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The one who got away

Scottish Mag

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There is a northern city near the sea, famous for its river and the bridges that span it, for its local tipple and for the passion with which its people support the football club that bears its name. A club whose players wear stripes. When I tell you that twice these people have welcomed home the champions of Europe, the more recent occasion being in 2004, you will realise that the city is Oporto and not Newcastle-upon-Tyne, although the notion of such a Geordie celebration might appear a little less risible had Jose Mourinho taken seriously an offer he received from Sir Bobby Robson five years ago.


I was reminded of it when talking to Robson who, generous as ever, had taken time out from collaborating with Paul Hayward on his autobiography (an enthralling work, flying off the shelves as we speak) to discuss his long, affectionate and fruitful relationship with the man who was to become the dominant figure in English football in connection with my own forthcoming book about Mourinho. Robson, as you may know, had encountered Mourinho in 1992 when he arrived in Lisbon to take over at Sporting. Mourinho, then an obscure 29-year-old teacher who did a bit of youth coaching in his spare time, was his interpreter at first but soon doubled as an assistant of growing influence who accompanied the Englishman to Porto and Barcelona where, after Robson had been kicked upstairs, he completed an extraordinary education under the wing of Louis van Gaal.


It was after Van Gaal's departure that Mourinho decided to be his own man. By now Robson was in charge of Newcastle and when he rang to invite his Portuguese friend on board Mourinho's hands were ready for the helm. Robson, without making promises, spoke of the Tyneside revival and the attractions of the succession, but he was talking to someone who knew him too well and could accurately assess as very, very slim the prospects of the great man's voluntarily relinquishing a post that made his heart pound. So Mourinho declined and became head coach at Benfica. He lasted a couple of months, but found more congenial conditions at Leiria, from where Porto took him. And the rest is history. As, indeed, is Robson's tenure at Newcastle.


They sacked him - shot Bambi, as the chairman, Freddy Shepherd, pathetically put it - this time last year. They thought he was past his best at 71 and introduced Graeme Souness in the hope of bringing some order to a squad apparently containing too many makers of trouble on and off the field. These, we imagined, were separate issues. Until Lee Bowyer started brawling with Kieron Dyer in the middle of a match. The slide continues and today Newcastle go into their fourth match of the Premiership season looking easy meat for Manchester United, even at St James' Park, where once, in Kevin Keegan's day, the men from Old Trafford were memorably minced, 5-0.


You could see Newcastle as an illustration of the Premiership's competitive decline: the biggest of all those clubs who have rebuilt their stadiums, or built new ones, as massive symbols of ambition, and lavished vast sums on players in a mad inflationary spiral - Albert Luque is the latest and they still have an offer for Michael Owen on the table - only to discover there are not enough titles to go round and they cannot even pacify their supporters by picking up an occasional FA Cup because United and Arsenal want that too.


Not to mention Chelsea, who have leapfrogged everybody since they got Mourinho. And the only way Newcastle could have avoided this fate was to have hired a brilliant manager in his prime: like United did when they got Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen, or Arsenal when, having noted Arsene Wenger's achievements at Monaco, they beckoned him from Japan. Newcastle, though, are left with the tale of the one who got away.


Should Robson have made him a more tempting proposition? The question may have crossed Geordie minds but, if only in terms of timing, it does not bear dwelling upon. He had nothing suitable to offer and, being a decent man, declined to suggest otherwise. Robson was doing an excellent job, obtaining the maximum from Alan Shearer, surrounding the inspirational leader with a whirlwind of pace - Dyer, Craig Bellamy, Laurent Robert - that scared opponents. With the assistance of Mick Wadsworth and John Carver, Robson guided Newcastle to fourth place one season, third after that and fifth at the conclusion of the final campaign before Shepherd, having announced that the next would be Robson's last, curtailed it.


Meanwhile Mourinho had led Porto to triumphs in the UEFA Cup and Champions League. It is silly, but you do not have to bleed black and white to wonder what Mourinho could have achieved for Newcastle, given all the advantages football's economics convey on a leading English club by comparison with one from Portugal; would even the multi-millions of Roman Abramovich have been able to lure him to West London, there to end Chelsea's half-century wait for the Premiership title?


All we can be sure of is that both Shepherd and Souness know it is the hunting season. As do the fans who never really fancied Souness; the tally-ho has been floating down the St James' slopes and the manager is beginning to look a little weary.


In a sense he is a victim - if such a term can be applied to man who has the insurance of an extremely lucrative contract - of English football's constant doomed quest to squeeze a quart of fevered aspiration into a pint pot. Newcastle have plenty of material from which to fashion the basis of a respectable side: Shay Given in goal, that outstanding defensive prospect Steven Taylor, Dyer when he is fit and Scott Parker, the most astute of Souness's signings. But, when mature reflection and strategy are required, all we seem to get from them are dramatic gestures such as the bids for Wayne Rooney, who astonishingly chose to join Manchester United instead, and now Michael Owen.


To be fair to Shepherd, it was a board on which he sat that, when Robson was appointed and strategic thinking did intrude into the club's considerations, discussed the succession and the name of Mourinho did crop up. That is still the task facing the club: to find, as Porto once did, tomorrow's man and not yesterday's. It is a lot more difficult than throwing money at Real Madrid and a lot less likely to get the crowd off your back, but it might just work.

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Great post.


I still believe Souey should get this season.


There is no pattern in football. Sometimes you unearth an unknown gem, sometimes a high profile signing is a flop. Sometimes an extra year can be squeezed from a veteran former star.


Souness WAS I believe the best available option at the time. He has some very obvious flaws but in all honesty, how many of us were losing faith in Robson and the seeming lack of any discipline.


I think the club is safe for now while we look for Souness's successor. He won't get us relegated and his signings have so far been pretty shrewd IMO.


Of course we can all fantasise about having Mourinho 3 years ago but it didn't happen. He would have probably been poached by Chelsea anyway B)

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