If Carlsberg made Saturdays.
I’ve written ad nauseum about Louis Van Gaal’s multitude of mistakes and about an attitude to his own and his team’s under-performance that insulted the intelligence of the fans. As unedifying as it was (and I fully understand those who personally found it distasteful) the booing before the Dutchman’s on-pitch end of season address, and then at Wembley as he took hold of the FA Cup was fully justified. Losing whilst trying your best, as was the case with Moyes, is one thing, losing whilst stubbornly refusing to change and then passing the blame to the fans for expecting too much is quite another. If you essentially call an entire fanbase delusional and/or unreasonable then you can expect them to exercise their right to reply. He needs to go and going he finally is. That’s the last I’ll mention of it, because this is the start of a new chapter now, with a new coach, with new ideas and who has the contacts to entice some wonderful players to the club.
Mourinho provides no guarantees of anything, but he has a history of winning titles at every club in every spell he has there. He offers the best route to an immediate return to both the Champions League and Premier League success. Is he the ideal coach for United? Probably not, for he has his well documented faults. Most recently the Eva Carneiro affair let a nasty taste in the mouth. This wasn’t gamesmanship or a desire to win pushed too far, but a case of bullying, for which Mourinho is yet to show contrition. On-the-pitch criticisms about his teams’ playing styles are unfair. Some have been pragmatic, but at Real, at times at Inter and in his first spell at Chelsea the Portuguese’s sides played attacking, high-scoring football. Of most concern may be his commitment to youth, even if the claims that LVG championed his young players are exaggerated in the extreme. Mourinho has wanted the United job for a long time, since 2013 at the latest. He has this season rejected a return to Real Madrid in favour of waiting for a job at Old Trafford that he did not even know he would get. In the circumstances one would imagine that he is well aware of the club’s ethos, of its history and the particular demands put upon its managers. Quite simply, he will know that if he abandons the key tenets that coaches at Old Trafford must adhere to then he won’t last long in the job, even if he wins trophies in the short term. The man may be many things, most damagingly impulsive, but he is not stupid.
Is Mourinho the ideal candidate to take over United this summer were the world the club’s oyster? No, probably not. But by letting the LVG debacle run for so long Ed Woodward and the owners backed themselves into a tight corner. With Guardiola taking over at City, with Pochettino driving Spurs on, with Klopp at Liverpool, with Leicester breaking the Premier League’s glass ceiling and with a key sponsorship deal due to heavily penalise the club for two years outside the Champions League the powers that be left themselves with little choice. Mourinho it must be and Mourinho it will be. It will be many things, but unlike LVG’s United it won’t be boring. It will be an exciting summer and an intriguing 2016/17 season.
For all of Van Gaal’s faults, his stubbornness and refusal to bend, on a human level it was always more preferable that he leave with his head held high, able to say that he had won a ‘title’ at every one of his clubs in four countries. Despite the briefings from his camp that have filled the pages of De Telegraaf on a regular basis in which it has been consistently argued that his job was safe and that he maintained the full confidence of his employers, the Dutchman must have known that he was likely to miss key performance targets and that the game was nearly up. His celebration as Jesse Lingard arrowed home a wonderful FA Cup winner in extra time told its own story. Anchored to the bench for the last two years, suddenly Van Gaal was grandad-galloping down the Wembley steps and leaping into the embrace of the seemingly unprepared Ryan Giggs. He knew. He knows.
But what a wonderful send off he gave himself, a magical day for a fanbase starved of anything much to get excited about for the last three years. FA Cup finals are special, particularly for those like this writer of a certain vintage, for whom the trophy seemed like the only route to glory in a country where Liverpool dominated League football. The 1983 Cup final against Brighton is one of my earliest United memories and my first decade as a fan saw my team lift the famous trophy three times. At 2-3 down deep into extra time in 1990 I sobbed like a baby until Mark Hughes saved the day. After Jason Puncheon’s goal on Saturday a 14’year old me would doubtless have done the same again. Instead, the ageing process and the last three years of desperate underperformance meant that the goal just left me angry and resigned to defeat. That United responded so quickly was both exhilarating and frustrating. So often this season Van Gaal’s team have only showed drive and cutting edge in adversity, instead of pushing on to score from the start. On Saturday it was Wayne Rooney who dragged his side back into the game, his wonderful run taking him past five exhausted Palace players before he crossed for Mata to fire home. Bedlam. On to extra time, with Chris Smalling’s stupid sending-off and Lingard’s tracer-bullet winner. Cue atavistic cries inside Wembley and around the nation, with thousands of sleeping children, this writer’s included, being woken from their slumber. On the plus side, putting them back to bed avoided a few minutes of nervous pacing. In the end Palace were spent and United lifted the FA Cup, a wonderful end to a wretched season. With Mourinho’s people mischievously leaking news of his impending arrival and LVG’s exit it turned into a day of unbridled celebration, one the fans so desperately needed.
On Monday morning, as we all waited for the inevitable, a raft of national journalists published stories detailing LVG’s managerial peccadillos. The players, it appears, like a good briefing too. The articles detailed the manager’s controlling nature, the endless criticism, rigid tactics and absurd instructions, such as having to take a touch before shooting in all circumstances. In the end they often stopped listening, as you would to a boss who had very little positive to say. Players love to pass the buck, and Mourinho will not stand for dissenters, but it is clear that relations with both those at the club and the fans are fractured beyond repair. This week should bring a new start for all, although many within the playing squad should fear the new regime. A member of staff at United told Daniel Taylor of the Guardian that as many as 90% of them are not good enough to be at the club. It could be another brutal summer.