The Return of José, English Football's Maddest Bastard

Hello darkness, my old friend.
jose mourinho booed
Photo: Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

Can you feel it, the sudden temperature drop? The shaking earth, the rattling cups. The hordes of rats fleeing the sewers and the screaming birds casting a shadow across the city.

The darkening violet skies above Spurs' training ground on Wednesday evening seemed almost comical in their deference to pathetic fallacy, and to greeting a figure who can seem capable at times of designing the weather around him. Yes, he's back: English football's wickedest uncle, the sun swallower, the ghost that never sleeps, the walking, talking, scowling embodiment of an inky black sentiment that in the doldrum days of this collapsing kingdom never seems to be idle for long.


The first big story of this Premier League season erupted on Tuesday night as Mauricio Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham Hotspur, and then, within a matter of hours, José Mourinho was installed in his stead. The way people talk about Mourinho these days, you'd think he'd committed some unspeakable evil. People seem edgy just discussing him, other pundits shift a little in his presence, as if he were the kind of man whose last few wives had disappeared in mysterious circumstances, or who'd once pulled a gun at a car boot sale.

As it is, all he's ever been guilty of is taking two giants of the English game, delivering them a reasonable amount of success and then gaslighting them into surrendering tens of millions of pounds and their dignity. His experiences at Chelsea (twice) and then Manchester United are what propagate the idea that any pact you make with José is Faustian. He thrives for two years and, in the third, explodes; a deadly trip, a poisonous champion, a Captain Jonah who might steer the ship to the stars before bringing everyone crashing back down to Earth strapped to his ticking payload.

While the rest of the world shakes its head and shudders at the memory of whichever corrosive Mourinho tenure first springs to mind, it's the other part of this equation that Tottenham and Daniel Levy will be banking on. After five-and-a-half unforgettable yet inescapably trophy-less years under Mauricio Pochettino – years that may well prove transformative for the long-term trajectory of the club – there is only one way to understand the departure of the cherished Argentinean. And that is to acknowledge that Levy wanted to scratch the itch for a different type of glory, one that doesn't have the word "failure" attached to it. It is also proof that in the eyes of the footballing world at large, Mourinho is still – just about – seen as a winner.


Is Mourinho winning with Spurs a realistic concept? First of all, it decisively turns on its head the notion that Spurs are in this to make up the numbers, a club content with polite underdog continuity and stable mid-to-long term growth built on good vibes and sensible planning. Often, these kinds of switches in the prevailing narrative are in themselves enough to transform the mood around the club – if you've killed your dad for trophies, you better win the fucking trophies.

It won't have escaped his attention that, at Spurs, Mourinho has what could be the perfect materials to work with. He's always been a coach who's built his champion sides on the shoulders and backs of grizzled men, bearded and battle-hardened Proper Blokes who are willing to suffer, murder and die for their general – that famous Chelsea core, the treble-winning Inter side of Lúcio, Walter Samuel, Christian Chivu, Esteban Cambiasso and Diego Milito.

Mourinho won't find many of these ready-made veterans at Spurs, but what he does have in rare abundance is a clutch of extremely talented players heading into their late twenties with barely a significant trophy to their name. Christian Eriksen, Érik Lamela and Son Heung-Min are 27 years old. Ben Davies and Harry Kane are 26, Eric Dier 25. If Mourinho can somehow defuse the bomb inside his brain that seems to go off after three years in the same club environment, he has the nucleus there of a squad that could see him through the next half decade. And I mean, let's be realistic. He probably won't be able to defuse that bomb. But if there's one man to help these players transition from plucky challengers to grizzled legends, it probably is José.


The very first steps in this grooming process could be seen in footage shot at Hotspur Way on Wednesday afternoon, as Mourinho made the rounds of his new charges, stroking the players like a group of freshly adopted rescue dogs.

For Levy, this feels like a chance to turn the club's biggest current disadvantage – a clutch of valuable players approaching contractual freedom at an age where success becomes paramount – to his advantage. For Mourinho, it's the culmination of a long and indiscriminate wooing process, one that has taken in frequent scouting trips to Lille – from where he's raided new back-room staff Joao Sacramento and Nuno Santos – and the lining up of Arsenal as a patsy, using the plight of Unai Emery as a chance to flag his availability for work.

Even in the recent punditry sessions for Sky, alongside Messrs Souness, Keane and Redknapp, he's seemed to be touting for employment – the smartest alpha in the room, an archetype English chairmen are always prone to turn to as the nights draw in and the clocks go back.

For us, there is the return of a familiar face, a spider that lives at the centre of a web of lore and acidic narrative. The Premier League has for a while now been tiresomely short of bastards, while Gareth Southgate's national side vault their way into a sunlit era of multicultural camaraderie and world-beating tyro wing-play. You didn't think things would be this nice forever, did you? In English football, they never are, our shared national thirst for vengeance, cruelty and derision too adamant to keep wolves like Mourinho the right side of the cottage door for long.

For those whose day-to-day lives are bound up in the fortunes of the club, Mourinho: The Spurs Years are a punt that could lead in any conceivable direction. For everyone else, there's the oddly comforting sensation of darkness returning to its rightful place at the beating heart of the English game.