by Richard Brook
Characters are a dying breed in modern sport. It is hard to identify the precise point at which their number began to wane but we once had the like of John McEnroe, Alex Higgins, Ian Botham and Paul Gascoigne. We somehow found our way to a position where we have Roger Federer, Judd Trump, Tim Bresnan and Frank Lampard. All are professionals of undoubted ability but there is nothing quite so fascinating to watch as the sporting individuals who have combined their natural ability and flair, with a level of inherent eccentricity, and unpredictability. This is exactly why the English Premier League needs a manager, with this about them. The Premier League needs Jose Mourinho.
In terms of football managers, the legendary Nottingham Forest manager, the late Brian Clough, stands out as the natural embodiment of the characteristics I am seeking to describe. Clough once dropped several members of his Derby County squad off to join a picket line during the 1972 miners’ strike – with Clough to send the bus back for them when he considered they would be ready. Ostensibly the idea was to teach them how good a life they had as professional footballers, though one may wonder if there was not a hint of politics behind the decision.
In Clough we are also talking about a manager, who according to former England left back Stuart Pearce firmly believed in drinking nothing at Liverpool Football Club that was not sealed, for fear that his opponents might have slipped something into it. England’s record holder for the number of caps won, goalkeeper Peter Shilton has told anecdotes of his agents walking into Clough’s office, for a meeting, only to find themselves tripping over a squash racquet, that Clough was hiding behind the door, holding. Shilton has also recounted that when the ground was too hard to dive on during Forest’s stay; leading up to the 1980 European Cup Final, Clough identified an area that could be used: A traffic roundabout.
No football manager is likely to ever come close to Brian Clough, for such a manner of exploits. The tales of his various eccentricities and quotes go on and on. Bearing that in mind, Clough’s natural successor would be greatest club manager that there has ever been, Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson’s did not exhibit this character in an exact replication of Clough’s style. Who could if they wanted to? Ferguson displayed character in a way that is far less likable to the neutral or opposition supporter. Ferguson, as a manager, was – publically at least – partisan to the point of being one-eyed and possessed a certain self-confidence that his admirers were in awe of and that his detractors considered to be plain arrogance. To be fair to Sir Alex pushing the border between confidence and arrogance is an almost universal trait of those at the top of their game, in any sport, whatever their role.
It is difficult to recall another manager having a metaphorical nick-name attached to his vocalisation of his displeasure in the dressing room. In 2003, following a 2-0 FA Cup defeat at home to Arsenal, during such a blast from the infamous hair dryer an incident occurred, the full details of which might never be known – although Ferguson does have an autobiography due out later this year. In the changing rooms it is alleged that Ferguson kicked a boot, in frustration. The boot apparently hit David Beckham resulting in a, much photographed, cut above the eye. In the same year Ferguson faced a fine for claiming the Champions League was fixed to favour Spanish and Italian sides.
There is only one manager with a phenomenon of sports time keeping named after him as well. Ferguson was often on the wrong side of the FA for his criticisms of, language towards, and occasionally attacks on the integrity of match officials. There has been a suggestion that this intimidated match officials and United were the only Premier League team not to concede a penalty in the season just ended. They were also only received one Premier League red card. However the perceived intimidation might also manifest in another way that was touched upon above; ‘Fergie Time’, the mysterious injury time that always seemed to crop up when Manchester United were losing. The term was born out of Manchester United’s game with Sheffield Wednesday in the 1992/93 season. The game stood at 1-1 after 90 minutes, but during the seven minutes that were added on, United defender Steve Bruce scored to win the title. Although it should be noted that statistics do not generally provide the reasons why, it is worth pointing out that Opta data for the past three seasons indicates that Manchester United receive an average of 79 second more injury time, when they are in a losing position, as compared to when they are in a winning position.
Of course Ferguson also had a very public argument with the BBC. Ferguson was enraged by the Corporation’s decision to air a documentary titled Father And Son. The programme was considered by some to have portrayed a situation that saw Ferguson’s son, Jason – a football agent, taking advantage of Ferguson’s position and power within the game, to his own ends. No wrongdoing was proven. Ferguson refused to do any further interviews for the BBC, sending his assistants instead. The Premier League changed its rules in such a manner that it appeared would force Ferguson to fulfil such media obligations. Ferguson’s non-compliance continued, with Manchester United stating that they would cover any fines incurred under the new rules. It took a personal visit from the BBC’s Director General before Ferguson finally ended the boycott.
Following the sacking of his son Darren, as manager of Preston North End, Ferguson recalled three Manchester United players who had been on loan there. Ferguson explained this away as being at the players’ own requests. It is interesting to note that shortly afterwards then Stoke City manager Tony Pulis also recalled, two former Manchester United players who had been on loan there.
As everyone is aware Ferguson has now retired but who is there to fill this role. Paolo Di Canio is certainly an eccentric character with a fiery temperament, likely to be good for some entertainment; however he has yet to prove he has the managerial talent to allow some of the audacious behaviour exhibited by the greats. Sunderland are also not in the same bracket as the Manchester United’s of this world. Di Canio has also had a tumultuous ride in beginning his Sunderland career, with several public fall-outs with players and resultantly with the PFA – something of a hangover from his Swindon Town days.
The anticipated return of Mourinho, to Chelsea, is exactly what the Premier League’s doctor ordered. One wonders if Mourinho and Ferguson feel somewhat regretful not to have been locking horns once again. A last season of these two men and all of the bluster, mind-games and bravado that accompany them would have been a fascinating prospect for neutral observers.
In many ways Mourinho is not dissimilar to Ferguson. People tend to either love him or hate him; he can appear outwardly arrogant, with ability in abundance to back it up, and a seeming belief that the rules are there to be at least tested. For those who missed his quote, when his Real side won the Spanish title in 2012, Jose Mourinho is no longer ‘The Special One’.
“I am the only one who won the three most important leagues. So, maybe instead of calling me the ‘Special One’, people should call me the ‘Only One’”.
Mourinho was once described, by Volker Roth, an advisor to UEFA on referees as “an enemy of football”. One suspects that amongst the particular brand of manager under discussion this title might be something of a badge of honour. The comment was made in relation to a 2005 Champions League game between Chelsea and Barcelona. Mourinho claimed that referee Anders Frisk and then Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard held a meeting at half-time which would amount to a breach of the rules. The suggestion was that this had influenced Frisk’s decision to send off Didier Drogba. Frisk received death threats over the events and retired from refereeing. The same year, Mourinho was fined for his role in the ‘tapping-up’ scandal regarding Ashley Cole’s transfer from Arsenal to Chelsea. Mourinho also almost found himself in court, for referring to the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger as ‘voyeur’ over the latter’s supposed infatuation with Chelsea.
Mourinho is always quick to find a way to turn a controversial situation to his own advantage. In 2010 a further controversy surrounded Inter Milan’s 3-1 victory over Barcelona. Media allegations abounded that Mourinho and Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca were old friends, and in fact owned a restaurant together – a point refuted by Mourinho. Swift as ever to turn the tables, Mourinho responded, in relation to Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo’s decisions during a Champion’s League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona a year earlier, wryly suggesting, “Maybe Pep [Guardiola] has a restaurant in Oslo?”
The truth is that whatever one’s natural reaction is to this kind of manager, the main reason they get away with this kind of behaviour on the level that they do is because they are successful. There is no way that Manchester United, or any other club, would be prepared to cover a fine for non fulfilment of media obligations –knowing full well it would be a weekly occurrence – if they did not believe it was worth their while. Such managers might not always be popular with opposing fans but by the same token a lot of people would love to have such a manager at their own football club.
Quite aside from any such considerations, for the neutral, it is this type of character that keeps football interesting. Whether because you love them or love to hate them, this is the kind of manager whose press conferences and interviews all of football wants to see. With Sir Alex Ferguson retiring, nothing could be better for the English Premier League than the return of Jose Mourinho. It looks increasingly like an inevitability and I for one would welcome him back to any Premier League club with open arms.