When Jose Mourinho arrived in England in 2004, the Premier League was a very different place. After two league titles, two League Cups and an FA Cup, the Portuguese coach departed Stamford Bridge for the first time, while the fans of the west London club pined for six years until he eventually returned.
In that time, it wasn’t as though Chelsea were having it rough, but one League title and three FA Cups would, perhaps, look like a fairly lean period were it not for a Champions League victory in 2012, or the Europa League triumph the year later.
Maybe that’s part of why Mourinho returned a hero.
Before the former Porto coach arrived at Chelsea, they were just making their way as a force in European football. They’d made a semi-final of the Champions League under Claudio Ranieri, and before that even won the Cup Winners’ Cup under Gianluca Vialli, but after Mourinho, they’d come of age. Everyone knew who Chelsea were.
Once he’d left, however, Mourinho was the symbol of how the club had matured and become that force, but there was, perhaps, also some worry over whether or not Chelsea were just as capable of standing on their own two feet: Mourinho had removed the stabilisers, but although Avram Grant took the club to a Champions League final, it was clear he wasn’t a long-term solution. If Chelsea looked like they were pedalling freely of their own accord, perhaps was it just a temporary case of beginner’s luck before they’d come crashing back to Earth.
The difficulty for Chelsea has been finding a manager with the ability to give the club an identity beyond just being a team that wins things. It’s the same thing that Manchester City have struggled with in recent years, but the style of football that Pep Guardiola is playing will surely take them a step closer to having that even after he leaves, bestowing upon the club a legacy in a way that Jose Mourinho never managed to achieve at Stamford Bridge. At least, aside from creating club legends who have since left or retired.
For Mourinho, though, he went from strength to strength. An unprecedented treble with Inter Milan was his next big achievement, bringing three trophies to an Italian club for the first time ever: not just a first for the club, but for the entire country.
He then took charge of Real Madrid, charged with stopping the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona much in the same way you feel he’ll have to do this season in Manchester.
His abrasive style followed him wherever he went, but that’s what makes Mourinho Mourinho, and without that we wouldn’t have the soap opera that seems to follow him around.
Perhaps one of the things that follows the Portuguese coach around is the idea that whatever he says must come imbued with an ulterior motive – that he is not to be taken at face value, but rather to be first frisked for mind games.
The same was true when he returned to Chelsea in 2013. Announcing himself as ‘The Happy One’ in reference to the ‘Special One’ tag he gave himself nine years earlier, he also told the world that he wasn’t returning home just to settle and retire, that his experiences as a winner in other leagues around Europe had given him a perspective that he never had when he came to the Premier League the first time around.
“I am coming with the exact opposite perspective,” he said, probably holding in mind the pain he felt at having his fingers burnt so badly at Real Madrid, when he left the club in a haze of toxic spew, making enemies at a rate that not even Jose Mourinho must be used to. This time, he felt, it was to be different. He was older and wiser, after all.
Rarely, though, has he been so right.
If Mourinho returned to a stadium where he’d been successful and where the fans loved him, when he returns on Sunday evening that certainly won’t be the case. This time, he will see it from the opposite perspective. Just like he did a year ago, when his first return to Stamford Bridge since his sacking in December 2015 ended in a humiliating 4-0 defeat.
Since his departure in 2007, Mourinho has been back to Stamford Bridge and, indeed, been on the end of failure, humiliation and acrimony. He may have left a hero back then, but this time it’s the opposite.
But he was also right about something else, too. This isn’t the same Mourinho that arrived in England in 2004 so cocksure and irresistible with impeccable hair and shirt sleeves. This is often a wizened Mourinho, embittered by his last two jobs and under pressure to deliver a style of football he never had to do at Chelsea or Inter.
And as a result, this isn’t the same Chelsea, nor is it the same United. This is no longer a Chelsea hoping Mourinho would one day come back. Nor is it a Manchester United who can perpetuate the legend of the swashbuckling adventurers who took on the world under Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson.
And so whatever Mourinho was right about or wrong about in the 13 years since he arrived in England, he’s certainly changed the face of football as we know it: and some of the very biggest institutions within it.