STOCKHOLM, Sweden, May 25 – Judgement was reserved until the final game of his maiden campaign, but in guiding his club to Europa League glory Jose Mourinho has restored the winning feeling at Manchester United.
There was little sparkling football at Old Trafford this season and despite a 25-game unbeaten run, Mourinho could do no better than a sixth-place finish in the Premier League.
Yet by leading United to victory in the League Cup and Europa League, and with the latter success yielding a Champions League place, he has brought back some of the swagger that vanished when Alex Ferguson retired in 2013.
“Who cares who finished second, third or fourth in the Premier League? Manchester United have won two trophies,” said former Leicester City midfielder Robbie Savage, who began his career at United, on BBC radio.
“The ‘Special One’ has delivered.”
Mourinho, who described his first United campaign as “my most difficult season as a manager”, has appeared tetchy and grouchy in recent weeks, a glum, unsmiling figure constantly at war with the world.
But he seemed reborn when the final whistle sounded at Stockholm’s Friends Arena following United’s 2-0 victory over Ajax in Wednesday’s Europa League final.
A broad smile on his face, he gambolled on the pitch with his son, was thrown into the air by his coaching staff and made some typically provocative gestures.
To the United fans he raised four fingers — one for each of the four major European titles he has now won.
To the press he lifted his index finger, as if to say: “I’m still the number one.”
There was a familiar curl to Mourinho’s lip in the post-match press conference as well as he hailed a “victory of pragmatism” and hit out at the “poets” who vaunt style over substance.
Mourinho was once Public Enemy Number One to United fans, but after the miseries of the David Moyes and Louis van Gaal eras they have taken him to their hearts.
On a poignant night in Stockholm, coloured by vivid thoughts of Monday’s fatal terror attack in Manchester, United’s supporters sang tributes to their grieving city, but also to their manager.
– ‘Woodward has my list’ –
Mourinho, 54, said he was looking forward to taking a break from football, but he will not be able to keep his mind off United matters for long.
Goalkeeper David de Gea is once again being linked with Real Madrid, Mourinho’s former club, while veteran midfielder Michael Carrick and club captain Wayne Rooney may have played their final games for United.
Rooney made a late substitute appearance against Ajax and Mourinho says he would be “very happy” for him to stay, but United’s record goal-scorer has made no secret of his frustrations over his lack of playing time.
With injury having prematurely curtailed Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s season, United seem likely to move for a new striker and Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann continues to flutter his eyelashes in their direction.
“Ed Woodward (United executive vice-chairman) has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months,” Mourinho said.
“So now it’s up to him and the owners.”
Mourinho generally hits his stride in his second seasons at clubs and he will set his sights no lower in 2017-18 than winning a fourth Premier League title and third Champions League trophy.
United finished 24 points adrift of champions Chelsea this season, but defender Chris Smalling says the club’s first Europa League success has fired their ambitions.
“We’re teeing ourselves up for a good pre-season and who knows next year?” he said.
“The fact that we can make history for the club, but the fact that we can line up in the Champions League with that music, I think there’s no better feeling.”
Next season United’s fans will sing the Herman’s Hermits song that they have turned into an ode to Mourinho with even greater conviction.
“Something tells me I’m into something good.”