Louis van Gaal learned of his end at Manchester United while sitting with the FA Cup in his lap, a detail that Jose Mourinho might want to consider should victory be his against Chelsea.
In his distilling of United’s tepid season Mourinho, contradictory as ever, sees second place in England’s most important domestic competition and reaching the last-two in the cup as both disappointing and qualified success, particularly the former, the highest position achieved since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson five years ago.
Winning the FA Cup would certainly maintain Mourinho’s glutinous habit of putting silverware on the table, and that is a tidy little niche, necessary even, or else what’s the point? But it is never sufficient when you are sitting in a chair once occupied by Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby.
Mourinho would know the truth of that were he to spend a little time with those who put their money where their heart is. Some members of the Milton Keynes branch of the United diaspora spent last Sunday in the company of former United players Nicky Butt and Norman Whiteside in one of Old Trafford’s executive boxes, a special treat to see out the season.
MORE HARM THAN GOOD
While they loved the association with former heroes and the craic around the table, they were less enamoured with the stuff on the pitch, a point made enthusiastically to yours truly and others on the train back to London after yet another anaemic performance. Mourinho, they argued, has done more harm to their club than either Van Gaal or David Moyes before him.
This view has echoes on social media and in the mainstream press. Sky pundit Jamie Redknapp reckons this is the dullest United team he can remember. “They finished second and could win the FA Cup but let’s face it, this is one of the most boring United teams,” Redknapp said. “They signed off the league season with a 1-0 win over Watford that was shown last on Match of the Day.”
Redknapp’s Sky colleague, Graeme Souness, turns pewse in delivery of his condemnation, wondering how long United fans can possibly put up with the aimless swill. Souness is a decent judge of the significance of the Old Trafford brand.
While a player at Liverpool he observed that if United were to ever get it right they would blow the bloody doors off the English game. In terms of scale and achievement they would be the English game, the club setting the agenda. He must have seen Ferguson looming in his tea leaves. Ferguson duly restored United’s lustre, reconnecting the club with the template laid down by Busby, and the Souness vision came to pass.
THE GUARDIOLA FACTOR
The requirement to recover that tradition is ever more pressing in the Pep Guardiola period, a coach shaping Manchester City into the team of the age. Indeed, it is Guardiola who has borrowed from the playbook of adventure and fancy more readily associated with United, and developed it into an even more compelling pageant.
Set against the iridescent City, Mourinho’s creation looks hopelessly out of date. For an answer to the blue rising we must look to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, which compounds the misery of United supporters still further, and ultimately condemns Mourinho’s hitherto supine effort. Mourinho cannot continue the mundane plod. Should he not initiate sweeping change in the summer, a cup win in May will mean zip in November, when the pressure on his tenure really will be on.
In the anti-Arsene Wenger years Mourinho labelled his Arsenal adversary an expert in failure for his inability to challenge in the league, mocked him for offering the FA Cup as desirable silverware in lieu of the big stuff. Now here Mourinho is occupying the same space in the lee of Guardiola and City, an expert in sweeping up trophies he scorned when he was the guru of the day.
The ground is also shifting beneath the feet of Antonio Conte, though the challenge at Chelsea is shaped by different factors. Roman Abramovich’s ownership transformed Chelsea into a super power overnight but he is a restless proprietor, intolerant of dissent and ruthless with the sword.
Of the 14 appointments - admittedly half were caretakers - in the 14-year Abramovich reign only Mourinho has served more than two years, first between 2004-07 and then between 2013-15. Conte would reach that landmark in July in the unlikely event he were to avoid the end forecast for him.
Set against the kaleidoscopic explosion of joy along the Guardiola/Klopp axis, Conte and Mourinho have been consistent malcontents. It is perhaps fitting that while City celebrate their record-breaking run to the Premier League title and Liverpool prepare to contest the Champions League final, the miserable brothers get to rumble over domestic scraps while claiming their march on Wembley as some kind of triumph.
The FA Cup still has a place in the English game. And for some clubs it would, indeed, represent a serious gain. But for institutions of the stature and wealth of these two, it is not cause for a celebratory bus ride through their neighbourhoods.
Conte was not appointed to build a dynasty, but to deliver immediately. This he did, but as Mourinho discovered in his second coming, even that offers no protection. In a sense a Chelsea manager is doomed to fail since the expectation is to win everything. Even Guardiola understands that can’t be done. It is therefore a matter of time before it ends early and in acrimony.
Conte’s title defence was characterised by moaning from the outset. Rumours he was done began as early as September. His end has been a matter only of negotiation since Christmas. What chance did the bloke have?
Mourinho is surfing a different wave. He is talking of staying at United as long as they will have him, of ending his nomadic trawl around the money pits of football in favour of building a Busby/Ferguson-type dynasty at Old Trafford. This represents a sea change in Mourinho’s thinking. For him to have a sniff of succeeding he will need to change his approach to the game, too.
The departure of his assistant for the past 17-years, Rui Faria, might just be the stimulus for this. Mourinho gained a deal of Brownie points after the Watford game by appointing the retiring Michael Carrick his no.2 elect, to step up over time once he has completed his coaching badges. But this will only work if he is prepared to give the ideas of others room to grow.
To that end the FA Cup final has no bearing. A loss would not be catastrophic, a win would not be defining. It is what happens in the summer and early next season that will determine Mourinho’s future at United. As for Conte, he could be gone by Sunday.