“I tell you what, Clive, that’s the latest decision you’ve ever seen!” boomed Ron Atkinson, on co-commentating duties for ITV as Paul Scholes, spotting a raised flag, cut his celebrations short and trotted back to position.
Scholes had already put Manchester United ahead against Porto but a second goal was not to be and the tie remained on a knife-edge. Forty-five minutes later Costinha would pounce on a botched save from Tim Howard to send United out of Europe and a twinkly-eyed scamp named Jose Mourinho hurtling down the touchline with merry abandon. Two months after that Porto were hoisting a gleaming trophy and European football had a magnetic new protagonist.
But that flag wasn’t just late, it was also wretchedly wrong. For once Alex Ferguson’s post-defeat appraisal of the officials fell wholly in line with reality. “The referee and the linesman didn’t do their job,” he seethed. “Sometimes there is one defender playing you on-side and it is hard to spot, but in this case there were three.”
He wasn’t mistaken. A Russian linesman had played a vital role in the path taken by English football once before. With hindsight, it’s plausible that in March 2004 the bungling Gennady Krasyuk didn’t just seal United’s fate, but completely remapped the future of European club football.
Indeed while one Russian did his part to affect the destination of the Champions League trophy, it was another Russian’s inability to do the very same which would see Porto’s coach soon land lucrative new employment. Six weeks after Krasyuk’s erroneously raised flag, Roman Abramovich sat in the Stamford Bridge directors’ box as Claudio Ranieri supervised Chelsea’s shambolic semi-final capitulation against Monaco and concluded, not unwisely, that this was not the man to deliver the trophy he was fixated on. How he decided who that would be was straightforward enough: it was the man who won it that year.
Had Mourinho not progressed beyond that last-16 tie – had he not won the tournament altogether – it’s fair to say Abramovich wouldn’t have deemed him a worthy frontman. The alternatives? The soon-to-be invincible Arsene Wenger was unobtainable. Carlo Ancelotti, European champion with Milan the previous year, probably the same.
Sven-Goran Eriksson was on the radar: Abramovich had met the then-England boss the preceding summer. But otherwise the obvious choice would have been the man who, while Ranieri was bungling a gallingly winnable Champions League tournament (semi-finalists: Monaco, Chelsea, Porto and Deportivo), was masterminding a way around La Liga’s Barca-Madrid duopoly for a second time in three years and taking the Uefa Cup for good measure.
It’s now public knowledge that Liverpool sounded out Mourinho that summer before ultimately deciding on Rafa Benitez. It would be intriguing to know what would have happened if Chelsea had attempted to woo the Spaniard before the Merseysiders did. It’s hard to argue that Chelsea – cash-rich, upwardly mobile, not weighed down by an all-conquering history – was not the more attractive proposition for a young coach looking to stamp his imprint on a club. Either way, had Mourinho’s continental heroics not caught Abramovich’s eye we would have been deprived of one of the modern era’s most magnificently hostile managerial rivalries.
Yet odd as it may sound, missing out on the defining manager in their history is unlikely to have hugely affected Chelsea. Abramovich’s then-unfathomable backing (in his first summer Chelsea spent almost double what Arsenal, United and Liverpool did combined) made success pretty much inevitable, whichever A-list coach it would be under. They may not have romped so imperiously to those first two titles – but then Abramovich may not have had to wait until 2012 for Ol’ Big Ears either. Either way, their trophy haul 13 years on would likely read much the same (as, probably, would their list of previous managers).
As for Mourinho, you could argue similarly that his pedigree, ability and charisma would see him inescapably rise to the top of the sport, too. And fair enough – we can safely presume he’d be hoovering up trophies with some heavyweight or other within a year or two. Yet exactly which heavyweight is a question with tectonic implications. Lest we forget that four years after Scholes was denied a goal, Mourinho was denied a job. Having put himself forward to replace the outgoing Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona in 2008, Mourinho wowed his prospective – and indeed former – employers with an exhaustive presentation, backed up by an unimpeachable CV.
And yet Barcelona’s bigwigs decided against appointing the man who, as Chelsea boss, had made false allegations about Frank Rijkaard meeting referees, claimed “Rijkaard is a lucky manager because his stars are protected match after match” and cast aspersions on the wholesomeness of a young Lionel Messi (“How do you say cheating in Catalan? Barcelona is a city with many great theatres and this boy has learned play-acting”). Who knows whether Mourinho would have been able to so rile the Nou Camp board had he been in charge of a club whose run-ins with the Catalan giants had been less frequent.
Instead they decided to take a punt on a wholly unproven coach named Pep Guardiola, and that appointment – in tandem with Mourinho’s gloriously bitter reaction, resolving to win every trophy going in the most un-Barcelona way imaginable – has defined so much of elite-level European football since, from the power shifts to the tactical transformations to the pantomime storylines.
All of which brought the man himself, of course, back to the scene of his mythical scamper, now an altogether more permanent presence on the Old Trafford touchline – and a far less convivial one.
Certainly the energy-sapping rancour of the decade and a half of feuding seems to have taken its toll on the Mourinho of today, who seems a wholly different character to the grinning mischief-maker who announced himself to the world back in 2004. Who knows – maybe his career would have been a whole lot more enjoyable had he been deprived of that early moment of elation.
This post was originally published on 7 December 2017.