José Mourinho is facing his second full season in charge of Manchester United, where his predecessors’ records offer mixed pickings for Red rune-readers. Is the second full season always the make-or-breaker?
Matt Busby, naturally, had a brilliant and stylish second, as did Big Ron and Tommy Doc, thus setting the defining tone for successful reigns. And at the other end of the historical squirm-scale, Poor Wilf (McGuinness) and Even Poorer Frank (O’Farrell) weren’t allowed to complete their second attempts, so wretched were they.
So should have been the fate of Van Gaal. Ah, if only Edward ’SuperTed’ Woodward had had the courage to throw Van Loony onto their pile of ’18 Month Failures’ when it was richly merited, back in December 2015.
Mourinho was ready to step in, and would surely have got us into the 2017 Champions League, and would also by now have had an extra transfer window under his belt.
But sticking out from the historical record like the proverbial sore thumb - or should that be purple nose? - and thus spoiling any possible pattern-drawing is Sir Alex Ferguson.
Lest we forget, in this revisionist era that decrees Fergie was never able to do any wrong, his second full season was a disaster. United finished 1988/89 in the bottom half of the table, setting the boss up for his absolute nadir of autumn 1989: ’Ta Ra Fergie’, and Alex hiding under his Wilmslow pillow.
Famously, it took Fergie three and a half long years to get his hands on a single trophy at Old Trafford; Jose picked up two of ’em in just three and a half months last spring.
Alright, that’s a facetious comparison bordering on the spurious - hey, welcome to KurtWorld - but my suggestion is this: has he already earned enough brownie points to buy himself the right to an iffy second season if he needs it?
That might seem an extravagantly overcautious question to you. After all, are United not many pundits’ favourites to win the title in 2018? Well, yes, it seems that they are: but no doubt most of that conventional wisdom crowd thought Hillary Clinton and Remain were a shoo-in too, back in the day.
I’m not quite seeing the ’job done!’ lights a-flashing myself. Three mid-market purchases added to a thin squad that couldn’t make the top four surely does not necessarily a Champions-elect make? United’s bookie odds are too short.
I’m very confident we’ll finish top four and do pretty well in Europe but I’m also quite content to consider that it might take one further seasonal push to get back to the very top.
"Give him three years" was the Top Red (TM) mantra when he signed, and so it might prove to be the case.
Still, having just soaked your bonfire in a particular not-for-family-paper way, I nevertheless approach Sunday’s opener in a more confident frame of mind than at any kick-off since at least 2010.
Think about it: August has been a brow-furrower for several years now. The rise of Man City at the start of the decade meant we kicked off Fergie’s last couple of seasons looking anxiously over our shoulder as our own squad began to flake at the edges.
Then, since Fergie quit, we have had four Augusts of stepping nervously into the unknown as the managerial merry-go-round span us into dizzying uncertainty.
Now, finally, almost every Red I know is agreed on one thing: we are undoubtedly better than we were, and are almost certain to improve still further. That, my friends, should be enough to satisfy us all, given what we’ve had to put up with for much of this decade.
So, what of the squad ins and outs? First, let us give thanks for deliverance: the Rooney boil has been lanced, and so expertly as to avoid contaminating anyone with its contents.
Doctor Mourinho’s mastery in his handling of Wayne’s career malady has been one in the eye for all those Chelsea-era critics, those who said he wasn’t sensitive enough to handle the modern primadonna player. Rooney has gone quietly and gracefully and - touch wood - without any threat that a timebomb of revelations may later be detonated.
As for the incomers, I now refer back to an email Our Man In Lisbon sent me on June 28th. He said José was "about to go on holiday, having left a list of the four players he is demanding with Ed Woodward: Morata or Lukaku; Matic; Perisic; and Lindelof."
At the time of writing, Woodward has fulfilled three of those four demands, and the prospect of the fourth has still not been definitively ruled out. Quibble all you want about the personnel choices there but, in terms of José & Ed getting their executive jobs done, we can at least spare two cheers for the duo.
Granted, many of us would have preferred Morata to Lukaku, and it is still not wholly clear how the pair ended up at their relative destinations, or who really wanted whom the most.
Those who suggest Lukaku was never originally wanted at all are wrong; I happen to know for a fact that United investigated buying him under Van Loony, and then that José first put his name up to Woodward last winter.
That said, I am also led to believe by Lisbon sources that Morata was the number one choice going into June. What then went on between us, Chelsea and Real over the next few weeks is hard to decipher; presumably, we’ll have to wait for someone’s future autobiography for the facts.
None of that is meant to belittle Lukaku, who does at least have a proven PL goals record and already had a hardy knot of Reds arguing for his signing throughout last winter. He is a decent chance-finisher, and finishing was our single biggest shortcoming last season; even David Moyes could’ve solved this non-quadratic equation.
Lindelof will have to be taken on trust for now because, let’s face it: none of us have seen him play. Or rather, none of us will have watched a game with the specific intent of keeping an eye on him. For many Reds, the thinking will be: ’he’s foreign - and therefore probably knows how to defend properly, theoretically; he has cost a fair bit; and he has played at a high level: so let’s just shrug and pull a happy face."
No need to fake it with Matic, however. Here is a class act, with a proven record, performing a specific function we require, and who doesn’t need to worry about building a relationship with the boss. Moreover, the pained noises coming out of The Bridge make it plain that Conte, at least, didn’t want him to go.
This is a deal that would appear - touch yet more wood, rub a Bible, ignore tempting passing chickens asking to be counted - to have ’guaranteed success’ written all over it.
(Hmm. The last time I said that about a transfer, it was Shevchenko arriving at Chelsea. Remind me how that went?) There’s also the matter of a non-mover to consider. As I write, the once-solid prospect of De Gea leaving this summer appears to be receding faster than my hairline. Obviously, being cliché-phobic, I don’t want to write "that’d almost be like signing a new player". But it seems I just did.
The overall result, as Gary Neville said last week, is that United are finally starting to look like a Mourinho team, as opposed to a patched-up Loony/Moyes crossbreed monster.
And who knows: as the season unfolds, perhaps something will rub off in the other direction as well - that by exhibiting some grace, humour and panache, Mourinho might just start looking like a Manchester United manger too."