A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, Chelsea wasn’t a behemoth of a football club, picking up silverware and sacking big-name managers with equal alacrity. There was nothing special about Jose Mourinho, except in his head, of course, and Harrods was possibly the landmark of the borough. Then, everything changed.
In 2003, Chelsea beat Liverpool in a direct shootout for the final Champions League spot from England, and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich decided that he needed a new hobby, and spent £140 million to take over the club. Since then, Chelsea has won the league and FA Cup four times each, and the Champions League and Europa League once.
While it was Roman’s rubles that brought the A-grade players to West London, the transformation of Chelsea is largely, albeit exaggeratedly, credited to Mourinho. From the moment the garrulous Portuguese landed on English shores, fresh from winning the Champions League, he was the story. From winning back-to-back league titles in his first two seasons, to a public fallout with Abramovich barely a few months into the fourth, Mourinho and Chelsea have always shared a wildly oscillating relationship — one that guarantees titles and tribulations.
When Abramovich offered the job to Mourinho in the summer of 2013, you would have thought that enough water had passed under the bridge. It began well enough, with a third-place finish during the first season and a title win in the next. That was Mourinho’s third league title with Chelsea in five full seasons — a great achievement, yes, but if only he’d have let other people praise him for it, instead of harping on it himself. Mourinho had once again built a team in his image — ruthless and clinical — and this time he was in for the long haul. Or so we thought.
The first un-Mourinho play was the failure to bring in a top player this summer. Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, who would have helped Chelsea compete in Europe, was talked about but not bought.Then came the bad results, and as is always the case with Mourinho, the excuses followed. First in his crosshairs was first-team doctor Eva Carneiro, who tended to an injured player. Mourinho accused her of being naïve and leaving his team a player short, as Swansea threw men forward for a winner. That was not the end of it, though. TV cameras caught Mourinho taking loud guesses about Carneiro’s mother’s profession, which led to a case against him for victimisation and discrimination by the doctor.
The Swansea draw wasn’t an aberration; in fact it was the start of what would be a long road to the near-bottom of the table. No matter how bad the performance was, the buck would never stop at the manager. The referees were scared to give decisions for Chelsea, the players were letting him down, some of them betraying him, even —‘the special one’ had an excuse for everything.
While Mourinho continued his ways of deceit and division — he was convinced one of his players was leaking team news to rivals ahead of games — Chelsea was lurching from one defeat to the next. It wasn’t hard to see that by the time the final nail in Mourinho’s con was being hammered in at Leicester, some of his big players were not playing for their manager. Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were supposedly leading a players’ mutiny in the dressing room, with support from the reigning Player of the Season, Eden Hazard.
In the age of Twitter, where everyone and their uncles are ‘in the know’ (search ITK on Twitter for some fun), it is best to take such stories with a fistful of salt. But you could see that Mourinho had lost the team. Players who were tearing up the league only six months ago suddenly looked like they’d fit in better at Chennaiyin FC. The theory found more credence when Chelsea raced to a quick two goal lead against Sunderland, days after the sacking, playing with the kind of enthusiasm that was missing just a few days back.
Retaining the league is almost impossible; maybe even a top four finish is a bridge too far. In Guus Hiddink, however, Chelsea has a manager who will be a calming influence after the Mourinho storm, and who is likely to play to his players’ strengths, rather than his own. As for Mourinho, does he have any regrets about his second stint? Unlikely. He is probably biding his time till the next chapter in a career that is increasingly becoming more about the paraphernalia than the football.