As Jose Mourinho eased himself into the dugout at Old Trafford, acknowledging his opposite number as he did so, he briefly and pointedly caught the eye of Chelsea’s captain as the defender walked past; it was a look of mutual respect, of shared history, of shared memories.
But it was also the look of a rival.
Some seven years earlier, John Terry had been Mourinho’s main man, his lieutenant on the pitch and inspiration in the dressing room, and they had always remained in contact. But since the Special One accepted the job he believed no other manager could handle — to be Alex Ferguson successor at Old Trafford — things had changed.
There had been rumours that David Moyes would have been Ferguson’s personal choice for the role — perhaps Bobby Charlton’s, too; a safer more malleable bet who would take greater care of the club’s corporate image and provide a simpler handover. But the board had been strong. They knew it needed a big character to replace a man like Ferguson, someone who had the inner confidence to stamp their own style and authority on a team that was in desperate need of improvement, despite winning the title in Ferguson’s farewell campaign.
The arrival of Mourinho at Old Trafford, then, was the last thing Chelsea wanted to see. It was, in all honesty, the last thing any of the big six wanted to see.
In Mourinho, United had a man who not only believed he could follow Ferguson, he even believed he could better him. He didn’t say it — not even the Special One could have pulled that press conference off — but amidst all the heavily-ladled humility in his official unveiling, the Portuguese couldn’t quite hide that inner arrogance which left him undaunted by the size of the task ahead.
Those who study Mourinho closely had always suspected he had one eye on the Old Trafford job. He had built a close relationship with Ferguson during his time at Madrid and when the teams played in the last 16 of the Champions League in March 2013, he made a point of impressing United’s directors; he was even on his best deferential behaviour in the pre and post-match press conferences.
His arrival didn’t come without complications, however. The players on his wish list were ambitious and expensive; and with David Gill gone, there were concerns that some of them were unachievable. What he insisted on was a centre-half in the Terry mould and a creative midfielder to be first pick in the centre of the pitch. There is no doubt that United overpaid for Real Madrid’s Rafa Varane and Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas, but their arrival, along with an inspired swoop for Diego Costa and the shock signing of Ashley Cole proved crucial — and Mourinho personally led the negotiations on every occasion.
That first season had its problems as United scrambled to fourth place in the Premier League. But victory in the League Cup Final, a competition the Special One has always taken seriously, gave Mourinho his first trophy and a belief that he had put the foundations in place for a successful future.
Further big signings — Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira included — produced a positive start to 2014-15, too, leaving United second in the table as they faced a crucial test at Old Trafford against Mourinho’s former club, a club he admits to this day remains close to his heart...
No wonder Terry held the glance of his former mentor for one second longer; he knew this would not be easy. For all the emotion of the occasion and all the well-meant and publicly-made pre-match greetings, United under Mourinho had lost none of their fear factor, none of their glamour.
Even Ferguson, sitting high up in the stands, knew deep inside that the right decision had been made — and although Mourinho’s ugly pitchside battle with Manuel Pellegrini earlier in the year, and his subsequent press conference snarling, had disturbed some members of the board, it had only served to make him even more popular with the Stretford End.
A narrow victory over his former club, a win that Mourinho was careful not to celebrate, only emphasised the fact as United kept their sixth clean sheet of the season and Costa out-jumped Terry for his seventh goal of the campaign to leave Jurgen Klopp’s Blues outside of the top four — and United back at the top.
It was a poignant moment for fans and directors alike at Old Trafford; 18 months after Ferguson had stood on the centre circle and urged everyone to back his successor, United were finally back where they belonged.
So, as the autumn sunshine gave way to drizzling rain and a bitter cold wind whipped around the famous old ground, a shiver went down the spine of Bobby Charlton and those sat alongside him. It had just dawned on them: what if David Moyes had been behind that sliding door at Carrington back in May 2013 and not the Special One?
The moment was fleeting, nothing more. Charlton pulled up the collar on his overcoat, glanced at Manchester United’s former manager two seats away, and nodded.
It was a thought that didn’t bear thinking about…
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