Eric Cantona and the most important kick in Manchester United’s history

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If you were to ask Manchester United fans what was the most important kick in the club’s history, most would give the same answer.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s injury time toe-poke against Bayern Munich in 1999. The striker’s touch won the club their first European Cup in 31 years, in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable.

However, Solskjaer’s finish never happens if Teddy Sheringham doesn’t turn in Ryan Giggs scuffed right foot shot minutes earlier. United would have already been eliminated if it weren’t for Roy Keane’s goal against Juventus. The Treble could have been shot down in flames if Patrick Vieira’s misplaced pass, in the FA Cup semi-final replay, lands anywhere other than the feet of Giggs.

The winger would not have went on his famous mazy run if Peter Schmeichel fails to save Dennis Bergkamp’s last-minute penalty. One of the most successful seasons in football history hinged on numerous moments, so much so it’s difficult to pinpoint the most pivotal.

What’s in no doubt though is none of it would have been possible without Eric Cantona.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 26/5/1999

The Frenchman had retired two years previously, but was Manchester United’s most important player during the 1990s. The key that unlocked defences and titles, Cantona was the final piece in Alex Ferguson’s first great team and the catalyst for the all-conquering team of ’99.

When he signed from Leeds United in 1992, Ferguson said Cantona was: ‘the perfect player, in the perfect club, at the perfect moment’. However, their utopia was almost destroyed on this night 20 years ago, a night that, in many ways, would be the making of the club’s future successes.

To fully understand the context of the evening, one needs to get a sense of the type of team United were. The reigning Premiership and FA Cup holders were aggressive, arrogant and, at times, nasty.

United were not only capable of matching their opponents physically, they relished the prospect. The only comparable team is perhaps Don Revie’s Leeds team of John Giles, Billy Bremner and Norman ‘Bite yer legs’ Hunter. United were also the best football team in the country, albeit, in January ’95, one in patchy form.

PALACE V MAN U

While this doesn’t explain Cantona’s Kung-Fu kick on Matthew Simmons, the 20-year-old who rushed 11 rows to the front of the stand to abuse the Frenchman, it does go some way to explaining how Cantona ended up leaping into the stands.

On January 25th 1995, Crystal Palace hosted United at Selhurst Park. A tight, tetchy first-half had seen strugglers Palace frustrate and contain United.

Defender Richard Shaw had spent the entire first-half kicking Cantona, much to the annoyance of the Frenchman and his manager, whose protests were ignored by referee Alan Wilkie. Three minutes into the second-half Cantona snapped, petulantly kicking his opponent and received a red card, his second of the season and fifth since arriving in England.

‘There’s the morning headline,’ Jon Champion said as Cantona turned down his collar and began walking towards the dressing room, past his impassive manager and alongside the baying crowd. The commentator had no idea what was about to happen would fuel months of morning headlines.

When the camera returned to Cantona, he frees himself from Norman Davies, the United kitman, hurdles the advertising hoarding, connects with a kick to Simmons’ chest, stumbles and throws two punches before both men are restrained. It was all over in seconds, but the story was just beginning.

By the time Cantona played again, on September 30th, he’d received and successfully appealed against a prison sentence. He’d fled and handed in a transfer request, lost the captaincy of the French national team, as United surrendered the league title to Blackburn Rovers and the FA Cup to Everton. All the while media hysteria took hold. Cantona’s act of hooliganism, against a hooligan, gave some license to turn him into an embodiment of all the game’s ills.

PALACE V MAN U

1995 was a bad time for English football. Less than a month after Cantona’s kick, England supporters rioted at Lansdowne Road. George Graham was sacked as Arsenal manager after it was discovered he’d accepted illegal payments in transfer deals. Yet, according to FA Chairman Graham Kelly, Cantona’s incident was ‘a stain on our game’.

Cantona’s act was a moment of madness, but some of the recrimination was drenched in xenophobia.

In 2015, foreign players dominate the English top-flight. Twenty years ago, a skilful, foreign player was a rare, and widely distrusted, novelty. English football was gradually emerging from the exile of the late ’80s, Sky Sports’ money was only beginning its osmosis and the game still creeping towards the product it would become.

There had never been a player like Cantona in England. A troubled reputation preceded him upon arrival on English shores. He’d spoke out against the corruption of Marseilles owner Bernard Tapie, thrown his jersey at his coach, a ball at a referee and called his former national team boss ‘a bag of shit’.

ERIC CANTONA MAN UTD

He was also a marvellous footballer, one of the most gifted of his generation and the key variable in the destination of each English league title during his time in the country.

Built like a heavyweight boxer, with the grace and balance of ballerina, Cantona’s spatial awareness, technique and power made him a formidable prospect. The nomadic striker found a home at Manchester United, a manager who would indulge his individuality and offer the perfect stage to fully express his considerable talent.

With his collar up, back straight and chest out, Cantona would stride onto the Old Trafford pitch. He was the player United fans had waited two decades for, the one to restore the club to the summit of English football, after 20 years of mediocrity, and the one they still sing about two decades later.

Cantona was voted PFA Player of the Year in 1994, so appreciation of his talent extended beyond Old Trafford. But, when things went wrong, as they did so dramatically 20 years ago today, a wider underlying distrust returned to the surface. The echo of ‘I told you so’ was deafening.

Pundits and commentators were largely in agreement; there could be no place for Cantona in English football. Mark Lawrenson, writing in the Irish Times, said ‘French arrogance’ was to blame for Cantona’s disposition. Former United player Bill Foulkes said: ‘Eric is French, they are different to us and he reacts differently’.

MAN U V WREXHAM

Cantona’s house was besieged by photographers as some media outlets commissioned psychologists to help shine a light on his seemingly troubled mind. One newspaper sent reporters to Marseilles, in an attempt to unearth details from his childhood to help explain his actions. A television crew even followed him and his family on holiday.

All the while commercial interests were exploited. Sky Sports subscriptions increased in the immediate aftermath, helped by The Sun’s coverage of the event, with Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper devoting 12 pages to the incident the following day. Meanwhile Nike planned Cantona’s return, content that their product was on the front page of every newspaper.

United, trying to preempt the Football Association, banned Cantona for the remainder of the season and fined him two weeks wages. However, the FA then extended the ban by a further six months to the last day of September. The longest suspension imposed by the FA since two players were banned for life in the 1960s for match-fixing.

Cantona also received a two-week prison sentence, before successfully appealing and carrying out the required community service. By the time of his famous ‘Seagulls’ press conference in March ’95, public opinion was beginning to turn.

Eric Cantona Manchester United 1994

In addition to the wit of the Frenchman, details about Simmons and his actions emerged. The 20 year-old sold his story to The Sun and claimed he’d confronted Cantona to say: ‘That’s an early bath for you Mr Cantona’.

Witnesses said it was more likely: ‘Fuck off back to France, you French bastard’.

Simmons lost his job, some friends and family disowned him and he couldn’t even go into a pub without being provoked. In 2007, he said he’d been ‘a bit of a cretin’ in his younger years.

United had planned to ease Cantona’s exile with a series of practice matches. However, when the FA got word of it they reminded the club that their striker was banned from all footballing activity. Cantona was furious, leaving England for France and submitting a transfer request.

Inter Milan had long wanted to sign the Frenchman, were prepared to meet United’s valuation of £5 million and could increase Cantona’s wages fivefold.

Italy was still the apex of world football at the time. Cantona had the chance to escape the British press, start over again in a new country and such a move would have been in keeping with his nomadic career path. Yet, he stayed, saying: ‘morally, it would be impossible for me to leave after what the people there have done for me’.

MAN U V LIVERPOOL

Ferguson’s initial reaction to the kung fu kick was he would have to sell Cantona. However, he almost instantly changed his mind, offering support and protection to his talisman. In his first autobiography, Roy Keane said: ‘I don’t think any other football man would have demonstrated the skill, resolve and strength that Alex Ferguson did managing the Cantona affair’. Cantona would stay and United fully reaped the benefits.

The Frenchman was incredible the following season as United overturned Newcastle’s 12-point lead and won the double. ‘There was a sense of a man inhabited by a kind of ferocious but controlled anger,’ the journalist Philippe Auclair said about Cantona’s performance. ‘A zealot bent on redressing an injustice and imposing a greater truth. Nothing would stand in his way’.

In the title run-in the score tended to be 1-0 to United, with Cantona getting the goal. The Frenchman’s redemption was complete with the Football Writers’ Player of the Year Award, and the winning goal against Liverpool in the FA Cup final. The rebirth of English football and the appeal of Premier League was built on such dramatic storylines.

Eric Cantona holds aloft the trophy 11/5/1996

Within a year he was gone and United were left without their talisman, however the influence of Cantona, and the legacy he helped create, carried the team through to their greatest triumph.

It’s purely hypothetical, but if Cantona doesn’t vault the advertising hoarding at Selhurst Park, such glory may not have happened.

Cantona’s actions marked the end of Ferguson’s first great team as United finished the season empty-handed, hastening the renewal of the team and the emergence of the young players, who would form the nucleus of the Treble winning side.

A petulance had crept into Cantona’s game in the months leading up to his explosion at Selhurst Park. When he returned he was a more controlled, measured and focused presence. The striker’s influence on the ‘class of ’92’ was massive. At a time when going the pub after training was still a common practice for English teams, Cantona stayed behind and trained with Beckham, Giggs and Paul Scholes.

Cantona broke the mould and was the key factor in the destination of each league title during his time in England. By the time United had a worthy foe capable of challenging their domestic dominance, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, he’d helped establish a title-winning pedigree.

During his time United developed the winning aura that would carry the club through until end of Alex Ferguson’s tenure, a winning habit, that fuelled the club in their Treble season.

If Cantona doesn’t hurdle the advertising hoardings, and then return to guide the side to two more league titles, it’s difficult to imagine United’s future dominance taking the same form.

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‘Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?’ and more examples of great sportswriting:

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My article on the decline of elite Irish footballers was named the 32th best piece of sportswriting of 2014.

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The 10 Most Memorable Football Moments of 2014

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What a year it’s been for football.

2014 saw the best World Cup in recent memory, one the most exciting Premier League title races ever and the most unlikely Ireland result in the most dramatic of circumstances. This year had so many unforgettable football moments, here’s our 10 most memorable.

(Originally published on SportsJOE.ie)

10. Luis Suárez’s second goal against England

Uruguay v England: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

The then Liverpool forward underwent knee surgery on May 21st, was expected to be out of action for six weeks but returned on June 19th to effectively knock England out of the World Cup. As the game was entering its final minutes, Luis Suárez was hobbling around the pitch, no-where near full fitness, but instinctively reacted to a misplaced Steven Gerrard header, went through on goal and smashed the ball home.

A fantastic World Cup moment, full of narrative and drama, the camera panned from the ecstasy of Suarez and the Uruguayans to the despair of Gerrard and England. A man who’d been in a wheelchair weeks before crushes a nation’s hopes.

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9. Eamon Dunphy curses live on air during the World Cup. Eamon Dunphy 17/5/2012RTE have just come back on air before the game between Brazil and Mexico in the World Cup. ‘The pitch was a fucking bog’, Eamon Dunphy doesn’t seem to realise it though. ‘You can see the level of expectancy,’ Bill O’Herlihy notes to the panel. ‘When Neymar was shaping up to take that penalty’ Dunphy continues, ‘I thought he was fucking… dreading it’.  The host takes a sharp intake of breath as Dunphy curses and it becomes apparent, the pundit has dropped a series of F-bombs on live television. Even by his own Olympic-like dedication and mastery of saying controversial things, this was a special moment.

‘We’re on air?!’ , O’Herlihy asks.‘Oh we’re not, are we?!’ Dunphy says, squirming in his seat and momentarily raising his hand to cover his mouth. Bill awkwardly laughs it off and when the programme returns from a break Dunphy says sorry for his slip. But, like a schoolboy apologising for misbehaving, Dunphy has a twinkle in his eye and you know he’s not really sorry. Never change Eamon.

8. James Rodriguez goal against Uruguay Colombia v Uruguay: Round of 16 - 2014 FIFA World Cup BrazilJames Rodriguez was already the best performer at the World Cup before the last-16 tie with Uruguay. The Colombian had scored two and and assisted two in the group stages, but this goal raised his profile to superstar level. Rodriguez drifted into a pocket of space between Uruguay’s defence and midfield, took a quick glance towards goal before cushioning a pass with his chest and, in one motion, turned and volleyed a peach of a shot in off the underside of the bar. Rodriguez nonchalantly saunters off and signs for Real Madrid for €80 million a few weeks later. A star is born.

7.Sergio Ramos last minute Champions League final goal against Atletico Madrid Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final La Décima, the title Real Madrid, a club that has everything, craves more than anything is about to be lost to their city rivals. Atletico Madrid, the plucky underdogs, upstarts who were not expected to get anywhere near this stage, are seconds from completing the most improbable of league and Champions League doubles. Real need a hero.  https://vine.co/v/MdjJlggWwVw/embed/postcard

Sergio Ramos, like some Iberian Chuck Norris, arrives to save the day. Out jumping everyone, the defender powers home an equaliser and sparks manic celebrations for Real.

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6. David Moyes gets sacked by Manchester United

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League

A highly regarded manager becomes a laughing stock as years of hard work is forgotten in months, a dream job becomes a nightmare and one man gets the blame for turning the Premier League champions into also-rans. ‘The Chosen One’ became ‘The Wrong One’. Poor David Moyes.

There were so many moments of Moyes in 2014, with each passing week Manchester United appeared to sink deeper into mediocrity as the ghost of Alex Ferguson watched on from the stands and their manager seemingly aged years in the process. When the inevitable happened, and news broke that United would part company with the Glaswegian on April 21st, Moyes was no more sacked than put out of his misery. Although handled pretty poorly by the club – journalists had told him of his sacking before the club did – releasing Moyes was the humane thing to do.

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5. Luis Suárez bites Giorgio Chiellini Italy v Uruguay: Group D - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil When a person does something for the third time, you’d imagine it wouldn’t be all that memorable. However, when that someone is Luis Suárez, the action is him biting an opponent on the pitch and the stage is a crucial World Cup game with millions watching, it becomes unforgettable. Suárez almost broke the internet. Reactions went from shock, to laughter, to indignation, and back again. The maddest of Suárez’s many mad moments, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon.

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4. Steven Gerrard slips

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League

As cruel for Liverpool fans as it was funny for Manchester United fans as it was unforgettable for football fans. Steven Gerrard slipping in the decisive game on their unlikely title push was the Premier League’s most memorable moment of 2014. Just two weeks previously, Anfield was rocking as Liverpool beat eventual champions Manchester City 3-2 on the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. A tearful, exhausted Gerrard addressed his team on the Anfield pitch, and told them ‘this does not slip’.

In the next game at the ground, he slipped. The dream of Liverpool being crowned champions for the first time in 24 years was gone. Gerrard, the one-club man, the team’s hero over 15 years and symbol of the club became the victim of the most cruelest of ironies.

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3. John O’Shea’s last minute equaliser against Germany

John O'Shea celebrates scoring 14/10/2014

Ireland are trailing to the world champions, there are seconds remaining on the clock and it looks like they’ll be returning home with nothing. Up steps John O’Shea, wearing the captain’s armband, on his 100th cap to guide home a deft finish. Incredible stuff. Ireland nick a point from the mighty Germany and fans of the Irish team have something to sit alongside the great moments of the past.

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What made the goal all the sweeter and more memorable is the lack of such in a moment in recent Irish football history. Not since Robbie Keane’s equaliser against Italy in 2009 had there being such a moment of pure, explosive joy for followers of the national team. The crushing disappointment of Euro 2012 carried on into a equally depressing qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup, when Ireland were hammered 6-1 by Germany. If we were compiling a list of most memorable Irish football moments, there’s no doubt John O’Shea’s last minute goal against the world champions would be in first spot.

2.Van Persie’s goal against Spain

Spain v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Robin van Persie’s goal was breathtaking, a truly unique piece of skill rarely seen before or unlikely to be repeated. Daley Blind’s diagonal ball was precise and perfectly weighted, but Van Persie’s movement and speed of thought was stunning. When watching the replay it’s almost as though you can see the cogs in his head working.

The Dutch striker arrived onto the ball just inside Spain’s penalty area, having run off their flat defence, and seems to instantly measure the distance between the goal and Iker Casillas. He then leaps at the ball, almost performing a corkscrew motion to send it over the stranded goalkeeper.

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The goal itself is unforgettable, but, when considering the wider significance of the moment, it becomes even more memorable. Van Persie’s header was the exact moment the aura of the World and European Champions, the most dominant international side in football history, was shattered. Until that point Spain were leading 1-0 and were cruising and the Netherlands had barely a kick in the game. The Manchester United striker’s goal burst Spain’s bubble.

An incredible act of skill, athleticism, speed of thought and execution, a goal that will be replayed for years to come. It’d make you wonder how the hell van Persie, after scoring such an amazing goal, then lacked the co-ordination to properly high five Louis van Gaal.

1.   Germany destroy Brazil

Brazil v Germany: Semi Final - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Football’s JFK moment. A seismic event that saw a simultaneous dropping of jaws across the globe. This game was the most tweeted about sport event of 2014, but transcended football or sport, it was as though we were watching a nation disintegrate in front of our eyes. Germany were as relentless as Brazil were hideously awful.

The hosts had bulldozed their way through the tournament, playing awful football and almost kicked their opponents Colombia more than the ball in the Quarter-Finals. When Thomas Muller opened the scoring you could see Brazil deflate, like a bully who’d been hit back for the first time, their perceived confidence had been shown to be bluster. David Luiz went rouge as the team crumbled and no-one could believe what they were watching.

Not only the most memorable football moment of 2014, Germany’s demolition of Brazil is the most memorable football moment of the 21st century and, it could be argued, potentially the most memorable football moment ever. Brazil’s collapse will never be forgotten.

REALITY BITES FOR LIVERPOOL AFTER SPRINGTIME IN DREAMLAND BUT WHAT AWAITS IN 2015?

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Make Us Dream, They Dared to Dream, We Go Again and Poetry In Motion, these are all titles of some of the books you can buy this Christmas and they all tell the same story.

A plucky underdog rises from relative obscurity, dispatches all before them before a fatal slip brings them crashing back to earth. The books are about Liverpool’s season 2013-14 season, each a celebration of the club almost winning the league.

It would be interesting to see what authors would title books based solely on Liverpool’s 2014. This year the club went from 11 victories in a row to winning one in eight, from the explosive genius of Luis Suárez to the frustration and mediocrity of Mario Balotelli. The cusp of the league title in May to crashing out of the Champions League and struggling in the Premier League as the year closes. Brendan Rodgers going from winning manager of the year to admitting he may be the first top-flight boss to get sacked this season.

No football club has had as polarising a year as Liverpool.

The club entered 2014 on the back of consecutive losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, but sat in fourth spot and on course to meet their primary aim of Champions League qualification. However, following the stunning 5-1 victory over Arsenal at the beginning of February, Liverpool set off on an incredible run of form, an emotional rollercoaster that reached its crescendo against Manchester City in April.

On the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool won 3-2 to go five points clear of Chelsea in second place, and seven clear of City, although both had games in hand.

Yet with the sight of the Kop in full voice as a tearful, exhausted Steven Gerrard passionately addressed his team, and with just four games remaining, it seemed destined for Liverpool to win their first league crown in 24 years. But then the most unlikely title victory in Premier League history was dashed as cruel fate intervened. Jose Mourinho, Tony Pulis and the most unfortunate of slips from Gerrard tore up the romantic script.

‘What leaps off the page,’ BBC journalist Ben Smith said of Make Us Dream, ‘is the feeling of reclamation, the feeling of a city and a football club finding harmony’. However, seven months after daring to dream, the club and its fans have awoken to a uncertain and frustrating reality.

Last season’s harmony is long gone, departing, ironically, with Suárez, the most inharmonious of figures. Like Alex Ferguson it appears, through genius and ruthless determination, one man was capable of lifting an entire team to another level. If Suárez was Liverpool’s equivalent of Ferguson, then the club signed a team of David Moyes’ in the summer.

That ‘feeling of reclamation’ that grew in the final months of last season now seems like a cruel tease for fans. Liverpool’s shot at the title seemed to be the beginning of a return to the glory years. The team represented the club the fans believe Liverpool were and should still be. A club that wins titles and plays attractive attacking football, led by a talismanic genius and an articulate, innovative manager. However, as the year ends, nothing has been reclaimed.

Liverpool v Everton - Premier League

Luis Suárez carrying Liverpool on his back.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season, the manager dismissed suggestions the side would struggle without their departed talisman. Rodgers has been right to champion the team’s qualities, and his ambitions have been somewhat thwarted by the long-term injury to striker Daniel Sturridge. However, there is no escaping the questions surrounding Rodgers’ management of the side. Just as the first half of 2014 seemed to convey Rodgers coaching ability, eye for a player and tactical acumen, this season has suggested the opposite.

Liverpool’s defence was weak last season and the manager has seemingly done little to fix the problems. At almost every defensive set-piece Martin Skrtel grabs his opponent’s jersey instead of attacking the ball, the defender is like a drowning man, frantically attempting to pull himself to safety. His erstwhile partner, £20 million summer signing Dejan Lovren, has struggled to the point where veteran Kolo Toure looks a more calming influence. Liverpool’s defence has underperformed and looks completely devoid of confidence, but there is little sign they are working from a cohesive plan.

Despite the much-maligned ‘transfer committee’ Liverpool employ, Rodgers is ultimately responsible for the team’s performances. He apparently has the power of veto over any signing and is meant to be one of the game’s brightest coaches. Circumstances, such as injuries, a busted flush of a goalkeeper and the decline of Gerrard, have gone against the manager. But such events can be the making of a coach, the ability to adjust in situations of ill-fortune.

He has shown signs of adapting in the past, but it is as though there have been three versions of Rodgers at Liverpool. Year One was filled with buzzwords of footballing philosophy, ‘death by football’. Year Two the team was more reactive, playing their best football when breaking fast up the pitch. For the majority of this season, though, it has been hard to recognise any plan.

Just as the fans seem to suffering for their exuberance over last season’s false dawn, Rodgers is paying for some of his comments over the last year. Saying it is ‘easy’ to organise a defence, following Liverpool’s loss to Chelsea in April, reflects poorly on him when one watches Liverpool hopelessly attempt to defend. Deriding Tottenham Hotspur last season for not challenging for the league after spending £100million on new players may now bring a wry smile to some faces, but for Liverpool fans it must sting.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season at to Southampton, the manager said: ‘People in football say that it might have been our best chance to win the league, but this year might be our best chance. We will have more belief. We will be stronger this season’. Needless to say, the team have not been stronger in any way. 2014 offered a glimpse at the club Liverpool want to be, but also an image of what the club will be in the immediate future, and it is troubling.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

For all of Rodgers’ mishaps, Liverpool’s poor performances and the departure of Suárez, the club have been in this situation before. When tasked with building on success, they have taken one step forward, only to then take two steps backwards. Liverpool finished second in 2001-02 season, ahead of Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League era, having won a cup treble the previous year. That summer El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou arrived and subsequently flopped, becoming by-words for poor transfer dealings. The club exited the Champions League early and finished fifth in the league. Within two years manager Gerrard Houllier had departed and Liverpool were back at square one.

Seven years later, Rafa Benitez’s side also finished second and went into the transfer market in a position of strength. Midfield dynamo Xabi Alonso left for Real Madrid, but the club signed Alberto Aquilani to replace the Spaniard and had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at the peak of their abilities. Liverpool began the 2009-10 season as favourites for the title. The summer signings made no impact as the team finished seventh and crashed out the Champions League in the group stage.

However, the immediate problems facing Liverpool go deeper than Rodgers. In an era of petro-dollar fuelled football clubs, and the new Galactico transfer policy of commercial juggernauts Manchester United, a club like Liverpool simply cannot afford to make mistakes in the transfer market. A club that has just spent over £100 million in the transfer market should not currently look like they need to spend another £100 million.

Just as Liverpool were stronger in the second half of last season, Rodgers will be hoping for a similar upturn in 2015. However, qualifying for the Champions League, the objective at the start of the season, seems unlikely, putting Rodgers at risk of the same fate as predecessors Houllier and Benitez.

In modern football, titles are won by commercial leviathans or clubs pumped with petro-dollars. Competing with this giants is hard enough without Liverpool’s many mishaps.

If Liverpool dared to dream in the first half of 2014, and the final six months has been a rude awakening, 2015 could represent a frustrating reality.

O’NEILL AND STRACHAN: TWO CAREERS RUNNING ALONG THE SAME TRACK

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THEY WILL BE IN OPPOSING DUG-OUTS TONIGHT AT CELTIC PARK BUT THERE ARE EXTRAORDINARY PARALLELS BETWEEN THE IRISH AND SCOTTISH MANAGERS

Originally published on SportsJOE.ie

It’s March 2013 and Martin O’Neill’s distinguished managerial career has bottomed out. Sunderland, the club he supported as a boy, has fallen to 17th in the Premier League, with seven games to play, and decide to sack the Derry native. O’Neill’s 25 years in the dugout had been built on possessing supreme man-management skills, a keen eye for a player and an ability to infuse his teams with his own restless energy. Once dubbed the ‘Duracell Bunny’, due to animated touchline actions, O’Neill, in his final months at Sunderland, appeared flat.

Rewind a few years earlier, to October 2010, and the current Scotland manager is in a near identical situation. Gordon Strachan has resigned from his post as Middlesbrough manager after less than a year in the role with the club 20th in the Championship. When the Scot took charge ‘Boro were fourth, three points off the top. He leaves them in their lowest league position in over 20 years. Strachan was so embarrassed by his performance he tore up his contract, refusing compensation.

England’s North-East had become a graveyard for two successful managerial careers. The promise both men had shown at Celtic, particularly O’Neill,  looked set to be unfulfilled as the modern game seemingly surpassed them. O’Neill and Strachan were banished to the purgatory of football punditry. However, tonight’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifier between Scotland and Ireland, and return to the white hot atmosphere of Celtic Park, is perhaps the ultimate departure from sharing a TV studio with Adrian Chiles.

Both men return to the scene of some of their greatest feats in management having bounced back from failure in their last club position. Strachan and O’Neill have revived their careers in international management, and in the process presided over a mini-revival of the Scottish and Irish national teams. However, in such a tight group, one man’s career renaissance is likely to come at the other’s expense.

The slump and subsequent upturn of Strachan’s managerial career is mirrored by O’Neill’s resurgence. The Scotland manager was speaking about his counterpart last week, saying: ‘Martin is a happy eccentric and I enjoy his company’. Strachan also conceded they share similar outlook on football. ‘We use our eyes, rather than stats. Are we fatigued or not fatigued? We’re old-fashioned but there’s nothing wrong with that. Sir Alex Ferguson did the same things and it didn’t do him any harm. I’m not saying we are up there with him, I’m just saying being old-fashioned has served us OK’.

Being ‘old-fashioned’ is just one of the similarities between the men. From managing Celtic to playing at World Cups, winning European titles as players with provincial clubs to working with Roy Keane, Strachan and O’Neill have treaded similar footballing paths along the road to tonight’s game. The two men also played under two of football’s greatest managers and most influential characters, Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson. O’Neill spent 10 years at Nottingham Forest, six of those under the guidance of Clough, winning a league title and two European Cups. While Strachan also played for Ferguson for six years at Aberdeen, part of the side which broke up the Old Firm duopoly and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Real Madrid in 1983.

Martin O'Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final

Martin O’Neill waves goodbye to Celtic fans after 2005 Scottish Cup Final.

O’Neill and Strachan also had, at times, strained relationships with their autocratic managers. O’Neill has spoken about how Clough would never praise his performances and the two men differed over what the Derry native’s best position was. O’Neill saw himself as a central midfielder, while Clough used him primarily on the right wing. Duncan Hamilton, author of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, a memoir of Clough’s time at Forest, wrote: ‘Cloughie could never get the better of Martin O’Neill. When he was in the mood, Martin was as articulate as the great Irish novelist, James Joyce. That had Cloughie totally bamboozled.’

Strachan had a similarly complicated relationship with Ferguson, albeit their differences were more personal. The former Manchester United manager said in his 1999 autobiography that he ‘decided this man could not be trusted an inch’. Their troubled relationship continued when Ferguson followed his former player south. According to Strachan, his manager ‘took up from where he had left off with me at Aberdeen, I remember telling him, “Listen, you spoke to me like that nine years ago. It might have worked well then but it is not going to work now”. But the screaming and shouting did not cease, it just got worse and more personal’.

While Strachan played until he was 40, O’Neill was forced to retire from a knee injury in 1985, aged 32. The Derry native moved into management and, due to his work with Leicester City between 1995 and 2000, earned a reputation as one of the game’s most promising managers. O’Neill got Leicester promoted to the Premier League, won two League Cups, and established the club as an ever present in the top flight during his tenure. O’Neill then took charge of a beleaguered Celtic, who had finished 21 points off Rangers the season before his arrival.

However, he soon re-energised the club, winning his first Old Firm derby 6-2 and completing a domestic treble in his first season. Celtic would win three league titles, three Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup. The club also reached the 2003 Uefa Cup final, where they suffered a heart-breaking defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. When O’Neill stepped away from his position in 2005 he was the most successful, and perhaps most loved, Celtic manager since Jock Stein.

Strachan succeeded O’Neill at Celtic in 2005. While not as successful as O’Neill in English club management, the Scot had experienced relative success with Southampton. In his three years with the club, Strachan secured their Premier League survival and guided them to the 2003 FA Cup final, before resigning in 2004. Strachan was never as popular as his predecessor at Celtic Park, but was arguably as successful, as Celtic won three league titles, two Scottish League Cups and a Scottish Cup. Strachan also achieved a feat his much vaunted predecessor could not when leading Celtic to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

When both men returned to English club management they found the game had changed. O’Neill took charge of Aston Villa in 2006 and was optimistic he could revive the club’s fortunes. ‘I am well aware of the history of this football club’, he said. ‘Trying to restore it to its days of former glory seems a long way away – but why not try? It is nearly 25 years since they won the European Cup but that is the dream’. However O’Neill found there was a glass ceiling for Premier League clubs outside the Champions League.

Roy Keane's unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan

Roy Keane’s unveiled as a Celtic player alongside manager Gordon Strachan.

Villa invested heavily but failed to better three successive sixth-place finishes. O’Neill resigned the day before the opening of the 2010-11 season, in dispute with Randy Lerner, the Villa owner, over allocation of transfer funds. Despite the club entering a downward spiral since O’Neill’s departure, Villa fans were left with a bitter taste towards the Derry native. O’Neill had spent over £120 million in his four years in charge, signing players on big wages, but was unable to crack the Premier League’s top four.

Strachan would also find club management difficult upon returning south. Despite an overhaul of the club’s squad, the Scot presided over Middlesbrough’s slide down the Championship table before resigning. Strachan was out of work for two years before taking the Scotland job. While O’Neill, after being replaced at Sunderland by managerial ‘charlatan’ Paolo Di Canio, was linked with Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace during his time out of the game. Long gone were the days when he was being interviewed for the England job or touted as next Manchester United manager.

The move into international management has revitalised both men’s careers. Both Strachan and O’Neill took charge of sides at their lowest point, two squads bereft of confidence following the stagnant spells of Giovanni Trapattoni and Craig Levein.

Ireland were ranked 70th in the world, while Scotland’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup were long gone when Strachan took charge in January 2013. Both sides go into tonight’s game on an upward trajectory following recent performances and fancy their respective chances of securing at least a place-off place.

However, qualification for one of Ireland or Scotland is likely to be secured at the other’s expense, meaning the career renaissance of both men could culminate this evening back at Celtic Park.

Strachan and O’Neill have taken similar paths to tonight’s game, but only one may have a happy return to Paradise.

Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?

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Originally published on The Guardian.

The Republic of Ireland teams that went to the World Cup finals in 1990, 1994 and 2002 were full of Premier League players. Why is the country no longer producing great footballers?

Upon arrival in cities, the first port of call for generations of Irish migrants, with the possible exception of the nearest public house, would have been a place to stay. Settling in industrial centres such as London and Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, New York and Boston, the majority from the 19th century onwards were escaping abject poverty and an insular rural society that offered little opportunity to better their quality of life.

Some who sought accommodation upon arrival were greeted by signs declaring: “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.” The overwhelming majority of Irish migrants were uneducated, unskilled and socially unrefined, considered almost sub-human by the native, ruling elite and stereotyped as such by the popular press. Many Irish still have to relocate to find gainful employment, but the majority are now educated, skilled and employable. Irish migrants do not face the same hardship and opposition as their predecessors. Instead it is emigrating young Irish footballers that now face career dead ends.

Playing in the Premier League represents the ultimate goal for young Irish footballers, as it does for millions of people around the world. The English top flight is by far the most popular football league and for the vast majority of Irish fans and media outlets it dwarfs the relevance of the League of Ireland.

However, unlike recently emerged fan markets in Asia, north America and Africa, English football’s popularity was embedded in Ireland long before the Premier League. The former Ireland and Leeds United midfielder Johnny Giles writes in his autobiography about how he listened to the radio broadcast of Manchester United’s 1948 FA Cup final victory. Giles was eight years old, United were his favourite team and the captain, Johnny Carey, a fellow Dubliner, was his favourite player.

Giles would follow in Carey’s footsteps, joining United as a teenager and breaking into the first team in the seasons following the Munich air disaster. Just as England represented the primary destination for Irish labour migrants, Irish footballers looked to their neighbour’s top flight. From the 1940s through to first decade of this century, Irish footballers have populated England’s top teams.

From Giles to George Best, Liam Brady to Paul McGrath, Roy Keane to David O’Leary, Irish players have been among the most successful footballers in England. The great Liverpool and Arsenal teams of the 1980s had a strong Irish contingent, as did Manchester United during the same period. Ireland once had a healthy representation at Arsenal and, during the Premier League era, the all-conquering United team, captained by Keane, featured stalwarts Denis Irwin and later John O’Shea. Last season the largest contingent of Irish players in the Premier League was at Hull City.

In the 2007-08 season, Irish players made up 6% of footballers in the Premier League, the second most represented nationality after England. In the 2013-14 season, Irish players accounted for 4.7% of top flight participants, down to the fourth most represented nationality. Observers might argue this is not a particularly alarming drop, but Irish football is clearly in a state of decline.

The national team is currently ranked 70th in the world. The numbers following the career paths of Giles and co, departing Ireland as teenagers to make it in Britain, are ever dwindling and their career paths have been stemmed. Last season Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish representative in the Champions League group stage, and the three best Irish performers in the Premier League were Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy of Everton, and Hull City’s Shane Long, now of Southampton.

The paths taken by these three players are at the heart of Irish football’s woes; they are successful, or play for Republic of Ireland, by accident, not design. McCarthy is a Glaswegian of Irish descent who chose to represent the country of his grandfather’s birth. The Irish diaspora may be large and the team have long used it as a means of finding players, but it is no longer a reliable model. McCarthy is the exception to the rule and, as the playing pools for England and Scotland continue to dwindle, Ireland will be fortunate if a player of such quality falls into their lap again.

Coleman and Long are also cases of accident rather than design. They come from rural, Gaelic Games strongholds in Donegal and Tipperary. Neither are football academy graduates and both played for provincial football teams before moving to England as adults. Long was 18 when Reading signed him for a nominal fee; Coleman was 20 when David Moyes took him to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Despite their undoubted raw talent and admirable work ethic, the transfers would have been considered low-risk transactions for the English clubs.

Coleman and Long moved to England around the age when many of their Irish contemporaries would be returning home, or dropping down the divisions, having failed to make a breakthrough at the top clubs. These players would have taken the path treaded by Giles, Brady and O’Shea, moving to England as a teenager, entering the youth team and hoping to progress to the reserves and then the first team. However, for the vast majority of Irish football emigrants, the path is now blocked.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was in Dublin for a friendly with the Irish side Shamrock Rovers last May. The Northern Irishman was quizzed on the declining number of Irish prospects at English clubs and gave little hope for optimism. “It’s a lot more difficult now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Irish lads start their apprenticeship at 16, but even then it’s too late as boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16, they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

Rodgers paints a bleak picture for young Irish footballers. The lucky few who manage to get to English club academies, the players deemed to be the best prospects, are already significantly stunted due to the greater accelerated development of their new team-mates. If they survive and then thrive enough to make the first team of a top flight club, it will be something akin to a footballing miracle, another case of accident trumping design.

The current situation facing Irish football is either to improve the exported product or focus on being self-sufficient by developing a viable outlet for talent to thrive at home. Ireland is a small country – the Republic has a population of just over 4.5m – and thus the talent pool is comparatively shallow. However, unlike bigger countries, Ireland’s population is largely centralised and therefore the condition is ripe to introduce a centralised development plan. Uruguay, a country that mirrors Ireland in this sense, albeit with a stronger footballing identity, has done so in recent years. There is a clear, cohesive structure and development plan from youth to senior football, when the best players will be exported. Irish football by comparison is fractured.

Another argument offered for Ireland’s woes has been the challenge of other popular team sports, such as Gaelic games and rugby. However, football is the number one participation sport. The Dublin District Schoolboys League is the largest league of its kind in Europe, with over 200 clubs and 16,000 players competing. One would imagine there has to be another Liam Brady in there somewhere.

So if the interest and participation remains high, the onus falls on the coaches to mould and educate the talent. However, it is strikingly obvious that, like in England, there are not enough coaches. In 2013, Ireland had 45 Uefa Pro licences, 183 holders of the A licence and 488 with the B licence. These qualifications are markedly more expensive to obtain in Ireland and England than in Germany and Spain. There are still many coaches at all levels without such qualifications who devote their time and effort admirably.

That said, there are also too many coaches who favour physicality over creativity, who instruct their teams to hoof the ball to the big lad and who place an emphasis players minimising their mistakes above expressing themselves. Physical prowess is valued over technical or cognitive development. The Irish culture of exporting talent also leads to many coaches seeking the short path, hoping they can be the one to get their player a dream move to a club in England.

The dangers of developing players for export, just like the migrant experience, are not unique to the Irish. At the World Cup it was startling to see Brazil, a footballing giant with a population of 200m, with so few creative, dynamic players in their midfield. To develop such a player takes time, patience and technical coaching. Instead Brazil had Hulk.

Scouts from elite teams will still visit Brazil, hoping to find the next great prospect, but the same cannot be said of Ireland. After a few months in his new role, Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was disparaging about the lack of young players to select, saying: “In the back of my mind, I thought ‘there must be five, six, seven young lads playing who will maybe break through’. But at this minute, I haven’t spotted it.”

These players could materialise if Ireland had a cohesive structure with a clear playing philosophy and a greater number of coaches to properly implement it. This would involve patience, foresight and, of course, money spent on grassroots football; three attributes few would associate with the Football Association of Ireland. John Delaney, the chief executive, has an annual salary that is more than the prize money awarded to the winners of the domestic top flight. The association has had a raft of redundancies in recent years and their primary objective is reducing their debt by 2020.

Essentially the organisation, like Ireland as a country, is run akin to a multinational corporation, where the financial bottom line is what counts. The Irish government’s sustained policy of economic austerity, an offshoot of years of neo-liberalist subjugation and mismanagement, has fuelled mass migration and further widened a wealth gap that was the largest in the developed world even during the boom years.

This is a place where the needs of the grassroots are diminished by the wants of those at the top the pyramid. The prospect of self-sufficiency, conjecture or even a sustained reflection on the many social problems is just not feasible. In such a scenario, the chance of the next Giles, Brady or Keane breaking through at an elite English club is about as remote as the migrant staying the night at the lodgings that allowed “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”.

The Special One another poor season away from being yesterday’s man

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Originally featured on Back Page Football.

The dubious accolade for the Premier League’s biggest flop presented a number of viable, unfortunate nominees last season. There were misfiring strikers, such as Roberto Soldado or Ricky van Wolfswinkel, expensive but underwhelming signings, Erik Lamela and Marouane Fellaini, and mismanaged clubs, such as Fulham and Cardiff City. There was also David Moyes.

The former Manchester United manager was perhaps the most popular choice for the season’s biggest flop. Moyes presided over a disastrous campaign, devoid of any positive developments, where every occurrence, from the United’s falling stock price to the upsurge of Everton, his former club, seemed to further convey his inadequacy. When Moyes’ hellish year eventually ended, he was no more sacked than put of his misery.

While it would be impossible to dispute that Moyes’ time as Manchester United manager was anything but an unmitigated disaster, there is an argument to be made that he does not qualify as the worst flop of last season. The concept of being a flop is based on prior expectation not aligning with the subsequent reality. So while United underperformed last season, almost every other aspect of the season, from the team’s final position, points total and record against the top teams, was in line with David Moyes’ managerial career.

A more fitting recipient of such an unwanted distinction was not even among the nominees. José Mourinho, Chelsea manager and ‘Special One’, returned to England from Real Madrid last summer to great fanfare from football fans and media outlets alike. At his opening press conference, Mourinho re-anointed himself as the ‘Happy One’, spoke of staying at Chelsea for years to come and of a repaired relationship with owner Roman Abramovich.

He also dismissed reports that he wanted to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager and generally seemed humble and content. A more mature version of the brash Mourinho that first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, and nothing like the man whom had apparently waged civil war in his previous position. ‘I am where I want to be’, Mourinho said. ‘I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s my job and the job I want. It is the job I was offered and I accepted immediately’.

Mourinho seemed primed to return Chelsea to the pinnacle of English football. In the six-year spell since he left, the Blues, despite achieving European success, won just a single league title. The power vacuum created by Ferguson’s retirement partly resulted in the most open title race for years. It also provided Mourinho the opportunity to stake his claim as English football’s dominant figure, as he had threatened to do during his previous spell in the Premier League.

However, Mourinho was neither special nor happy. Chelsea endured a fruitless season, finishing third and exiting the Champion’s League in the semi-finals, the fourth time in four years Mourinho’s teams have lost at that stage of the competition. It was also the first time in his career that he had experienced consecutive trophy-less campaigns. To further compound Mourinho’s misery, his former club Real Madrid, seemingly bounded by his departure, and guided by Carlo Ancelotti, very much the anti-Mourinho, finally achieved La Décima.

Throughout the domestic season, Mourinho talked down his side’s chances of success. After winning 1-0 away to eventual champions Manchester City last February, Mourinho said: ‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump’. In this bizarre analogy, Chelsea, a club fuelled by a Russian oligarch’s millions, the recent European champions, team of internationals with the average age of twenty-eight, were the underdogs. Liverpool’s surge for the title, consisting of a sixteen game unbeaten run, made further mockery of Mourinho’s theory.

Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will long be remembered as the defining moment of the 2013/14 season. Combined with Liverpool’s subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace, the narrative has since been that the Merseyside club bottled their chance to win a first league title in twenty-four years. However, despite the dramatic de-railing of Liverpool’s season, there is an argument to be made that it was in fact Chelsea who squandered the greater chance of glory.

Last season, Mourinho’s side were undefeated against the top four, winning five of their six games. Yet Sunderland were the only other team to take more points from the top ten teams than those in bottom half. This trend was particularly telling during the title run-in, where Chelsea continued to drop points against struggling teams. Mourinho’s side lost away to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, at home to Sunderland and drew with Norwich City. Six points from these games would have secured Chelsea the league crown.

Mourinho attempted to pin the blame for his team’s woes on a number of variants, from misfiring strikers to poor refereeing to, without even a hint of irony, the opposition’s defensive, ‘19th century’ tactics. However, perhaps the real reason lies in Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. Spanish journalist Diego Torres’ book, The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho covers Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid and provides a dark, fascinating insight into the Chelsea manager’s methods and mindset.

The book depicts Mourinho as calculated, manipulative and extremely paranoid, a fish out of water, attempting to mould every facet of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to fit his own personality. Torres paints the Chelsea manager as a controlling, power mad, Machiavellian war monger, with a manic fixation on controlling media narrative. There are a number of telling passages in relation to Mourinho’s tactical outlook.

After the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final, where Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra-time: ‘he puffed out his chest … repeating, ‘This is football! This is football!’ The final reaffirmed his belief that a very good way of playing football is to give the ball and the initiative to the opposition’. Torres also said that Mourinho: ‘Insisted to his players that possession of the ball does not have value in itself and, if not treated with extreme care, at times can be dangerous’ Following Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last December, Mourinho essentially validated Torres’ tactical insight, saying: ‘It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves’.

This method has brought Mourinho great success, including two Champion’s Leagues and four league titles in four countries. However, will it be possible, in an era where tactical flexibility is ever-growing in importance, to further this success with such a dogmatic, one-dimensional outlook? How long will it be before English teams realise the path to defeating Mourinho potentially lays in playing him at his own tactical game? Those that done so last year, such as Sunderland, West Ham and Aston Villa, recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City dominated possession, but were defeated in both games against the London club.

Chelsea do however look a more formidable prospect for the forthcoming season as they are significantly bolstered by summer signings Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas and Filipe Luís, and the return of Thibaut Courtois. Yet this also means that, if his team ends another campaign trophy-less, Mourinho’s excuses will no longer have any semblance of validity. No more talk of little horses or misfiring strikers.

Mourinho dismissed Torres’ book as a work of fiction. If the author did in fact entirely fabricate events from the Chelsea manager’s time in Spain, then he should be working in Hollywood, rather than Spanish broadsheet El País. However, if even a percentage is true, then Mourinho’s best days may be in the past. If we take the Portuguese’s career in two halves, divided by the time he moved to Madrid in 2010, then the latter period is considerably less successful.

If the trend continues, then the ‘Special One’ may have run out of road, tactically and personally. If Mourinho can no longer guarantee success, conflict is almost certain. And, if Chelsea have a repeat of last season, one imagines it will not be long before Mourinho and Abramovich clash again. This could be the defining campaign of José Mourinho’s managerial career.