Return of The Special One

The Church of SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice was founded in 1246 when Doge Jacopo Tiepolo donated some swamp land to the Dominican Brothers after dreaming of a flock of white doves flying over it. The first church was demolished in 1333, when construction on the current church began. It was not completed until 1430.

One of the largest churches in the city, it has the status of a minor basilica. After the 15th century the funeral services of all of Venice’s doges were held here, and twenty-five doges are buried in the church. On a hot and sunny June day, it is indeed a blessed relief to enter its cool interior and admire the many funerary monuments and paintings.

And it was at 3.13pm local time on Monday 3rd June 2013, whilst I was admiring the Altare Maggiore of Matteo Carnero and his team of local sculptores that I heard a soft ping from the direction of my handbag. Followed by another. And another. This, I knew, meant only one thing. The Special One had returned.

Ironically my friend Big Keith, who many people mistake for a nightclub bouncer but earns his living doing something so secret that he says he’s not joking when he tells me he’ll have to kill me if I ever find out what it is, refers to José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix simply as God. My Catholicism obviously won’t permit such a breach of the Second Commandment. However Jose has no such qualms, rating himself fairly highly in the celestial pecking order. At his first press conference as Chelsea manager in 2004, when asked about the pressure of managing Chelsea, he boldly claimed ‘I am not worried about pressure. If I wanted to have an easy job, working with the big protection of what I have already done before, I would have stayed at Porto – beautiful blue chair, the Uefa Champions League trophy, God, and after God, me.’

And in fairness over the last nine years he has woven his magic at almost every destination on his career trajectory – in ten seasons of club management, he’s led his club to win its domestic league seven times. He’s also won the UEFA Champions League twice and the UEFA Cup once. Even more staggeringly, since 2002, he hasn’t gone a full calendar year without winning at least one trophy. He has also been showered with individual awards, winning a slew of ‘Manager of The Year’ trophies wherever he’s worked. And in England he is regarded as simply the most charismatic manager the game has known since Brian Clough, and inspires in his players a similar devotion to that ‘Old Big ‘Ead’ enjoyed.

This time, though, there’s a difference. He returns to Stamford Bridge not as the Young Turk of whom great things are expected, but as a 50 year old, hugely experienced manager of marquee European teams. It says much about Chelsea’s standing in the world game these days that re-joining the club is not a retrograde step for him, but a chance to continue to win honours. Particularly, of course, the Champions League. The big one. For him, the unfinished business. I would dearly love to know how he felt on the night of the 19th May 2012, seeing Robbie Di Matteo become the first Chelsea manager to lift club football’s biggest prize. I surmise, of course, but if I were in his shoes whatever joy he’d have felt at seeing his boys – particularly Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Cole and Cech – finally reach the Promised Land would have been tempered with a massive dose of bile that he wasn’t the one to lead them to it. And it will be a very different Stamford Bridge he returns to now. The hungry young Premier League winners of 2005 are now the ‘old guard’, who are being gradually phased out.

And to be honest, many of those who have arrived at Chelsea over the last couple of seasons (Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Azpilicueta) seem a humbler, less egotistical bunch than some of the Big Beasts no longer with us, which isn’t to say that there aren’t some major decisions awaiting Mourinho.

One of the biggest he’ll have to make is in the goalkeeping department. Whilst Thibault Courtois has reportedly expressed a wish to remain on loan at Athletico Madrid, the departure of Ross Turnbull means that the only experienced back-up keeper at the club is now Hilario. The Special One will have to decide whether to recall Courtois and give him regular run-outs in a bid to provide Petr Cech with some real competition. The future of Kevin De Bruyne continues to be the subject of speculation, and Romelu Lukaku is reportedly on his way back to the Bridge. If Lukaku is coming back with a promise of first team football, will this render the need for another expensive striker redundant? And of course Jose will also need to pull off the difficult balancing act of tempering the desire to keep talismanic figures such as Lampard, Terry and Cole in the side with the demands of Anno Domini.

There’s also the question of relations with the media. Whilst large sections of the press adored Jose, pockets of resistance during his first tenure were experienced, particularly from hidebound ‘senior’ columnists of certain newspapers. Of course, these ‘gentlemen of the press’ generally dislike Chelsea in any case, and Mourinho was simply a stick to beat the club with. But if you’re a reporter with a deadline to meet in need of a spectacular quote, then like a certain chocolate bar the Special One is guaranteed to satisfy.

Jose Mourinho is in his own right a massive brand. When his re-appointment as manager of Chelsea was announced last Monday, it was the third story on CNN after the continuing unrest in Turkey and the tragic factory fire in China. That’s the third news story. Not just in sport, where it was of course the lead. And in appointing Jose, the club hierarchy will have been hugely aware of the fact that there are certain sports fans who now don’t follow a club, but a manager, or a player. And that’s potentially a lot of shirt sales, which the club have capitalised on by adding ‘Special 1’ to their list of squad members. Add to that Mourinho’s appointment being announced just hours before the deadline for season ticket renewals last Monday, and season tickets going on sale to members with 80 loyalty points from last season, it’s obvious that Chelsea see Jose Mourinho as a big lure not only to those season ticket holders disenchanted by the reign of the Interim One but to members who will snap up available season tickets to be part of the unfolding story.

Last but not least, the club will hope that the return of Mourinho will head off rebellion from the stands. Last season saw unprecedented criticism of the club hierarchy from the matchgoing support. In chatrooms, social media, blogs, and podcasts fans gave free rein to their contempt of the Interim One and those who appointed him. To be honest, almost any manager replacing the previous incumbent would have been welcomed by the Stamford Bridge faithful. But for Jose to come home will ensure an pre-season filled with feverish anticipation as supporters wait for news from Cobham and follow the squad’s every move on the World Tour that precedes the Premier League season. And as early as the end of August could see the club’s first silverware of The Second Coming, in a mouthwatering SuperCup game against Champions League winners Bayern Munich in Prague, themselves under new management following the appointment of Mourinho’s old adversary, Pep Guardiola. But a glittering prize on a late summer’s night in Prague is just the warm-up act. For Jose Mourinho, this season’s ultimate ambition must be to lift the Champions League trophy in his home country next May.

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.

As usual, you can follow me on Twitter throughout the summer (not confined to football!) @BlueBaby67