Opinion - Mourinho's mission to win ugly won't satisfy Man United fans
THEY were wild, go-for-broke, supernova days when Alex Ferguson twinned Old Trafford with the MGM Grand.
When the Theatre of Dreams was philosophical shorthand for Manchester United’s cavalier, roll-of-the-dice, fearless, pistols-at-dawn way of life.
Ferguson set up with a tactical swagger, his team-sheet a repudiation of caution, a cocky eve-of-battle trumpet blast: We’re not bothered if you score three, we’ll get four.
Take 1999/2000, when United’s glorious dream of wings took spectacular flight, running away with the title despite leaking 16 more goals than Jose Mourinho’s class of 2016/17.
“Giggs, Giggs will tear you apart,” they sang, rewriting the Joy Division classic in tribute to the coltish, mop-haired Welshman slaloming gloriously down the tramline.
It was the era of flying wingers, starched collars, poetic playmakers, a rocking, soul-soaring, high-on-life, Stretford End.
And yin to the yang of Mourinho’s risk-averse and monochrome forcefield of conservatism.
The Portuguese won two trophies in his first season, yet every supporters’ poll reveals lingering discontent, a jury still out.
Among United’s vast legions it seems there is an obsessive, ideological need to climb above the aesthetic drumlins where history tells us pragmatic Jose is content to reside.
Mourinho, his antennae forever alive to the tiniest slight, might wonder in wounded tones why – after a Europa/League Cup double – his portrait is not yet hanging high in Salford corridors.
His ego, which towers above him like a giant monolith, blinds him to an obvious answer.
Under Fergie, United lived in the Hollywood hills. Mourinho – like LVG before him – has taken them to a film-noir world.
Jose has not tickled romantic genes that remain enslaved to the narcotic glow of Alex’s Mardi Gras years.
The old laird was not always curator of a sensory feast: In claiming the initial Premier League title a quarter of century ago, United scored just 67 goals in a 42-match season.
But they were led by the impudent Gallic d’Artagnan, Eric Cantona. Their peacocks were on the pitch rather than attention-seeking in the manager’s technical area.
United, then, were soaked in high-octane personality, always on the brink of combustion.
Now they are handcuffed to the narrow vision of their Portuguese Machiavelli.
With Ferguson’s team there was always that intoxicating sense that you might experience the four seasons of the emotional calendar in one afternoon.
Mourinho – in the drab, soul-sapping, chess-game approach that was his default technical setting last season – seemed content to inhabit a grey philosophical winter.
Look at me, it seemed to say as Marcus Rashford was held in reserve, my personality is all the colour you need.
But it isn’t.
Mourinho has yet to comprehend that at some clubs – United, Real Madrid – success sometimes just isn’t enough.
That what happens, and how it happens, on the pitch will always override the sideline soap opera; that some clubs are just too big to be a vehicle for their manager’s narcissism.
At Old Trafford, the baton passed by the Busby Babes to Ferguson fostered a devotion to, and imperative for, flair.
Take that high-water mark of 1999/2000, when United’s attacking football lit up the Premier League.
Even with Keane and Stam, Irwin and Neville, Ferguson’s team were more defensively porous than mid-table Aston Villa.
It didn’t matter. If their opponent produced a full house, United simply responded with a royal flush. In half their league games, 19 times, they scored at least three goals. On 10 occasions they scored four or more.
When the pressure was turned up, rather than retreat behind barbed wire, they became even more expressive: Over their final 11 games, they netted 39 times.
Compare that with the Chinese torture of Mourinho’s team, a maddening drip-drip that yielded more than three goals in a league game just once all year.
Hull, Burnley and West Brom were among the teams United could not breach at Old Trafford. Can Mourinho – a brilliant but careful coach – escape the tenements of his imagination?
He has won the title in the second season in his five previous reigns (Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid and Chelsea again) at major clubs.
In Madrid, critically, there was even a detour into wild merrymaking as the champions scored more than 100 La Liga goals to outshine Leo Messi’s Barcelona.
With a cast list that includes Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata, United do not lack the raw materials to dazzle and thrill.
Can Mourinho find it in him to allow them off the leash, to permit an exuberant team to become his voice?
Is Jose, fond of a glass of post-match Portuguese wine, ready to uncork United’s possibilities?
It would be some re-imagining, one, in tandem with a winning season certain to woo Old Trafford: Mourinho as great entertainer, brand ambassador for the beautiful game.
And Old Trafford again twinned with the most dazzling playhouses on the Vegas strip.