Jose Mourinho arrived back at Stamford Bridge in 2012 and immediately declared himself ‘The Happy One’.
That was four years ago, but since then the happiness has pretty much been wiped away.
What looked like a fairytale end to Mourinho’s managerial career at a chic west London football club which perfectly suited his personality and celebrity turned sour after a title-winning season, just when everything looked so rosy. Both Chelsea and Mourinho occupy very different moods now.
Coincidentally, Mourinho’s return to the English game came in the same summer as Alex Ferguson’s retirement. It would be wrong to paint Manchester United and their Portuguese manager as star-crossed lovers, paired by the synchronisation of their separate declines, holding hands as they both jumped off a cliff. After all, Mourinho was winning a league title around the same time as Louis van Gaal was fending off accusations of being a long ball merchant. But there seems to be something so mutual in their current low points.
For one thing, neither Mourinho nor Manchester United are supposed to be anywhere near the Europa League, let alone banking on the competition to provide them with something they can package as a successful season.
Mourinho’s first Chelsea spell ended with a 1-1 draw with Rosenborg in a Champions League group stage game. His first European game upon his return to the club was the European Super Cup, which ended in a penalty shoot-out defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.
If the Super Cup wasn’t important, though, its meaning was. Chelsea took part only because they’d won the Europa League the previous season. It wasn’t a competition Mourinho felt he should have been taking part in that year. Not unless Chelsea had won the Champions League.
“I don’t want to win the Europa League. It would be a big disappointment for me. I don’t want my players to feel the Europa League is our competition.”
His quotes on the subject matter – stating his disdain for the competition – look rather strange now in light of his current role at Manchester United, and his present feelings on the merit of the tournament.
But there is one caveat: Mourinho took over at Chelsea from an interim boss who happened to be one of his biggest rivals in football, Rafael Benitez.
Chelsea seem to flourish under caretaker managers. Sacking coaches and replacing them with interim managers seems to bring success – the FA Cup won under Guus Hiddink, the Champions League under Roberto Di Matteo and the Europa League under Rafael Benitez spring to mind – but Mourinho’s feud with Benitez is probably what prompted the Portuguese manager to belittle the achievement. He went beyond saying that Chelsea should not have been in that position in the first place, he made it clear that he felt that actually winning it – and therefore taking it seriously – was an even bigger disappointment.
Now at United, it’s impossible to look at such a statement and wonder what to think of it. Does it show how far Mourinho has fallen from the grace of titles won across Europe in the last decade? Does it show just how far United themselves have fallen from their own glory days under Ferguson? Does it show that Mourinho simply wasn’t serious four years ago when he was flinging jibes at Benitez? Does it even show that UEFA have succeeded in making the competition relevant again by adding a Champions League place to the winner’s prize?
The reality is that it probably shows bits of all of that. Certainly, the Europa League is on the radar for United mostly because of the Champions League spot it offers. But the fact is that, with two games still to play in the Premier League, Manchester United are settling for defeat so they can field their strongest side in Europe’s second tier competition. That’s a sharp decline in the space of four years for a club that has won more English titles than anyone else, and won the Champions League / European Cup three times. It’s also a decline presided over by one of the greatest managers in modern football.
And yet, as bad as the first half of the quote looks (“I don’t want to win the Europa League. It would be a big disappointment for me”), the second half might just clarify something. Mourinho goes on to say “I don’t want my players to feel the Europa League is our competition,” and if they emerge victorious from the final next week, it won’t be their competition at all.
But at this point, It’s hard to buy the notion that this Manchester United will come close to a return to their glory days any time soon. Whilst it feels obvious that Mourinho will spend money this summer, fashioning a side which improves next season, it doesn’t feel like they’ll be able to reach the very top again for quite a while.
Back in 2013, both Jose Mourinho and Manchester United could look on competitions like the Europa League with disdain because their own positions seemed so secure. Four years later, perhaps their scramble to win the competition is a sign that the struggle to return to the top is harder than it looks, both for manager and club.
And yet, four years since Chelsea beat Benfica in the Europa League final, the club are back at the top of the English game, having won two of the last four Premier League titles.
Maybe, in the end, Mourinho did his job: the Europa League isn’t Chelsea’s competition, and if United beat Ajax next week, it won’t be theirs for very long either.