As a Scot living in Glasgow, I feel the gravitational pull of London. God alone knows what it must be like closer to the capital, which luminaries from both major political parties have said has grown so omnipotent that it could well be considered for independent status.
For years, so much of our national life has been dictated by what goes on in that one city. Londoners both embrace and reject the notion that the whole world revolves around them; but there’s a swagger about the place that few other cities can match.
London’s football principalities are amongst the most glamourous in the game now. Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, even West Ham, QPR and Crystal Palace can all attract big names. The attraction of that city is obvious; even the one time darling of my own club, Celtic, the cocksure Cannonball Kid himself, Charlie Nicholas, once chose it, and the Gunners, over then European super club Liverpool, a decision club and player both were later to come to regret.
Yet football has an odd logic all of its own. Sheik Mansour could easily have taken over a club from the capital; the Hammers and Palace were both up for grabs. He and his people chose to do something different, and in doing so they tilted the table.
When the new season starts in England the eyes of the world will, for once, be elsewhere. London is no longer the capital city of football. For the neutrals out there, it’s a season redolent with promise. Many will be watching Leicester, the current champions, the fairy-tale club who shocked the world. Everyone else will be watching Manchester.
That’s not for nothing. Manchester is where two of the biggest names in football will clash, where the reputation of one will almost certainly take a major blow and where the other will be enhanced, and vindicated, almost beyond measure.
La Liga has long been seen outside of England as the footballing super-state. It can still attract the sort of players who wouldn’t consider the EPL, and that’s not simply because of the weather (although it’s pretty good when you see it on the telly!), but here, this once, the English top flight has, without a doubt, got the two finest performers in the business. There are no two greater managers in the world than Guardiola and Mourinho.
They have faced each other before, of course, when they managed rival clubs in Spain, and then again when Mourinho was at Chelsea. This time they share a city, and if that’s not reason to expect fireworks I don’t know what is.
So who is the master? Which of them is the greater boss?
There was a time when the question wouldn’t even have been asked.
Mourinho bestrode the stage like a King. He called himself The Special One and few doubted it. He has the greater CV; of that there is very little doubt. What he did at Porto was incredible; my own team met his in the UEFA Cup Final of 2003, in Seville, and it was no shame to lose that match as just one year later his team were the Champions of Europe. To have done that, at such a club, was a phenomenal accomplishment.
He repeated the feat at Inter, winning two titles into the bargain. He then proved himself capable of glory in Spain, winning a La Liga and a Copa Del Rey.
Yet it was in the EPL itself where he elevated himself to yet another lofty perch. He has three League Cups there, two FA Cups and three titles, all won in two spells at Chelsea. His career trophy haul stands at 18. He’s won titles in four countries, three European trophies and a slew of cups. That anyone would even question his abilities is ridiculous.
Yet there’s an argument for saying he’s lost his way. His tenure at Chelsea ended in chaos and disaster. It was like watching a slow motion car crash, from the moment he lost the plot with a club physio to those later press conference where he seemed to be the only person in the room who didn’t know that he was blowing it.
When that tenure ended, City had already started putting out feelers for their new boss. Manchester United had too. The Old Trafford club snubbed Mourinho initially; they went for Guardiola, the Golden Boy, and the coming man. He chose City instead. From that moment on it was almost inevitable that United would chose to appoint his long standing rival.
It’s the second time in his career that a club passed over him to go for the Spaniard instead. Barcelona made a similar choice, but in this case what’s different is that, for once, Manchester United didn’t get their man.
In appointing Mourinho, there’s a feeling in some places that they accepted second best, that it’s Guardiola who is the Special One now.
His time at Bayern Munich was not as happy as it might have been, but domestically, at least, he turned them into an incredibly powerful attacking force. He won the title three times in a row – every season there – and two German cups, but he was unable to hold aloft the Champions League trophy at his second club. But then, he has two of those anyway, won whilst at Barcelona along with three titles there, with a team some reckon is the greatest club side ever to play the game. That’s the hallmark of Guardiola; his teams are known for brilliant, possession based football which is an absolute joy to watch when he’s got them rolling.
He believes in teams that play football, making the Beautiful Game live up to that.
Mourinho is different. His teams believe in winning above all else, and that means they often sacrifice the finer qualities to achieve that objective. Van Gaal, although of the Barcelona school, also believed that winning was all that mattered, but Mourinho’s style is better to watch than the slow, turgid, often boring stuff produced last season by the Dutchman. If not quite on a par with the kind of football Guardiola prefers, it’s still more attractive, by far, than the play that saw Manchester United suffer so many goalless first half’s last year.
The Premier League seems better suited to Mourinho’s style than that of the Spaniard but when you watch EPL clubs against the top teams in Europe what often amazes you is the ease with which they’re beaten. If Guardiola can bring a more continental, sophisticated kind of football to the league then the results will be far-reaching and elevate City by quite some way.
We already know what Mourinho will bring; a little bite, a lot of razzmatazz, that arrogance and that dig which all the faithful at Old Trafford have missed since Ferguson left. Moyes and Van Gaal had different kinds of failings, but Mourinho can do Fergie without even trying. He’s a winner and that’s what they need and want above all else.
Yet what tantalises most is the prospect of a Manchester Derby between these two very different characters. When they were in Spain, the El Classico became a watchword for ugly scenes, dark moments and controversy. The negative parts of it were such that when Guardiola left Barcelona, a year before Mourinho departed Madrid, he couldn’t bring himself to admit that he enjoyed any of them, even those where his team won by 6-2 and 5-0, not to mention the 2-0 win that took his team past their rivals in the Champions League.
The clashes between these two teams will be fierce. Neither scaled the heights last season. Neither is operating at potential yet. City came closest, but the uncertainty and the chaos surrounding the managerial decision impacted on them in ways that are undeniable. United seemed to have lost their sense of destiny, of purpose, and suffered as a result. No such doubts will envelop them with The Special One in charge, and City are reaching for the stars.
Leicester managed to keep Jamie Vardy, and people will be watching how they perform when they get to the Champions League. It’s incredible for that club and for its fans. Londoners will have their own ideas about what might be on the menu this year; Spurs in particular will feel this could be the year, and they have their own Champions League campaign to look forward to. Arsenal and Chelsea will be there or thereabouts; they always are.
But Manchester is where it’s at, the fascinating clash between two top competitors, the finest two bosses in football, men who’ve got the measure of one another and who’s recent careers have seemed like a form of personal vendetta. Mourinho has already tried to backtrack from it, pointing out that if he spends his time focussing on what Pepe does he’ll suffer for it … and he’s right, of course. Both should heed that warning because the EPL is getting tougher every year, and Mourinho has already tasted bitter failure on that stage. If these two lose focus – or only focus on each other – neither is going to come off well, no matter their talents.
Yet getting dragged into a bare knuckle brawl will never be this easy. The press here loves a fight, and the way both men are geared towards winning, neither will take the smallest setback lying down. As much as they want to avoid it, it’s impossible to imagine either man resisting the urge for long.
Manchester is a passionate city. So too was Madrid and Barcelona is renowned for its tribalism and the nature of its incredible fans but the kaleidoscope has been shaken in England and things are more febrile than ever. Leicester proved that anything is possible, and this city, already steeped in a love of the game, is about to burn with a fire that’ll be visible all over Europe and the world. There have never been so many eyes on this corner of football.
We’re going to see one Hell of a show.
By the times it’s finished, one of them will see his reputation enhanced. The other’s might be destroyed.
Get ready for fireworks.