A lot has clearly changed since the time, a decade ago now, when José Mourinho cited safety reasons in response to the question of why, after leaving Chelsea, he had not been back to Stamford Bridge to say goodbye to the fans. Mourinho imagined a stampede of people flocking to his feet and his reply fitted in neatly with the impression of someone who would talk eloquently on any subject, as long as that subject was himself. “Just imagine if I did,” he said. “I would die in the crush out in the middle of the pitch.”
Ten years on, the relationship feels very different now, broken even, judging by the vitriol that was reserved for Mourinho on his last trip to Stamford Bridge. No doubt there will be more of the same from the away corner at Old Trafford on Sunday and perhaps it is just inevitable given the nature of the man and the trait he shares with Sir Alex Ferguson: an almost compulsive need for conflict.
The problem for Mourinho is that the latest target for his antipathy has outdone him all season and is almost certainly going to have the final, decisive say by winning the league with something to spare. Mourinho’s resentment of Antonio Conte seems based on professional jealousies, maybe even a little insecurity, and we should know enough about Manchester United’s manager by now to realise how important it is to him to undermine anyone who is impertinent enough to get the better of him.
Most recently, there has been his observation that Conte has disregarded the younger players at Stamford Bridge, one of the allegations that was often directed towards Mourinho during his two spells at the club. It was the same when he started chipping away about Chelsea being a more defensive team under his replacement and, Mourinho being Mourinho, it was difficult not to be suspicious he was scheming again, and actually referring to himself, when he launched into that long diatribe about Claudio Ranieri’s sacking and – oh, hello – how dreadful it was for a once-in-a-lifetime manager to be let down by treacherous, ungrateful players. Chelsea’s supporters know all about Mourinho’s tricks. They probably cannot be blamed if they are now looking at their former manager through suspicious eyes.
All the same, it still felt slightly incongruous and a little shocking to be in close proximity to the away dugout and hear the former idol being branded a Judas, and worse, during his team’s FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge last month. Mourinho held up three fingers, one for each of the titles he won for Chelsea, and turned to face the supporters behind the dugout. They were on their feet, screaming abuse, giving him the middle finger and other hand signs.
It was the heat of the battle, a fractious evening under the floodlights, and it would be wrong to assume the Kings Road is now a no-go zone for Mourinho, or that every last shred of gratitude for what he achieved at the club has disappeared in a puff of toxic smoke. But it did reiterate the suspicion that football people seem to be less tolerant, and quicker to turn, these days and the same thought has occurred a lot recently bearing in mind the vilification of Arsène Wenger and the escalating efforts of many Arsenal fans to use whatever necessary – insults, hostility, disrespect – to depose a manager they once regarded with respect, affection and reverence.
Yes, they are entitled to think Wenger should go when there is the overwhelming suspicion he is now part of the problem, rather than the solution. His decision-making has been undermined by his own blind spots, there is no sign of it getting any better and it currently feels as if the entire sport is rubbernecking in his direction.
Yet all that applied in Brian Clough’s last 18 months at Nottingham Forest, the period when he was drinking to excess and a bona fide football genius was red and pock-marked, with the alcohol badly impairing his judgment. It finished with his team being relegated but there were never any chants of: “Clough out” or: “We want you to go”. Nobody held up protest banners demanding he should be escorted off the premises. The fanzines of the day expressed concern without any hint of mutiny or malice and there was none of the abuse that can be heard on any of the bad days at Arsenal when, if you remember the old Harry Enfield character, it can suddenly feel like being surrounded by a small army of Angry Franks, all apparently believing Wenger wants to stop Hula Hoops being round.
Football has always been a place of fury and din. There will always be eruptions of temper and it is actually part of the strange, addictive charm that, as Arthur Hopcraft once wrote, football crowds are “never going to sound or look like the hat parade on the club lawns of Cheltenham racecourse”. But what has caused that shift in culture?
Sir Alex Ferguson’s theory – an unorthodox one, granted – used to be that television shows such as The X Factor and Dancing on Ice had made it worse because of the tendency, under the name of entertainment, for the people taking part to be ripped to shreds. “We have a mocking situation in this country now,” Ferguson said. “You see it on all these TV shows where the panellists criticise the contestants. It’s a mocking culture we’ve got so when they [football supporters] see that [on television] they mock the manager, they ridicule him. It’s hard to take. It’s very wrong and makes it very, very difficult.”
Those comments, from 2007, did not attract a huge amount of sympathy at the time – Ferguson was trying to defend Steve McClaren’s performance as England manager – but perhaps it was not such an eccentric suggestion, after all. Millions of people watch those shows and it says something when Ferguson, with all his hard edges, is uncomfortable about the put-downs. “You sound like someone who should be singing on a cruise ship,” Simon Cowell once told an X Factor contestant who had just murdered Touch Me in the Morning by Diana Ross. “Halfway through the song, I imagined the ship sinking.” Well, at least it had some originality compared to some of the stuff Wenger has heard.
The explosion of social media – another phenomenon Ferguson intensely disliked – has also contributed but, whatever the reasons, it would be a shame if Chelsea’s supporters were always now to regard Mourinho as a mortal enemy and the relationship was to become even more embittered when, together, they once shared so many joys.
For that to be avoided, however, it probably requires Mourinho to act with a little more restraint and unfortunately that is not always his strong point. With Mourinho, it is easy to be cynical. When he praises United’s supporters as the best around, it can feel like a line partly for the benefit of his old club. When he chips away about certain teams being “on holiday”, namely the ones who have not been weighed down by midweek assignments in Europe, it is Chelsea, for the most part, he means.
And on and on. He knows what he is doing and Conte’s rage on the touchline at Stamford Bridge last month probably shows it has been irritating the Chelsea manager more than he lets on. That is precisely what Mourinho wants and it is why, in all likelihood, it is far easier to imagine the new enmity getting worse rather than better.
Why no voting surge for Agüero?
Sergio Agüero has spent so long this season trying to earn the full approval of Pep Guardiola, at one point being dropped from Manchester City’s team to accommodate Gabriel Jesus, nobody was too worked up by the fact that, once again, he missed out on the Professional Footballers’ Association player‑of‑the‑year shortlist.
This is Agüero’s sixth season at City and there is a remarkable statistic that by scoring at Southampton on Saturday he has 165 goals, one more than Didier Drogba managed for Chelsea – and has played 134 fewer games than the Ivorian. Agüero is one away from joining Tommy Johnson as the second highest scorer in City’s history and 12 short of the club record, set by Eric Brook from 1927 to 1940.
Yet there has been only one occasion, in 2012, when the PFA has deemed Agüero worthy of a place on its shortlist and, even more surprisingly, he has never made it on to the team of the year despite scoring, on average, 27 times every season.
Agüero also made it on to the shortlist for young player of the year in 2012 but the vote was held so ludicrously early he finished behind Kyle Walker of Tottenham before, three weeks later, scoring the 94th-minute winner against QPR that won the championship – with his 30th goal of the season.
Even this season, when Guardiola’s occasional dissatisfaction has placed Agüero’s future in doubt, the Argentinian had scored more goals in all competitions, 28, at the time the shortlist was announced than three of the forwards who did make it – Romelu Lukaku (24), Harry Kane (24) and Alexis Sánchez (22) – and the same number as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, despite playing five fewer games.
True, Agüero has not always looked as lethal as in previous seasons but it isn’t easy to understand how a player with his record is overlooked so often and it does leave the impression that some of his fellow pros simply take his expertise for granted.
Rowett soars off Zola’s slump
If we are going to be generous, the fact some Birmingham City players had to be stopped from confronting one another after their last game does, using the popular cop-out whenever there are on-pitch arguments between team-mates, show they care.
Alternatively, it also shows a club in chaos. Birmingham were seventh when Gary Rowett was sacked in December. They are now 19th, having won two out of the following 23 games under the popular, amiable yet wholly inadequate Gianfranco Zola and, though it might not have felt this way at the time, it is probably the best thing that could ever have happened to Rowett, reputation‑wise. His Derby side lost 4-0 at Brentford on Friday but Rowett, almost by default, has been made to look like a genius bearing in mind the meltdown at St Andrew’s since he left.
At the time Trillion Trophy Asia, Birmingham’s Chinese owners, said the decision to bring in Zola had been taken “with a strategic, long-term view and with the club’s best interests at heart”. It always looked illogical and, four months on, that is even more the case now a team previously vying for the play-offs have fallen within four points of the bottom three.
Birmingham’s 1-1 draw with an already relegated Rotherham on Friday made Zola’s team the first side since February to be incapable of beating the Championship’s wooden-spoon club. It is difficult to see any way he can survive but, when the inevitable happens, how can Birmingham’s supporters trust the club’s owners to get it right next time?