Following Manchester United’s defeat against Brighton last week, the club and manager have had a torrid time in the press. Jose Mourinho has been the target of plenty of criticism, from supporters and journalists alike, which reached its climax on Saturday morning in the newspapers.
He attended his weekly press conference on Friday afternoon and all of the charm he used to exhibit a decade and more ago had disappeared. He had the hump and wasn’t prepared to give the media any interesting sound bites ahead of United’s game against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday, following what had been written about him and the club. He kept it short and not so sweet, refusing to answer some questions and giving short answers others. Several newspapers this morning have led with this on their back pages.
Now, if this was a slow news day with nothing better to write about, maybe it would be more understandable, but considering the difficulties Hugo Lloris, captain of France’s World Cup winning side this summer, landed in yesterday, you might expect that to command the more column inches than a manager going to a press conference and not saying much.
Yet the reaction to the two incidents illustrates perfectly how fractured Mourinho’s relationship with the media has become.
When he first arrived in the Premier League as Chelsea manager in 2004, the way the press fawned over him was fairly sickening. His nickname, The Special One, was given to him by them after Mourinho answered a question to dismiss his supposed arrogance after arriving at Stamford Bridge on the back of winning the Champions League with underdogs Porto.
“Please don’t say I’m arrogant, because what I say is true,” he said. “I am European champion, so I’m not one from the bottle. I think I’m a special one.”
Notice he said “a” and not “the”. It was the media that embellished on his statement and singled him out as special.
He could do no wrong back then, with his bluntness being described as a “breath of fresh air” and his harsh treatment of players like Joe Cole, in his early 20s at the time, was more likely to be commended than berated. He was showing tough love to get the best out of his young players, which is something Cole later confirmed to be the case.
However, by the time he returned to Chelsea in 2014, his relationship with the media had started to sour. Some of his behaviour during his first stint had been questionable, from lying about Anders Frisk which led to his premature retirement and death threats, to publicly mocking Cristiano Ronaldo for being from a poor family and uneducated. This was largely swept under the carpet at the time though, so in awe were people of the outspoken, win at any costs manager.
Yet in the years away from the Premier League his poor behaviour continued, most notably when he stuck his thumb in Tito Vilanova’s eye on the touchline, and this hadn’t won him any friends upon his return.
He claimed he was The Happy One at his first press conference, but it wasn’t long before his own words were used against him by the press. Whenever he didn’t win, it was always someone else’s fault, and that became exhausting. The same complaints about the fixture lists, referees and his own players that were largely ignored first time around soon became a stick to beat him with.
After winning the title again with Chelsea in 2015, the satisfaction and enjoyment that so many took from Mourinho bombing just months later is evidence of how weary people had become.
No longer a breath of fresh air, rather someone stale and unwanted.
It wasn’t long before he returned, with United belatedly offering him a job he’d craved. The biggest club in the world and the most talked about manager were a toxic combination and were only ever going to court a ridiculous number of news stories.
Last season, sports writer Martin Samuel was brutally honest about this fact when speaking on Sunday Supplement: “Now, through the wonder of the internet, we know exactly what people read and unfortunately what we’ve discovered is what everyone reads is Manchester United. That’s all they want to read about,” he said. “You’ll never go poor if you fill your website with Manchester United stories. Whether that is also skewing the narrative in newspapers, as people become more aware, that clubs have got a pecking order.”
That’s not to say that Mourinho doesn’t deserve to receive negative press. His behaviour, tactics and treatment of players are all newsworthy and it makes sense that his flaws will be reported on. He can’t expect to be the star of the show when things are going his way then skulk into the shadows when they’re not. Yet the extent to which the criticism goes is off the scale, as we’ve witnessed most clearly in recent months.
In Mourinho’s first season at the club, United won two trophies, which is a decent return, even if they were the lesser valued League Cup and Europa League. Still, both finals provided supporters with plenty of memories and fans of any club should never be in a position to turn their nose up at silverware.
In his second season, United were beaten in the FA Cup final and finished second, their best position in the league since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Mourinho has had his issues in this time, from the boring style of football to his regular moans in interviews and unsavoury treatment of certain players. The club are a long way short of the glory that Ferguson provided and, while United have been outspent by rivals Manchester City, he’s been given plenty of money to make improvements and hasn’t made the most of them.
But United are still in a better position than they were in for quite some time.
When you consider that both Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have been in situ for longer than Mourinho and haven’t a single trophy to their names, it’s unfair that Mourinho receives the level of criticism he does while they’re lauded. Spurs have finished second on one occasion since the Argentinian was appointed while Liverpool’s highest finish under Klopp is fourth.
You’d never believe that based on the way the managers are discussed though, and this was a point that Mourinho made when addressing the media in his first press conference of this season.
“It’s difficult to believe that we finished second because you are capable of making people who finished second look like they’ve been relegated,” he complained, “and you’re capable of making people who won nothing and finished below us look like serial winners.”
Mourinho is not an innocent party or a victim. He toys with the media at times and is often calculated with what he has to say. He doesn’t always conduct himself well and is deserving of some criticism for the job he is doing. But surely we have to reach a point where we can agree enough is enough.
Imagine Klopp had attended the press conference this week, was grumpy and didn’t have much to say on a day when a United player had found himself in police cell ahead of a big game. Would Klopp’s face be splattered all over the back pages?
It’s safe to say that we all know the answer to that question.