Few press conferences have sent shockwaves through British football quite like Jose Mourinho’s inaugural address as Chelsea manager. Unshaven and unbuttoned yet smart and stylish, the Portuguese immediately stood out as a different breed of manager.
In a country as awkwardly polite and cautious and Britain, and in a league that had just crowned its first ever undefeated champions after years of dominance from Manchester United, it was an exceptionally daring move. While the initial reaction was to criticise the clear arrogance of a man who had just declared himself ‘The Special One’ in front of thousands of cameras, most found it hard not to buy into Mourinho’s infectiously dynamic personality.
The only problem, though, was that Mourinho was yet to back it up. He may have just lifted the Champions League title with FC Porto, a stunning underdog achievement, but the Portuguese lacked the longevity to be truly considered part of world football’s managerial elite. He lacked Premier League experience too, and Chelsea, albeit vastly enriched by Roman Abramovich’s financial backing, hadn’t won a top flight title for precisely 50 years.
For the illusion of Mourinho being a gifted, special and seemingly invincible managerial force to remain intact long enough to take a life of its own and seep into the minds of his players, his fans and his rivals, Chelsea’s new boss would have to deliver instantaneously. Incredibly though, that’s exactly what he did.
There can be no ruder awakening in English football than facing Manchester United in your first Premier League game. Back at the start of the 2004/05 season, the Red Devils weren’t the all-conquering force of a few years prior. Their starting XI on the opening day of the season was evidence enough; John O’Shea and Roy Keane partnered at centre-back, Quinton Fortune, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Liam Miller in midfield and the line lead by Alan Smith. It was not a stellar United side.
Nonetheless, the psychological impact of a Chelsea victory for both the club and their manager was obvious; the new force in English football, lead by Mourinho and backed by Abramovich, beating the almost untouchable powerhouse of the early Premier League era. It wouldn’t just provide a perfect start to a new, unpredictable chapter in Chelsea’s history, but also strike fear into the hearts of their title rivals and validate Mourinho’s audacious claims of being something uniquely special.
And Mourinho went about achieving it in the manner his career has become synonymous with. It would be wrong to label it an attritional performance in the same way we saw from his United side at Anfield a few weeks ago, but after scoring in the 15th minute when Eidur Gudjohnsen latched onto Didier Drogba’s flick-on and poked the ball past Tim Howard, it instantly became a game of rare clear chances.
A Frank Lampard free kick fizzed wide, Geremi’s direct dribbling created a handful of counter-attacks, Alexi Smertin almost played in Drogba and the former England midfielder in separate instances, but Chelsea rarely tested Howard throughout the ninety minutes. Mourinho even took the precautionary step of subbing on a defensive midfielder in Scott Parker for Gudjohnsen and a centre-back in Ricardo Carvalho for Geremi to see the game out. United, meanwhile, huffed and puffed, but couldn’t break the Blues down.
It may have been just the first step in a Chelsea career that has seen Mourinho lift three Premier League titles, three League Cups and an FA Cup, but it was a vitally important one. Defeat would have immediately contradicted his brash, audacious claims by falling at the first hurdle, but victory helped create the Special One myth that would remain largely intact until his incredibly testing spell as Real Madrid manager ended almost a decade later. Pivotally too, it gave English football a first insight into the methodology behind it – the right result against important rivals in the most crucial games by whatever means possible. Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United was the first step of the Mourinho masterplan.