Making a Manager: Jose Mourinho’s Formative Years

manager jose mourinho

Managers who have been players — which is almost all of them — have a huge leg-up in the footballing hierarchy. If you look across the board at the top gaffers in Europe, almost all of them have played the game to a very high level. Pep Guardiola played for Barcelona for 11 years, winning six La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey’s and a European Cup, before he triumphantly returned as manager and revolutionised the game. Carlo Ancelotti — the man who has the most glittering CV in terms of the team he has managed, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan — won 11 trophies in his prestigious career in Italy with Roma and Milan. Zinedine Zidane won a World Cup and was an icon with both Juventus and Real Madrid before he won three successive Champions Leagues with Los Blancos. These are just three examples — Klopp, Simeone, Conte, Pochettino, they all had experience at the very highest level too.

The common denominator is success in the upper echelons of the game as a player. Most truly elite footballers, if they wanted to, could land a job at one of the biggest clubs in the world as soon as they hang up their boots. There is one extremely notable, very special exception, however. Long before his odds-defying Champions League success with Porto, his treble with Inter Milan and his era-defining first stint with Chelsea, Mourinho was a relatively inexperienced footballer.

Mourinho’s playing career lasted just seven years during which he made less than 100 league appearances as a midfielder in Portugal. He exhibited clear signs of having a superb football brain but lacked the technical skills to turn these intellectual instincts into results on the pitch.

He retired aged just 24, and even the most eagle-eyed pundits could be forgiven for forgetting the name Jose Mourinho. Fast forward 20 years and every self-respecting football fan in the world knew his name following the miraculous Champions League glory he achieved with Porto and then his incredible early years with Chelsea. So, what happened in the years between these eras that altered the expected course of history so dramatically?

Mourinho worked for several years as a football coach for kids in school, a far cry from the Galacticos of Real Madrid, most will agree. He yearned for a pathway into the game and, as a notoriously self-confident individual, he believed he had the ability to seek one out. But even the man who dubbed himself the ‘Special One’ could not have predicted his stratospheric rise to the pinnacle of the game.

After leaving his post as a school coach, Mourinho entered a position as a youth coach with Vitória de Setúbal, a local team. This was the first of a number of relatively low-profile jobs Mourinho took over the course of his first two years as a professional in the sport. He also worked as a scout and briefly as an assistant manager.

The real tide-turned was when the opportunity came up to be a translator for the legendary English manager Bobby Robson during his years as coach of Sporting Lisbon. Robson was an iconic face in the worldwide game having won the FA Cup (which in days gone by was a much more sought-after trophy than it has become now) and the UEFA Cup with Ipswich Town. He later took the England job and guided them to their first semi-final since their victorious World Cup campaign in 1966, re-sparking a nation’s passion with the international game.

After a two-year, trophy-laden spell with PSV Eindhoven in Holland, Robson moved to Portugal with Sporting Lisbon. Before he had become well-versed in the language, he required someone to be his translator. For Mourinho, this was the happiest of happy coincidences. Without this huge slice of good luck, the game would look very different to how it does today — Mourinho may have found some other avenue into elite coaching, but it would almost certainly have taken a lot longer.

Mourinho and Robson formed not only a great friendship but a mutually-beneficial footballing relationship. Their early days together with Sporting Lisbon transpired to be steadfastly unsuccessful, but their impact on football has been the opposite. When Robson was removed from his position as manager of Sporting, he was appointed by league rivals Porto and decided to bring his translator-coach with him.

With Porto, the pair enjoyed much greater success, winning the league twice in successive seasons and the Cup in their first campaign. Mourinho by this point had gone well beyond the traditional role of a translator. He had become something of a right-hand man for Robson, albeit one whose media profile was by no means that of many other coaches working at the club.

When Robson moved on again, this time to Barcelona, Mourinho followed him. Here the Portuguese coach became better-known to the public via his presence as an interpreter at each of Bobby Robson’s press-conferences. By this time, he had become much more than a simple translator, though. Robson trusted Mourinho to lead training regularly and the two are said to have offset each other’s footballing approaches perfectly -— Robson was notoriously attack-minded; Jose, as we now well know, was the opposite.

Together, they won a treble of Supercup, European Cup Winners’ Cup and Copa del Rey. When the time came for Bobby to move on, this time Mourinho elected to stay. Now much more than another face on the bench, he was kept on as assistant manager when Louis van Gaal took the reins in 1997.

Mourinho, who just a few years previous had earned his living teaching kids the footballing basics in primary schools, had now served under two of the biggest names in the game and coached the likes of Ronaldo and Rivaldo. Like Robson, Van Gaal trusted Mourinho and let the Portuguese take charge of certain games, giving him his first taste of what managerial life was like. Needless to say, he wanted more. 

He left Van Gaal at the turn of the century as an opportunity arose in his homeland of Portugal to become manager of the country’s most prestigious club, Benfica. The two-time European Cup winners had recently dismissed Jupp Heynckes. No small-fry, Heynckes was one of the most decorated managers in European football having managed Bayern Munich and Real Madrid prior to his single unsuccessful campaign in Portugal.

Mourinho’s time at Benfica was brief and unsuccessful, a missed opportunity for a young coach who had come so far. But, in narrative terms, it was full of event. His time at the helm coincided with a new club president being appointed. The transition period resulted in much turmoil and rumours were rife that the new man in charge, Manuel Vilarinho. He was said to be less than enamoured with Mourinho, who had demanded his own assistant rather than the one the club had offered him upon signing with the club.

Mourinho left the managerial hot-seat after less than ten games in charge after he asked for a contract extension which was not granted. In the years since the ex-president has told of his despair at losing one of the game’s most promising young managers so early in his career.

Six months after stepping down from his first senior managerial position in football, he found his second. União de Leiria came calling for his services at the end of the 2000-01 season. He managed the club for less than a full season before he caught the eye of Porto where he had served as an unknown assistant to Bobby Robson ten years previous. The club, who were struggling in the league at the time, were persuaded by Mourinho’s efforts with União de Leiria where he had guided the lowly club to 4th place at the time.

It would turn out to be the chapter in Mourinho’s career that, above all else, shaped his destiny in the game. Porto finished in 3rd place in the league under his supervision and exhibited undeniable signs of progress. Mourinho was bold in predicting that he would turn Porto into domestic champions within a year. It was far from a claim which would ring hollow, it transpired.

The following campaign, 2002-03, Porto sauntered to victory in the league finishing 11 points clear of the Benfica team which had dismissed Mourinho less than two year previous — although it has since been bettered, the points total was then a record in the country. Over the course of the season, he had stamped a clear sense of identity into Porto’s players, one which focused on being well-drilled, physically excellent and tactically astute.

The crowning achievement of the 02-03 seasons though was Porto’s European success. They beat Celtic 3-2 in Seville after extra time to win their first continental trophy since 1987. Mourinho was now approaching the status of being a household name. Before long there would be a second European trophy in the Porto cabinet in as many years…

Mourinho stayed at Porto for another season despite intense speculation linking him to a job in England; that was still to come. Staying at the club was a gamble, but one that paid off. By the time of the 2003-04 season, Mourinho had constructed a squad featuring the likes of Deco, Jorge Costa, Ricardo Carvalho and Benni McCarthy. While it was by no means short of talent, however, no one expected what was to come in the next nine months. Again, Porto eased to victory in the Primeira Liga, amassing 82 points and losing only two of their 34 games. But that was the minimum expectation domestically. It was their exploits in the Champions League which stunned Europe.

Porto entered the competition in a very competitive group containing Real Madrid and Marseille. They finished a close second to Real Madrid, losing just one game and clear of 3rd placed Marseille by seven points. Their runners-up position meant it was likely they would face a strong team in the Round-of-16. It turned out to be Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Not many people gave Mourinho’s men a chance over the side which contained Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. But they triumphed 3-2 on aggregate after a 2-1 victory at home and a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. The game is perhaps most memorable for Mourinho’s touchline sprint and now-trademark knee-slide that came about after Benni McCarthy’s last-gasp decisive goal in front of the Stretford End.

In the quarter-finals, Mourinho’s Porto brushed aside a strong Lyon side. They won 2-0 in the home leg and a 2-2 away draw was enough to secure their safe passage into the semi-finals. Glory was on the horizon and Mourinho was the architect.

Four teams entered the penultimate round: Monaco, Chelsea, Deportivo La Coruña. It wasn’t the strongest year for the quality of the teams in the competitions latter stages and Porto’s passage was made easier when they were picked to face the Spanish representatives, Deportivo La Coruña. Over the course of the two-legged semi-final, Porto squeezed past their rivals by an aggregate score of 1-0. The 1-0 home victory in the second-leg was what we now know as a typical Jose Mourinho performance — at time turgid, always combative but ultimately triumphant.

In the final, Mourinho’s wildest dreams were actualised. A decade’s hard graft in the game had got him to this point — winning the Champions League. They did it at a canter too, putting three goals past Monaco, who had beaten an impressive Chelsea side 5-3 on aggregate in the other semi-final, without reply.

Jose Mourinho would later come to win a second Champions League as part of a treble with Inter Milan. Before then he would rise to superstardom with Chelsea. Subsequently, he has managed at two of the greatest clubs in the world, Manchester United and Real Madrid. His career may have plateaued somewhat in recent years but in years gone by, Mourinho was the best manager in the game; seemingly, he was unstoppable. And it all started without much experience in the game — through a bit of luck, the ability to speak more than one language and a hell of a lot of footballing intelligence, one of the defining football characters of our times was born.