Spare a Thought for the Special One
An obituary for Jose Mourinho.
Illustration: Dan Evans
It’s strange that, in a footballing week so defined by him, Jose Mourinho has spent so much of it being compared to other people. Most understandably, he has been compared to his direct predecessors, to Louis van Gaal, Sir David Moyes and Alex Ferguson, as well as to Poch, Pep and Klopp, his most damaging Big 6 competitors. More creatively, he’s been likened to permanently peeved parvenu emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, punchline meme Rick Astley and of course Alan Partridge, mainly for that 895-night, £537,000 spell in the Presidential suite at Manchester's Lowry Hotel, but also for the persuasive impression he’s been doing for months now of a middle-aged man fighting a losing battle against futility as his prime disappears in the Lexus rear-view. Perhaps most poignantly of all, he’s been compared to the Jose Mourinho that Jose Mourinho himself used to be: cocksure, bright, permanently up-for-battle, somehow louche and sharp at the same time, the kind of guy who’d steal your wife for the night then make off with your best suit before breakfast.
It’s always tempting to reach for this kind of cultural shorthand when something massive happens, as though you’re trying to make sense of the new reality unfurling itself in front of you by boxing it in with any number of parallel realities, invoking things that aren’t to define what is. It’s a lot harder to set all the Twitter similes and group-chat gags aside in order to grapple with the idea of what life must be like when you’re the lone human man at the centre of that storm, the decapitated lion tamer of the Premier League big top, an incinerated lightning rod for the vicarious hopes and fears of, I don’t know, let’s say somewhere around 430 million die-hard fans?
Four hundred and thirty-one million, then, as well as the odd 228 million more who’d modestly describe their love for Manchester United Football Club as something that might just be able to evade the sweet embrace of death.
Six hundred and fifty-nine million people. That’s a lot to be keeping happy, and of course this is the overriding reason why “man loses job” feels, in this instance, so epochal; the dizzying sense of scale, the fact that the number of people claiming to be Man United fans dwarfs the population of every country on Earth beyond India and China. Even if the numbers from that 2013 study are wrong – and who are you or I to doubt "Kantar media"? – the fact remains that Manchester United have an unfathomably large fanbase. Pretty much everyone within that fanbase has been used to getting what they want. To see them not get what they want, if only for a brief period, is inherently very funny, like watching the grand firework finale at a spoilt kids’ birthday party keel over and all the presents getting set on fire. For a while now, Jose Mourinho has been the hired entertainer at the biggest spoilt kids’ party there is, and his silly balloon animals have been making everyone cry.
In the end, Mourinho paid the ultimate price for transforming Manchester United into the biggest schadenfreude merchants on the planet, a near-guaranteed source of weekly mirth for a world giggling behind an infinite number of screens. In a sense, it feels like his sacking was the purest expression yet of what football – or English football, at least – is now: an ongoing victory parade for relentless off-field narrative, for the brutality of rumour and spin, and mostly for a very public kind of petty nastiness and playground cruelty that still clings to the Premier League’s atmosphere like a fine acid rain. The irony, of course, is that Mourinho was the first boss to really master these elements of the modern game to such an extent that they came to define his identity, a man who seemed to spend his glory years entering an endless succession of swooning, camera-filled rooms with an evil grimace and the phrase “dark arts” just a few paces behind him.
Even then, your instincts told you that one day there would have to be an end to all this, not just because every elite manager has his own finite shelf life, but because how long can any man run on a fuel of sadism before blowing up, really? There’s nothing as ridiculous as an angry tyrant surrounded by laughter. By the end, Mourinho himself seemed to realise that he was running on fumes, to be caught up in his own private mission for self-destruction, an iconoclast who finally turned the gun on himself. The problem with painting yourself as all-powerful, as somehow more than human, is that when it all goes tits up, people don’t tend to feel much in the way of empathy.
Already, the world has moved on, has started to manoeuvre the garlands and gallows into place for Ole Gunnar Solksjær, the kissed Presidential baby of Ferguson’s glorious statesman years who grew up to be the perfect unity candidate for a board happy enough to just put someone between them and the fans who it would be incredibly hard to hate. If the Norwegian feels very much like an inward-facing appointment, one that doesn’t speak as loudly as Mourinho did to the world at large, then at least we have a new kind of Mourinho analogue in the form of the Gatwick drone, something busy humiliating authority figures and causing huge amounts of grief to those with a vested interest while everyone else looks on, making jokes and taking the piss.
Still, it’s hard not to return to that earlier question, to wonder what it must be like to be the lone individual in the eye of all that noise, to have so much data and ire and glee dedicated to your public fall from grace. Perhaps it’s even worth sparing a thought or a prayer for Jose this Christmas – a multi-millionaire, yes, but one who must still be feeling it a bit as the narratives swirl and the accusations and leaks mount up, as his legacy is contorted in the casket to fit the agenda of players seeking a starting place, agents seeking a payday, execs seeking absolution, hacks seeking clicks, laughing boys seeking retweets and a Premier League seeking anything but that which it must never allow itself to become: dull, defused, deathly and impermissibly static.