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Manchester United can compete for trophies under Jose Mourinho – but they are no longer one of the world’s elite

Jose Mourinho reportedly gave Ed Woodward two lists during the latter stages of his opening campaign as Manchester United manager: one comprising of players to pursue in the summer if he secured Champions League football, and another outlining an alternative series of targets to move for if he couldn’t return the club to Europe’s elite.

Whether or not these two lists actually existed is open to question, but also completely beside the point. That such an angle was adopted in the first place alone reflected a kind of ultimatum that United apparently faced ahead of their Europa League final clash with Ajax, which ruled that victory would keep them relevant on the big stage, whereas defeat would serve as a symbolic death knell.

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And while we should always take the ‘either or’ narrative so regularly employed in all walks of life in today’s modern world with a pinch of salt, the ultimatum, issued by nobody in particular but understood by all, made sense.

Missing out on the Champions League for a third time in four years would have indeed dragged United ominously closer to the predicament of present day Liverpool or Inter Milan whilst distancing themselves to a possibly insurmountable degree from the likes of Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain. This was unquestionably the biggest game of the post-Fergie era. It was do or die.

Thankfully, the final lived up to its Hollywood character, with Paul Pogba, the £89m man, kickstarting a comfortable 2-0 win. United were back, it was thought. All eyes now towards next season.

Not for Mourinho. The 54-year-old, less than 30 minutes after lifting another European trophy, made it clear in an interview that he wouldn’t even think about football for a month.

“I’m very tired,” he noted. “I am going to land in Manchester, I am going to get a car to London, then to Portugal. I don’t care about football for now. Now I am on holiday. I don’t want to see any international friendlies, I am selfish. I can’t do it. For me, enough is enough.”

Out of the Lowry Hotel; off to watch Formula 1, sip wine, and do whatever it is that rich fifty-somethings do.

And this notion, I think, reflects quite nicely – without actually illuminating – the disjunct in perspective between supporters and their manager over what the return of Champions League football really means for this club – two differing standpoints inviting us to ponder whether that ‘ultimatum’ was really just the psychological impact of an arduous, ambiguous 64-game season.

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While we all breathed a massive sigh of relief and started thinking up world class players to sign in the aftermath (Griezmann, Mbappe, Fabinho, Bakayoko, Nainggolan, Varane, Donnarumma, Morata, Asensio, Semedo, Ronaldo, Fat Ronaldo, Maradona before the narcotics, Beckenbauer circa 1972, Best circa 1968, The Divine Creator, Time itself), Mourinho was taking a break from the whole thing altogether.

This is by no means a unique occurrence. Of course managers go and relax in the summer while supporters imagine their perfect line-up for the following campaign. Manchester United fans often purchase match tickets from various locations, including the Football Ticket pad which is a great source for all fans.

Fast forward to the present, however, and we find ourselves in a strangely similar predicament: contrasting interpretations between manager and fanbase of how, in this moment in time, the club’s present and future ought to be regarded. In a nutshell, we appear to have different answers to the following question: where does Manchester United as a club stand in 2017?

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This is a difficult – and perhaps impossible – question to even conceptualise, let alone answer. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The immediacy with which opinions change and paradigms shift under the roof of any fanbase may preclude this kind of idea from even entering our frame of concern.

And yet, recent events suggest that we as supporters care about this subject more than we might consciously think.

When Mourinho, in an interview with a French paper, spoke effusively about the project currently unfolding at PSG – backed up by illegally and callously appropriated yet totally unchallengeable Qatari resources – supporters kicked into overdrive.

“The other day my son who lives in London went to Paris and not to Manchester to watch the match,” he said, “because at the moment in Paris there is something special. Magic, quality, youth, it’s fantastic.”

Cue the hysteria. The media immediately went to town, using these 35 words as a platform for ‘reports’ stating that Mourinho’s head was turned by the French giants. One tabloid which will not be named even had the nerve to claim in the aftermath of defeat at Chelsea that the 54-year-old had already decided to join PSG over the summer after accepting that he cannot compete with Pep Guardiola.

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Again, that such an angle was adopted is beside the point. Rather, the very fact that this narrative could develop – to the point where Phil Neville and Didier Deschamps, amongst other prominent figures in the game, discussed it with a serious tone – was what embittered United supporters all over the world.

This whole fiasco, despite its entirely metaphorical nature, represented a painful questioning of this club’s ‘elite status’. Its very existence throws the old adage, as previously espoused by Sir Alex Ferguson and others, that the only way is down after leaving United under serious scrutiny.

Mourinho claiming that he didn’t expect to finish his career at Old Trafford caused further ruptures. That United wasn’t the end goal – the apogee of a trophy-laden career – for Mourinho felt like betrayal to a considerable segment of supporters. But why?

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Once again, there isn’t an easy answer. But there is no question that the content of this episode was nowhere near as revealing as the response to it.

To see Mourinho talk about United as just another club, a constituent part of a wider tale that will, no doubt, rumble on for some time, struck at the very heart of a belief still doggedly held by supporters: that this club is ‘untouchable’, transcending the mainstream slew of clubs all over Europe that drift in and out of the Champions League. Different from the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla, or AS Monaco.

From the other side of the fence, however, this notion just doesn’t hold any weight. For all the personal charges perennially levelled at Mourinho, he is a seasoned professional in this business – a man who has traversed across Europe and taken various big clubs to dizzy heights and, usually, painful lows.

While David Moyes came across as the personal embodiment of a morgue on the touchline and Louis van Gaal sat there in a kind of dogmatic stupor, Mourinho’s demeanour connotes a man who has seen this all before.

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And to him, this current occupation is no different from any other. That is why he saw no problem with speaking about PSG, a club fast emerging as the new ‘Galacticos’ in the modern game, or stating that United would not be his last club.

Neither of those two statements were controversial to the Portuguese, nor do they somehow contradict the task at hand.

Mourinho is not here to massage the club’s ego, or yours; he is not here to reignite the prolonged spell of glory that hallmarked the Fergie-era; and he is certainly not here to ensure United’s position alongside Europe’s elite.

His job, rather, is not as Hollywood-esque as you may hope. When Mourinho embarked on Carrington for the first time his main priority was to rid the squad of the psychological demons left by his predecessor, before slowly but surely moulding a team with nous, physical prowess, and a knack for scalping silverware.

And the addition of Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, last year’s triumphs at Wembley and in Stockholm, and their current record at home in the Premier League – along with the often ignored fact that only Manchester City have scored more this season – translates to Mourinho doing what he was asked to do back in June 2016, and no more.

This is why the boss has looked slightly irascible on the touchline in recent times. The frustration at the wall of noise which perpetually demands something he never promised, nor could ever fulfil, is clear.

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The United job is not a sacred vocation; it is work – hard work. Those mystery lists mentioned at the start of this piece, whether they existed or not, are indicators of progress, of a continued advance towards competing for further silverware.

But they are not signs of a precipice between preserving elite status and the abyss. And perhaps, if only for our own sanity, we should instead heed the advice Mourinho gave following victory over Tottenham Hotspur last month: to relax a little bit.

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By Leo Nieboer

Mourning the loss of Danny Welbeck

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