The night that made Mourinho
Every legacy has a starting point… and Jose Mourinho’s was on Tuesday, 9th March 2004.
That was the night his Porto side beat Manchester United 3-2 on aggregate in the last 16 of the Champions League. The night he ran down the touchline, arms flailing, celebrating a goal that didn’t just win a football match, it changed his life and, in time, the lives of football fans across Europe.
Perhaps his destiny was already sealed. But I don’t think so.
Because football is a game of ifs, and if Mourinho hadn’t won the Champions League that year, I doubt he would have found himself at Chelsea a few weeks later.
He would have found himself somewhere else.
Having managed FC Porto to back-to-back league titles, the Portuguese Cup and the UEFA Cup, clubs across the world had no doubt noticed.
But Chelsea? The team whose owner had everything but the one thing he couldn’t buy?
He wouldn’t have ended up there.
Mourinho only found himself at Chelsea because of a goal that was and a goal that wasn’t.
The goal that was, came in the final minute at Old Trafford, a Francisco Costinha header after Tim Howard patted the ball out to him. And the goal that wasn’t came on the stroke of halftime, Paul Scholes’ second strike incorrectly ruled out for offside.
Most offside decisions only change the score-line. But this one changed the landscape of football for the next decade.
Chelsea fans may argue that he would have ended up there regardless. But how much was Abramovich’s head turned by Mourinho’s obvious managerial ability, and how much by the cup he held aloft in Gelsenkirchen?
The truth is that the night he masterminded that win over Manchester United changed everything.
From there, Porto beat Lyon, Deportivo La Coruna and Monaco – a path to European greatness that some may argue was more of a cake-walk.
So perhaps Mourinho (and Chelsea) owe it all to a dodgy linesman, a goalkeeping howler and a last-minute goal. Or maybe that’s like saying Sir Alex Ferguson owes everything to injury time.
Even after that glorious campaign, it was Liverpool that Mourinho flirted with, dismissing Chelsea as a “project”, pondering the possibility of Abramovich growing bored if success could not be swiftly bought.
But when Liverpool hired Rafa Benitez Chelsea suddenly became an attractive alternative.
Had Costinha not scored that goal, Mourinho would still be a great manager.
He has showed at four consecutive clubs, in four different countries, that he is something very special indeed.
But without it, he’d have taken a completely different journey to the top.
I was reminded of that night, that touchline dash, when Mourinho celebrated Cristiano Ronaldo’s winning strike against Manchester City back in September.
It was less frantic but no less passionate.
The man recognises moments. And when they are to his advantage, he celebrates unashamedly.
Tomorrow, Manchester City aim to reverse that Bernabeu sucker-punch as they host Mourinho’s Madrid in a must-win, make-or-break, all-or-nothing… well you get the point. Whatever the footballing cliché, it probably applies to tomorrow’s match.
Because if City lose they are out; and they may be out regardless.
But if they win, they might, just might, deflate the special one. And sometimes, as Mourinho himself has shown, one result can change everything.
He knew, on that night in 2004, that he’d managed a team to something special.
It was a moment that introduced him to the world, and gave him the chance to bring huge success to Chelsea, Inter Milan and now Real Madrid.
A moment that almost didn’t happen; but then, we can say that of any moment.
It is the football fan’s affliction to always think “if only”.
Most of us think it nearly every weekend, while the luckiest rarely have to.
And then there’s Jose Mourinho for whom, you sense, it’s never even crossed his mind.