“There are in my mind two top, top coaches in the world. One of them is at another Premier League club. And the other one is Jose.”
It is a bit fiendish to bring up Daniel Levy’s doe-eyed comments to the Amazon cameras when Jose Mourinho first walked into the Hotspur Way Training Ground so soon after he left for good.
After all, what else is a chairman to say at the start of a new managerial era? Particularly after someone so popular in Mauricio Pochettino had led the club to regular top-four finishes and a first Champions League final.
As we sit here 17 months on, with Mourinho sacked over results that place Tottenham seventh and a broader sense of philosophical disarray among the squad, we can say things have not worked out. Yet that does not necessarily make Levy’s assertion back in November 2019 all that foolish.
Spurs had never employed someone as decorated as Mourinho, with his eight league titles and two Champions League wins among 25 trophies. That they could was a sign of their elevated status, and the belief was his fingers contained enough magic to reclaim glory for himself and in turn lift Spurs further up the food chain.
The irony now is that by sacking Mourinho, Spurs have improved their chances of a first piece of silverware since 2008 ahead of Sunday’s Carabao Cup final. While many dreaded the prospect of Manchester City picking apart a squad whose character had consistently been called into question these last few months, suddenly, things seem that little bit clearer. Besting the Premier League’s champions-elect remains a challenge, but the hope is the environment is more conducive to a positive result in a one-off game just five days away.
However, the Sunday that has just passed and the seismic footballing shifts contained within it perhaps show what Levy truly needed from Mourinho. Because for all the talk of on-field success, the announcement of Spurs as one of the founding clubs of the European Super League was confirmation of status.
And to step back and look at what has become of Spurs over the last two seasons, its internal machinations and external coverage, it is hard not to see Mourinho as an accessory. A glitzy bit of bling to help an organisation feel like it belongs in this company.
Everything up to his appointment was building towards greater cache. The new stadium is arguably the most impressive of the breakaway lot, replete with its 10-year NFL deal accompanied by the faint possibility of hosting a London franchise. Amazon’s All Or Nothing came with another reputational boost: a sanitised offering with just enough visible operational clout and viral moments to prolong headline relevance.
On the football side, things were ticking along. An established presence at the top of the Premier League and a dramatic Champions League run in 2019 was underpinned by the likes of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min rising to global prominence. Enough progress to suggest the low points over the last two seasons were simply blips to overcome.
But for all the boardroom clout, acceptance on the pitch was hard to solicit and harder to maintain. Given the outlay required to move to the next level, and how at odds it was to their transfer strategy of youth and players with high resale potential, a statement signing of an established top-tier talent or soon-to-be great was always going to be difficult.
Enter Mourinho. The one-man ratings-booster, social media algorithm buster, making any media appearance appointment-to-view, no matter how inane. He was given a round of applause when he walked into his first Champions League post-match press conference as Spurs manager after they had beaten Olympiakos 4-2 at home. With the press auditorium packed, and favourable European coverage guaranteed as the charismatic column grabber returned, it’s not hard to imagine Levy in there clapping with them.
The irony is if this decision had taken place a week ago, this might be a few hundred words on another example of Mourinho’s methods turning to dust within his clenched firsts. A continuation of a theme of encouragement, improvement, disillusionment and minor civil war for his third successive sacking.
But it is hard not to think, now, that the game is not changing, but has already changed. That Mourinho, for all his self-worth, may reflect that he was merely a vessel. Not for Spurs fans, who were split on his appointment, or the players who were enamoured before they were exhausted. But the powers that be, who knew, worst comes to worst, he could keep them on course to the garish promised land.
Because the identity of football’s true elite has been revealed. And while there’s a social media numbers grift to be made about pulling up their Wikipedia page and screenshotting their “Major Honours”, recycling jokes about being knocked out of the Europa League by a team whose manager was doing time and that damn Dulux dog, Spurs are at the top table. On merit, too, just not the kind you or I laud.
A Forbes assessment in April valued Spurs at £2.3 billion – a 42 per cent increase over the last two years. A period that encapsulates all of Mourinho’s time in north London, along with the reasons why he and Spurs were able to meet in the middle thanks to the fall of a manager and rise of the club.
In the hours after Monday’s announcement that Spurs and Mourinho parted ways, a bogus report did that rounds saying the split had come after Mourinho’s stance against the European Super League. Despite the fabrication, there was a genuine message within there.
Never mind the inability to hold on to leads, the players who bemoaned his tactless man-management or the abrasiveness of his public utterings. Here was a club with no modern European pedigree venturing into a new world as part of a plot alongside heritage teams without a man who was arguably the only one on the football side of things who knows the secret password to this private member’s club.
Mourinho will have enough interview and punditry opportunities to give his side of the story. He may even appropriate those rumours to position himself as an anti-ESL personality after all.
From afar, the nature of his appointment and timing might lead us to wonder if Mourinho was merely a pawn in Levy’s grander plan. Probably not, given the untenable nature of his position on footballing matters. All told, in a week of nefarious dealings, this may just be a coincidence.
But rarely will a decision better represent a tangible power shift within the game. A manager history will recognise as one of Europe’s elite, surplus to requirements by a club who never were before one fateful Sunday.