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Mourinho and United: a dark embrace

Sam White

Topics Politics

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There are those who say that José Mourinho isn’t right for Manchester United. They say he doesn’t fit with United’s honourable traditions, that he can’t uphold their noble heritage of hard-running, working-class aristocrats – men descended, by blood or bearing, from carbon-blackened, northern rail workers wrapped in gold and green.

At the risk of sounding like a Chelsea fan, the people who think this of United are way off the mark. In fact, the only people who do think United are paragons of footballing virtue are United fans. And only a very small, albeit very vocal, minority of United fans at that.

Because, in truth, Mourinho is the perfect fit for United. He has long embraced the dark side of football, from so-called mind games and borderline bullying to joyously destructive tactics. And United themselves are the dark side. I point out this wicked fact not with shame or regret, but with genuine delight and a deviant smirk. I actually enjoy YouTube videos of CR7’s best ever dives. After all, who wants to be the good guy? Who wants to be wringing their papery hands over whether or not we’ve betrayed some set of Corinthian principles? Wouldn’t you rather just be getting stuck in?

Which is why Mourinho is perfect for United. The duties of a United manager include intimidating your opponents, flat-track bullying, pecking at the opposition coach, haranguing the ref, manipulating the FA and, yes, hauling obscene stockpiles of silverware back home, while the whinging, plaintive cries of the defeated recede into nothingness, just like their defenders did during the games.

Some of my favourite moments of the Alex Ferguson era happened when United fully unleashed their dark side, and the opposition got all upset and looked like they might cry. I’m thinking of Gary Neville, aided and abetted by Paul Scholes, ending Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run by repeatedly kicking José Antonio Reyes, an ordeal from which the delicate Spaniard never really recovered; of Roy Keane waiting four years to revenge himself against Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Haaland by attempting to break his leg in front of 76,000 people; of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer running the length of the pitch to scythe down Newcastle’s Rob Lee, before embarking on a guilt-free, knowing stroll off the pitch and down the tunnel, before the ref had even got the red card out of his pocket.

These were not the actions of saintly nobles, enriched with grace and ethics. These were the actions of a particularly ruthless kind of sportsman. The kind of sportsman that wins, again and again, by doing whatever it takes, and retires when he can’t win anymore because he can see no point in playing a game he’s no longer the best at. This might not be nice, it might go against everything you got told in Sunday School, but teams built of such individuals are, by definition, the best teams.

Mourinho is also one of these sportsmen. He knows, utterly and absolutely, that in sport winning is the only thing that matters, the only record that anyone pays attention to. Ferguson knew this; Keane knew this; Ronaldo, Cantona and even Beckham, too, knew this. Yes, Mourinho has irrational quirks, initiates petty squabbles, is demonstrably unfair, manipulative and provocative. And yet, it’s with all these character traits at his disposal that Mourinho has repeatedly achieved greatness, whether as a matter of pride or, at times, as a matter of personal one-upmanship. Mourinho knows where the bottom line is, and so do United.

Sam White is a writer and photographer.

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Topics Politics

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