On a cloudy London evening, three years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Manchester United fans remembered how to smile again.
It emerged in similar fashion to how the post-Fergie era started: abruptly, unexpectedly, and with a tint of surrealism. Jesse Lingard’s goal, a rip-roaring pile-driver that won United their first FA Cup in 12 years, was quickly followed by the news of Louis van Gaal’s departure and the imminent arrival of Jose Mourinho – Sir Alex’s ignored natural successor.
Three years of gloom was forgotten and dispelled in the space of about three hours. It was, from a personal point of view, all too much: an emotionally draining cup final, the realisation that Mourinho would finally – finally! – take charge of a club he was born to manage… after nine months of bitter ennui, this sudden sequence of events felt hypnagogic.
Realistically, only one man could ever take the reigns during the nascent stages of the post-Fergie wilderness. David Moyes was, well, David Moyes. And Van Gaal couldn’t – or simply wouldn’t – ever align with the club’s values. In his first press conference the Dutchman insisted that everybody would ‘sing from the same hymn sheet.’ A hymn sheet, in transpires, that nobody could make sense of.
No, United needed a man with a particular aura – a steely eyed, cold-blooded menace, coupled with an unshakeable arrogance in the pursuit of victory. A type of attitude that asks ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ the enemy would be battered into submission.
Mourinho’s appointment to the hottest seat in football resembles far more than an upgrade in personnel. Alongside the prospect of an improved style and mentality on the pitch, the arrival of the Portuguese borders on providential.
The platitude “match made in heaven” is an incessant feature in the rhetoric of football opinion, or romance in general. And, like most clichés, the label is rarely justified. Was Bale to Real Madrid really a match made in heaven? What about that new couple in your tutor group at school?
The answer is emphatically no. These match-ups are indeed usually glamorous – but pre-destined, on the cards for years, just inexplicably right?
Mourinho to United, however, is a special case. This union wasn’t arbitrarily formed in the heat of the moment. Indeed, both camps have been quietly flirting for years.
By 2010, two important things were happening in the world of football: supporters begun to grow weary of the fact that, one day, Sir Alex, the man who had made the Old Trafford hot-seat his own, would have to hang up his hat and wave a teary goodbye. The next thing involved Mourinho, who had just claimed his second Champions League triumph with Inter, and was swiftly off to the Bernabeu to scalp the dizzy heights of football some more.
It seemed like the fates of Mourinho and United would, after years of furious rivalry, eventually meet on the same tangent. This was Mourinho’s chance to take on the biggest managerial task in world football, and it was United’s chance to maintain its enduring obsession with both domestic and European domination, complimented this time around by the Portuguese’s cabaret of touchline chaos.
‘A match made in heaven’ doesn’t do it justice.
Three years later and the inevitable has happened. Jose is finally here. Three years overdue, perhaps, but this delay has only strengthened the feeling of fate.
In his first interview as United manager, Mourinho spoke about how he wanted to forget about the past three years at Old Trafford, and instead focus on restoring the glory days of yesteryear, and with Manchester United being favourites on Betfred to lift the Premier League trophy next season, who can blame him for wanting to restore those faithful days.
But Mourinho wasn’t just reflecting on United’s last three years. He too has encountered something of a downward spiral.
His second term at Chelsea terminated in mortification. And even in reaching a Champions League semi-final and another title success, the last three years of Mourinho’s managerial career have been somewhat muted in comparison to the years of blazing glory that came before. The glory days of record points totals and conquering Europe threaten to be a thing of the past.
And this is why such a union feels like the product of fate. Two fading giants of the game have the opportunity to come together in the pursuit of restoring each other’s status as world beaters.
This is, in many ways, a last chance for both Mourinho and United to resurrect their glorious pasts. Can it happen? Nobody can say.
But what can be guaranteed is a kind of romance and drama that has eluded Old Trafford for so many years. That famous siege mentality and ‘win at all costs’ approach, such a vital part of the club’s fabric, is back. With Mourinho, United return to their rightful place as the supreme objects of hatred, arrogant warriors both on and off the pitch in the quest for triumph.
United and Mourinho are back. Maybe not with the same swashbuckling success as years gone by. But make no mistake: this promises to be one hell of a ride, wherever it ends up.