The premise of the event was that the presenter would start listing some of the game’s greatest managers, before finally coming to Mourinho and introducing him to the jubilant crowd. Except, when a simple little rehearsal made it known to Mourinho what managers would be referenced, he interrupted.
“Not him, no, he isn’t great,” the Portuguese said of one specific rival. “But look at all he’s won!” the presenter responded.
Mourinho then went on a spiel about the context of those victories and how they all involved many qualifications and caveats, before slowly shaking his head and repeating “no”. As one witness to this sitcom-like little spectacle explained, there was just no need for it. Even if you think it, why make such a point about it before a corporate gig; before going on stage?
The reason, of course, is that Mourinho has always been so mischievously willing to massage a grudge, and hold one. Some of his most amusing media moments have come in those little asides against his rivals.
With Manuel Pellegrini, it was what felt like the deliberate mispronunciation of his surname as “Pellegrino”, and then the jibe that if he was sacked by Real Madrid he wouldn’t be going to Malaga.
With Rafa Benitez, then, it was… well, all manner of comments, that did culminate in a much more unsavoury exchange in the summer of 2015 about weight loss that involved the Spaniard’s wife. All of this adds extra edge to what have been a miserable last few weeks for Mourinho, and a real twist to the broader storyline of his career. Holding a grudge means his games now have an extra hold, as old enemies seem to be lining up to knock him down. A week before, it was Pellegrini with West Ham. This weekend it was Benitez with Newcastle United. Next week, it will be Chelsea, whose support he has contributed to souring relations with.
It’s impossible not to wonder if figures like Pellegrini and Benitez relish this all the more, even if they will never admit it. Like Pellegrini, Benitez almost did it before Alexis Sanchez saved the day.
Arsene Wenger wouldn’t even admit it to friends in private, when he did finally get his victory against Mourinho after so much, although he did allow himself a knowing smile. Pellegrini did at least praise the Portuguese before last week’s 3-1 win — “everyone changes over the years. I think Jose continues to be a top manager. He’s had a brilliant career” — but there wasn’t exactly a show of support from Benitez on Friday.
“I’m not here to talk about him. He’s a good manager, but I want to try and concentrate on getting three points if we can.”
On the other side, it’s impossible not wonder whether that makes it sting all the more for Mourinho; facing up to potential defeats from men he used to talk down.
It is conspicuous there have been absolutely no asides from Mourinho now. How the situation has changed. Mourinho didn’t have any digs at Pellegrini, and was actually effusive in his praise of Benitez in his own press conference.
“A very, very, very good coach,” the Manchester United boss said. “A team that is always very well organised against especially the teams of the first part of the table where their manager is very bright on his analysis of the opposition qualities and to try to stop them.”
Mourinho has never been afraid to verbally punch down — like when he continued an odd tit-fortat with Paul Lambert when the latter was at Aston Villa — but is seemingly much more reluctant to offer such pantomime when he himself is down.
That tepidity towards rivalry reflects the current situation as much as anything. It illustrates he is afraid of tempting fate, and this is someone who used to be so in control he never put much stock in it.
It also has a genuine football relevance, beyond that pantomime and any potential revenge stories.
Mourinho used to be a master at actually playing on these personal rivalries, at expertly and uniquely using them to motivate his own team and whip them into frenetically good performances.
This was one massive positive of his “confrontational management”. It meant some of those best jibes actually brought some of his best performances and victories: the 6-0 over Arsenal with Chelsea; the 2-0 away to Liverpool in 2014; the 2-1 over Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea in February.
Now, it feels like he’s got too much to concentrate on before he can even get to that.
It’s also a lot more difficult to play on any enmity with another club or another football figure if there is currently growing enmity between yourself and your own squad. It means that some of football’s great grudges could produce a dismally tepid game — but still contribute to one of football’s great narrative twists.