the season. His Chelsea team lost only three games during the league campaign, winning it comfortably.
However it wasn’t the same smiling, laughing Mourinho we’d seen at Chelsea from 2004-2007. This was the post-Madrid Mourinho, a haggard looking man who seemed like was starting to lose his sense of fun. After a 0-0 draw with West Ham in 2014 he referred to Sam Allardyce’s defensive tactics as “football from the 19th Century”. He had lost his tendency to dazzle press conferences, much to the joy of the media. Instead, he had slowly begun to loathe them after his time in Madrid had sapped his energy for dealing with the press.
Despite the success, his second stint at Chelsea will never be remembered for the trophies. Once again, the three-year curse struck Mourinho and in 2015/16 it hit hard, so much so that this season is now referred to by many (including Antonio Conte the following year) as “the Mourinho season”. The defending champions won only three of their first twelve games in charge and, after a summer where Mourinho had supposedly been refused many of his transfer targets and been given minimal room to strengthen his squad, the relationship between Mourinho and the board had once again broken down.
Much like at Madrid it had seeped into the dressing room,3 certainly on the pitch if not behind the scenes. Chelsea fans were pulling their hair out at the repeated selections of Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic, despite the two being repeatedly culpable for mistakes leading to opposition goals. Mourinho had become stubborn in spite of the club and in spite of the fans – the criticism only making him more certain of his belief that his way was actually the correct way to do it and that everybody else was wrong. In December 2015, in 16th place and one point above the relegation zone having only won four of his sixteen games in charge, Mourinho was sacked four months after signing a three-year contract extension.
Now Mourinho finds himself in the third year of his stretch at Manchester United and he just can’t help but bring that number to the front of everybody’s minds. After a 3-0 defeat to Tottenham early in the season, Mourinho put an end to the press conference after Daniel Taylor of The Guardian dared to point out that his team lost the game, despite Mourinho’s insistence that they played well and that, because he stood in front of the 500 or so fans left in the Stretford End by the time the final whistle blew and received applause, the fans understood this fact.
“Do you know, what was the result?” Mourinho asked.
“You lost 3-0.”
“3-0. 3-0.” Mourinho held up three fingers. “Do you know what this means? 3-0, but also 3 Premierships. And I won more Premierships alone than the other 19 managers together. 3 for me and 2 for them. Respect. Respect. Respect, man. Respect. Respect.”
This was then followed up by their recent trip to Stamford Bridge, during which Mourinho received some abuse from the home crowd, which tends to happen when you’re seen as the opposition by the home crowd. Mourinho’s final year in charge hasn’t sat well with many Chelsea fans and, despite the long-standing success he has at the club and how important he has been for their history, that “Mourinho season” still stings.
His response to this, at the final whistle, was to applaud the travelling Manchester United fans and, on his way back to the tunnel, turn to the Chelsea fans, once again holding up the number three with his fingers and pointing to the ground, clearly mouthing “3 titles, here.”
This has been once again followed up during Manchester United’s recent game against Juventus in the Champions League, where Mourinho found himself on the receiving end of quite a lot of abuse from the Italian team, one which he had absolutely no time for during his time at Inter Milan, stoking an already intense rivalry between the two teams.
Towards the end of the game, Mourinho held up three fingers in the direction of the away fans, in a gesture which has been interpreted to represent the treble which Mourinho remains to be the only manager to win in Italy.
Mourinho has had a great deal of success in threes. There’s no shame in lauding a treble over an Italian team you have no love for, nor reminding people how successful you’ve been over the course of your career despite a recent downturn in fortunes.
However, as a man whose worst moments have also often come around in threes, particularly his propensity for third season meltdowns at three previous jobs, with a fourth an ever-increasing likelihood as we get deeper into his third season at Manchester United, he should maybe stop wearing the number three as a badge of honour.
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