It was thought that the Portuguese was past his best, but ‘The Special One’ could make more history in Wednesday’s Europa Conference League final
Unsurprisingly for a man with a wicked sense of humour, Jose Mourinho has enjoyed pointing out in recent weeks that the last time he made it to a major final, he was sacked.
Of course, there was never any chance of such an unfortunate fate befalling him at Roma ahead of Wednesday’s Europa Conference League showdown with Feyenoord in Tirana.
The timing of Daniel Levy’s decision to fire Mourinho as Tottenham manager, coming as it did six days before the 2021 Carabao Cup final, may have surprised many Spurs supporters, but there was no denying that plenty of fans were happy to see him go.
And given the acrimonious nature of his Manchester United exit in 2018, there was an understandable suspicion in England that Mourinho’s time at the top was drawing to a close.
He was nonetheless hailed as something of a messiah by Roma fans when it was sensationally announced last May that he would be replacing Paulo Fonseca as coach for the 2021-22 campaign.
In their eyes, he was still ‘The Special One’ who had inspired Inter to a treble in 2010. Their belief was that he could do something just as miraculous at the Stadio Olimpico.
Indeed, Lazio legend Paolo Di Canio was immediately inundated with messages from Roma-supporting friends when the news first broke.
One of his voicemail replies found its way onto YouTube and quickly went viral.
“You’ve got the worst of the worst,” Di Canio claimed. “I understand you needed a big name, but it’s like when you sign a player who is finished. He doesn’t even play football; he plays anti-football.
“You might enjoy yourselves in a few press conferences, because controversy makes for good theatre, but let me tell you: to rebuild a club, he’s the worst you could possibly get.”
Right now, though, it’s looking like Roma could not have hired anyone better.
As former Portugal international Adrien Silva told GOAL, “It’s surprising in one sense, because Roma was having a very difficult time before he arrived. They were nowhere near the same level as their main rivals in Italy but now they’re getting closer and closer under him.
“But, on the other hand, it’s not that surprising that they’re now doing well because it’s Jose Mourinho! And he’s shown at so many clubs during this career that he’s one of the best managers in the world.
“It just goes to show you that sometimes you just need the right manager at the right time for things to click.”
Mourinho and Roma undoubtedly now appear a perfect match. At the very least, they have re-energised one another.
Mourinho has admitted that he felt and fed off the passion of the club’s long-suffering fan base right from his first day back in Italy.
Hundreds turned up to welcome him to Rome, while a mural quickly appeared in the Testaccio quarter of the city depicting a smiling Mourinho wearing a Giallorossi scarf and driving a custom-made Vespa.
It was quite the welcome, immediate proof that former Roma director Walter Sabatini had been right when he described Mourinho’s arrival as “an emotional earthquake”.
The after-shocks are still being felt. Mourinho has been involved in one row after another, underlining that he hasn’t lost his fondess for courting controversy.
However, it has also become clear over the course of the campaign that he also remains a remarkable man-manager.
On the face of it, the Serie A stats aren’t that impressive: Mourinho only accrued 63 points – one more than Fonseca managed in his final season at the helm.
However, Roma not only secured a Europa League place via a sixth-placed finish, they did so while also progressing all the way to the Conference League final.
That really shouldn’t have been possible with such a shallow pool of quality reserves.
However, after ruthlessly ditching those he deemed surplus to requirements, including ex-Barcelona and Chelsea star Pedro, Mourinho set about making the most out of a small-but-unified squad.
He also recruited, it has to be said.
It is, of course, the sporting directors that control transfers in Italy, but Tammy Abraham was effectively a Mourinho signing, with the former Chelsea manager going out of his way to convince the Cobham academy product to move to Rome.
The England international has enjoyed a historic debut season in Serie A, and again, Mourinho has played a pivotal role.
Even after Abrham scored the decisive goal in Roma’s Conference League semi-final win over Leicester, Mourinho refused to praise his star striker.
“Because he can do better and he knows that!” Mourinho told Sky Sport Italia. “He is a great player with potential to be even greater.”
This was classic Mourinho, of course. The tough love approach hasn’t always worked, of course, but it has always been his way.
“When you train under Mourinho, he takes a normal player and can make him believe he is the best player in the world,” former Inter goalkeeper Julio Cesar told GOAL. “He is a magician.
“He takes a player and makes him stronger than he is. That’s Mourinho’s approach to players. He is amazing and he gets inside your head.
“I remember one day, I wasn’t playing very well. For him to push me, to make me believe I am one of the best goalkeepers, he said ‘You can be one of the best in the world but today you played like you are from Serie C!’
“He has this way of pushing you because he believes in you, making you angry a little bit but this is what he does.”
Tellingly, Cesar and many of his former Inter team-mates still speak regularly to Mourinho in a WhatsApp group set up to celebrate their treble triumph.
Again, this is the kind of remarkable bond Mourinho is capable of forming with players, a club or even a city.
It’s certainly what’s happening right now in Rome.
Some were surprised by the tears in Mourinho’s eyes after the full-time whistle blew against Leicester, but not Cesar.
“Jose Mourinho cried after the semi-final because he knows how important it is for the fans,” the Brazilian added. “After 30 years, the fans of Rome can enjoy seeing their team in a European final.
“This is a manager who won the Champions League twice with Inter and Porto and the Europa League with Manchester United, but I know him very well and I know how much he will want to win the final.
“He can make history in European football.”
Indeed, Mourinho has already become the first manager to reach a UEFA final with four different clubs.
On Wednesday night, though, he can also become the first to win the Champions League, the Europa League and the Conference League.
The latter is a new trophy; it is obviously the least prestigious of the three. But it would arguably represent his most significant success in a decade. If not more.
Perhaps for the first time since his Inter days, Mourinho has unified both a club and a fanbase, as underlined by the fact that 50,000 supporters are set to turn up at Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday night just to watch the Tirana final on big screens.
As Mourinho said after the semi-final, “This is a victory of the family. Not just the one that was on the pitch and on the bench, but in the stadium.
“That is our greatest achievement, this empathy and sense of family we have created with the fans.” Anyone who has attended a Roma home game this season would find it difficult to disagree.
Win or lose against Feyenoord, Mourinho has already proven Di Canio and many others wrong.
He’s not just begun rebuilding a club. He’s also been restoring his own reputation in the process.