"Is the battle of the managers as exciting as the battle of the players on the pitch?" Graeme Souness glared the lad down, shaking his head.
“The game is about players. Always has been, always will be. Players are the most important people in football.
“These are all great managers, but they’d be the first ones to go ‘don’t talk about me’, maybe with one exception.”
You know who. The special case.
In one sense, we are massively indebted to Manchester United this Premier League pre-season, for making one week, at least, about footballers, before we give ourselves over permanently to the mind games and the controvassy.
Soon enough, the season will be reduced to Mourinho v Pep v Klopp v Conte v Wenger v Poch. And maybe that fella who won it last season. The football almost a sideshow as we wait for the battle of the soundbites to claim a victim or two and allow Simeone and Tuchel their turns.
Yet even one week trying to unravel the mysteries of Pogba — what it is he does and how much that is worth — brought us into places even a box-to-box midfielder shouldn’t find himself, perhaps best encapsulated by sports marketing guru Andy Sutherden’s chilling words.
“He is an individual that can connect with youth on social media. An individual that can actually connect with youth in a meaningful and a relevant way has a currency for a football club.”
Players once connected with youth in a meaningful and relevant way by putting the ball in the back of the net, or by sticking in a reducer or two.
But we are in a curious period when footballers’ balance sheet value might be soaring, but their stock has arguably never been lower.
There was another telling line in this paper on Friday, from football analytics expert Omar Chaudhuri in an interview with Eoin O’Callaghan, that put into some context the lowly status of footballers in the modern brand-building game.
“I’ve been in meetings with club owners and chief executives and they talk about what playing philosophy they want their team to have but they’re not very good at articulating that.
“I was in a meeting back in April with a board member of a club and he was saying ‘we want our team to play like Dortmund or Spurs’ and their playing style was nowhere near either club.”
The job at that club will be to find footballers, at whatever cost, to fit the profile required of some off-the-peg philosophy they pluck off the managerial merry-go-round. Until that project has spun its course, in two or three years, all going well. And a new identity is sought.
Somewhere along the way, the game stopped challenging managers to find a way of playing that suited the players they had.
Little wonder we constantly bemoan a lack of leaders when players are asked to join a cult.
Many people find it obscene, but maybe that is why there has always been some garish allure in Real Madrid’s brash pursuit of glory.
They remain celebrants of the footballer, collecting the best and advising their manager to get on with it, organising them, or they’ll find somebody who can.
Equally, there is an attraction in Arsene Wenger’s religious belief in paying the right price for a footballer, committed as he is, much like John Giles, to preserving the distinctions between good and great.
To preserving some kind of natural pecking order where the ability to connect with youth on social media isn’t a factor.
But perhaps footballers will only be truly valued again when they are seen as the primary tools to achieve glory rather than the enablers of a philosophy.
So maybe we should also see something to celebrate in Manchester United’s trust in Jose Mourinho, even if his respect for footballers appears to be precarious and shallow.
Omar Chaudhuri will not find himself in many football boardrooms where they yearn for the philosophy of Mourinho.
There was little enthusiasm for the philosophy of Mourinho even in the boardrooms of clubs where he managed successfully.
Association with Mourinho cuts off some of the options for a football club, in terms of branding yourself. But at least it means Manchester United are focused again on the winning, rather than philosophy, even if it has taken the disappearance of Champions League revenue to concentrate minds.
Chatting with Souness at the Sky Sports launch last week, Jamie Carragher was beguiled by Mourinho’s decision to substitute Juan Mata late in the Community Shield, after Mata had earlier been sent on as a second-half sub.
“Mourinho takes winning to another level. He sees that as a trophy. He doesn’t see it as a friendly.
“He is doing what he’d do if it was a Champions League semi-final. He doesn’t care about Mata’s reaction. I don’t think many other managers would have done it.”
Souness, though, was more inclined to see the resurfacing of old themes, particularly in the treatment of Bastian Schweinsteiger, swiftly banished from Mourinho’s first team dressing room.
“You’ve got to be careful. He will have allies in that dressing room. We can’t talk in any great detail, but I think he deserved, for what he’s achieved in the game, respect. Unless there’s a real reason for treating him less than respectful, I see it as an unnecessary thing.”
It will always be a necessary thing with Mourinho. Just as it was at Chelsea and Real Madrid and Inter Milan, as then Barcelona VP Ferran Soriano referenced when explaining why Barcelona chose Pep Guardiola over Mourinho as manager in 2008.
“It was clear that Mourinho was a great coach but we thought Guardiola would be even better. Mourinho is a winner but in order to win he generates a level of tension that becomes a problem. It’s a problem he chooses.”
Of course, Soriano is now Man City’s executive director, providing just one more reason why it will be even more personal than usual for Mourinho this season.
He seems fired up. The tension is already palpable. The broadsides against rivals like Klopp and Wenger have already begun.
But Mourinho has come from a club, Chelsea, which downed tools, as if his players saw through him for the first time, refused to be part of a cult, even if it was a winning one. It might be safer, at Old Trafford, if Mourinho was no longer a special case, if he became the first one to go ‘don’t talk about me’ and at least pretended that players are the most important people in football.
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Who will be Premier League Champions 2016/17?
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