The Mellow Peril

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As I heard Jose Mourinho begin to strum the tune to his newly-minted mellow mood, it was no music to my ears. Indeed, I couldn’t help wondering whether he isn’t putting his head too far above the parapet this time to escape unhurt. Of what use is it to announce ahead of a new season that he is going mellow except to give thin-skinned Premiership managers, the referees’ confraternity and the Fleet Street horde (and their cousins everywhere) a blank cheque to fleece his flesh any time they feel like it? Mourinho claims he’s mellowing because people are using his personality “to create something that is not true”; but who cares for whatever Frankenstein these people create? Aren’t flagellations, asphyxiations, crucifixions and all manner of public executions in the press and on the pitch part of the job description?

Thankfully, no adversary or potential adversaries are yet taken in by this seeming unilateral surrender of the Portuguese man of war. Even Marina Hyde of The Guardian couldn’t bear Arsene Wenger losing his Clouseau and the chance of another Battle of the Christmas Card. And here I am, an unrepentant fan of the fellow (not only as manager of Chelsea Football Club, but also as a man) scratching my head and wondering if our muse is really going to leave us high and dry after taking us this far. I mean, I’ve been through the gamut of the emotional roller-coaster with him on my armchair, fighting every inch of his battles, clinging dangerously to his coattails as he got dragged through dirt on every page of rag sheets, feeling his migraines as they scream his supposedly accursed name during every football phone-in and even as the talking heads frenziedly decapitate him in every coven. I’ve won with him, lost with him and I’ve enjoyed every sweet and bitter minute of his accomplishments as our own Houdini, provoker, showman and inspiration, all rolled into one! Now, I’m here twiddling my fingers and scratching my head as I feel the pain and apprehension of every member of the worldwide Mourinho nation. How does he expect us to cope? Where does he expect us to get our fix if all we’re left with is a mellow shell of his former self?

Not surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson welcomed the news with his most Socratic disguise. But let it not be said that Old Red Nose is a little green-eyed as he recalled that at Mourinho’s age, he was just about to make his way to Old Trafford – in other words, unlike Mourinho, he was still a nascent presence in football management history pages. Sacked from an early managerial job for the benign offence of being savagely foul-mouthed and immortalized in the twilight of his career by the Collins English Dictionary with the acidly affectionate term, “hairdryer treatment” (which it defined as the act of screaming at someone at close quarters in order to express displeasure), the old codger certainly knows a thing or two about not being mellow. Now, whether with such scary credentials he’s in a position to advise a younger colleague on the virtues of the vow of silence is a matter of debate. But what is not in doubt is that of the eleven managerial encounters between them, Old Alex had got the better of The Special One only once. And we need not revisit the unsurpassable ignominy he’d suffered while trying to engage the younger man in his notorious mind games.

Thus, while the old battle-scarred warrior publicly handled the news cagily, we know damn too well that as we roll on to Wembley for the charitable season opener this sweet Sunday, it’s an early chance to strike the first blow for the new season. Indeed, Phil McNulty of the BBC has already blown the whistle for the weekend hostilities – “Chelsea boss José Mourinho has vowed to break the habit of a lifetime and keep a low-profile this season – a promise that is already in danger of being broken”, he warned. “He has, despite the vow, already tried to land a psychological blow on Chelsea’s arch-rivals Manchester United ahead of Sunday’s Community Shield meeting at Wembley”, he said. And where is the evidence that the incorrigible warmonger is at it again? “Mourinho has used the time-honoured tactic of insisting all pressure is on Sir Alex Ferguson instead of himself this season”, McNulty revealed! Already Mourinho’s innocent comments on Liverpool’s determination to win the Premiership this time because of the obvious lack of excuse following their huge summer spending and players’ recruitment (a fact repeated by Liverpool players themselves) and his mildly animated touchline jig at Ibrox when his team was losing in a pre-season game have had one or two clearing their throats. McNulty’s is only an encore to the brooding symphony.

Why did Mourinho have to make that kind of declaration knowing the nature of his job? Expectedly, the cynics have gone to town with two theories. One is that it is another Mourinho attempt at mind games and the other is that this new mellowness is an imposition by the board and Roman Abramovich in an attempt to keep the club away from negative headlines. The first theory cannot survive much scrutiny, because it’s difficult to see what Mourinho stands to gain over his rivals by making such a declaration. Indeed, it’s rather a handicap than a plus. While the second on the surface seems plausible, it’s rather difficult to sustain when one considers how much progress Mourinho’s style has brought to the club since his arrival. What would the club or Abramovich gain by telling one of the club’s most prized assets – an asset whose style is very much a key part of the appeal of the Chelsea brand – to tone down or change tack?

Indeed, Brand Mourinho is a worldwide phenomenon. For instance, I spent the latter part of last year and early this year in Nigeria and I can say while Chelsea share top billings with Arsenal and Manchester United as foreign-based clubs with the biggest followings, Mourinho alone undeniably occupies the dizziest height of popularity for managers amongst football followers. It is not uncommon to hear fans of other clubs tell you that they have affection for Chelsea only because of Mourinho. When you see comedians compete on who can do a better Mourinho impersonation or kids on football grounds sliding on their knees in near-concrete football grounds – all in imitative celebration of The Special One – you begin to imagine how much of an icon he is in popular culture, even in places geographically far removed from the Premiership or Champions League football.

More crucially, as per the Abramovich angle, even though the press has taken to calling him “Red Rom” (and with all that this connotes), he’s a poster child of free enterprise and a true lover of freedom. The hallmark of his success is the freedom he gives and the respect he shows to those who work with and for him. He’s certainly not the type to tell a grown man how to conduct himself and Mourinho on his part has always shown that he’s his own man, capable of making his own decisions. From the way both settled their differences, it is clear Abramovich is not a megalomaniac quick to employ the sack gambit once an employee disagrees with him. Even in telling the world that he and Abramovich are now on the same page, Mourinho was quick to point out that Abramovich knows and respects his style and how he works, just as he understands and respects Abramovich’s vision and expectations for the football club. So, this new resolution shouldn’t be seen as a trade-off with the board or Abramovich. It would be counter-productive and totally absurd if it were so.

I genuinely feel that Mourinho himself took a hard look at things and now honestly thinks it is important for him to step down the tempo of what others consider his high-wire style, but which otherwise he’s very comfortable with, as it’s a style he’s honed and perfected over the years. I believe the decision is not uninfluenced by such factors as the new-found stability in his managerial career and the fact that his children are now growing. These can be new but powerful impetuses to be more relaxed. However, the danger is not in feeling that he has to be mellower; the danger is in publicly announcing it. While it’s legitimate to think of changing one or two things (if only not to make things stale), I do not think giving the Fleet Street posse such a fat juicy bone is the best way to go about it. He’s on a hiding to nothing if he thinks the hacks and adversaries wouldn’t deliberately misinterpret his conduct henceforth. All they have to do now is shove his ‘promise’ to be mellow up his face any time he has genuine reasons to feel angry. For them, it’s always more attractive to make his conduct the issue over the real issue, and I’m afraid he has now made it easier for them.

Yet, Mourinho himself has said he doesn’t regret anything, not even his mistakes (because he learns from them). So, why doesn’t he just wait for time to do this mellowness naturally and seamlessly, rather than publicly impose it on himself at the tender age of 44? Does he realize that by doing this, he’s in danger of cutting off some of us from many more years of the sweet pain and pleasure we’re just beginning to share with him? As he tries to calmly navigate the terrains of his persecutors’ rather fragile sensibilities, he must also think of us, his unstinting admirers, because for most Chelsea fans and quite a lot of independent observers, his uncompromising attitude with official skulduggery and his instinctive defence of his players and anything Chelsea against all others is a statement in courage and undiluted professionalism. Most of us have never found him infuriating or objectionable, because we know through his utterances and feuds with the high and mighty of football and the things he does on the pitch, he’s brought long lost pride and confidence to the club and fans.

Mourinho has to come to terms with who he is. He has to come to terms with the fact that he has more admirers worldwide, in and out of football, than those who can’t stand him. Even those who claim to hate him in their positions as fans of other club would jump at the opportunity to shower him with affection if he were manager of their side. Now that the damaging boardroom disagreements are in the past, it is important that Mourinho is simply left to be himself. More importantly, it’s crucial that he continues to be himself, rather than what the opposition wants him to be. Chelsea’s continued success under him depends on him being himself. He knows it, the players know it and we the fans know it.

We count on him to keep the spark!