With former Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry admitting Liverpool could have appointed Jose Mourinho manager in 2004, Richard Jolly imagines what might have been…
Analytical as ever, Jose Mourinho looked at one of England’s biggest clubs and concluded there would soon be a vacancy. A beleaguered manager had a growing band of critics. His signings seemed poor, his team looked overly defensive and their results meant a top-four finish was far from certain. For Manchester United in 2016, read Liverpool in 2004.
Mourinho sniffed the chance of prestigious appointment. He dispatched a representative, ostensibly to discuss some of his stable of footballers. “The agent told me that Jose Mourinho was very interested in managing Liverpool and asked whether Liverpool might be interested in appointing him the following season,” Rick Parry, then the chief executive, told Simon Hughes in his recent book Ring Of Fire.
The unsolicited approach was not appreciated. “It tasted badly,” said Parry, citing the way the unnamed agent – presumably Jorge Mendes – had met Gerard Houllier to discuss the sale of players minutes earlier. This was not “the Liverpool Way” of doing things.
By the time Liverpool decided to dismiss Houllier, Mourinho had already secured alternative employment at Stamford Bridge. He instead visits Anfield on Monday as Manchester United manager. Short of having a spell at Everton, it is hard to imagine what more Mourinho could do to ensure he never takes charge of Liverpool. His past and present clubs count against him. So does a long, complicated and often bitter personal history with them.
Rafa Benitez instead replaced Houllier and became, along with Arsene Wenger, the chief target for Mourinho’s more pointed comments. Theirs became an epic battle, conducted over 16 contests in three years. Benitez’s two major trophies came after beating Mourinho’s Chelsea at the semi-final stage; the Portuguese’s complaints about Luis Garcia’s “ghost goal” in the 2005 Champions League were long, loud and ignored the reality that, had it not been given, referee Lubos Michel ought to have awarded a penalty and dismissed Petr Cech.
But for Liverpool, Mourinho might have been the only manager to retain the Champions League in its current incarnation. But for Mourinho, Liverpool would probably have won the Premier League in 2014. Unshaven and tracksuited, giving the appearance of a man who did not care, the Portuguese sent out a weakened Chelsea side with a counter-attacking blueprint that paid off in a 2-0 win. Brendan Rodgers bitterly accused a former mentor of “parking two buses” in front of the visitors’ goal.
Perhaps Liverpool and Mourinho are better off as enemies than allies. Chelsea suited Mourinho better in 2004. He was the brash outsider, accustomed to upsetting the established order. They were the nouveaux riches who could give him the budget to dominate.
Yet the parallel universe where Liverpool were receptive to Mourinho’s advances is intriguing indeed. Perhaps there would have been no miracle of Istanbul. The Portuguese won the Champions League twice as underdogs, but never as such as unlikely outsiders. On the other hand, Liverpool may not have been starved of such subsequent success. Take the word of arguably their greatest captain. “Between July 2006 and May 2015, Chelsea won the Champions League, two Premier League titles, four FA Cup, the Europa League and two League Cups. That’s 10 big trophies,” wrote Steven Gerrard in My Story. “In the same time at Liverpool, I have won an FA Cup and a League Cup. Chelsea 10 Liverpool 2.”
Admittedly, some of those honours came between the Portuguese’s two stints in charge and that ignores the reality he has never stayed anywhere for four years at a time, but the comments reflect on the unrequited love affair between Mourinho and Gerrard. “As a manager, Mourinho has everything,” Gerrard wrote. Had Liverpool hired him, there would not have been the sagas of the summers of 2004 and 2005 as Chelsea pursued the Merseysider.
Had Liverpool lured Mourinho, an alternative Anfield history would not have included Benitez or, presumably, Fernando Torres or Xabi Alonso; they would have had fewer Spaniards and more Mendes clients. Yet nor would it have featured a season where they finished 37 points behind the champions, as they did in 2004-05. It highlighted the way that Mourinho arrived with a greater understanding of the Premier League and its demands than Benitez.
Liverpool spent the best part of £50 million that summer (admittedly some on Djibril Cisse, Houllier’s parting gift to Benitez). Mourinho spent a similar sum on Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho alone. Could those two players have transformed them into a title-winning team? The chances are that they would have come closer, partly because of managerial input. The regular problem at Anfield, however, is that a budget invariably needs to be split several ways. Mourinho may have been forced into some compromise signings, Antonio Nunez and Josemi-style. The quality might have been diluted.
Perhaps the greater parallel is with the Chelsea Mourinho inherited in 2013, rather than the group he took over nine years earlier. It took three transfer windows to give them the look of champions. Liverpool’s team of 2004 contained too few – Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Dietmar Hamann aside – who were obvious fits for a Mourinho side or, given a shared fondness for tactical planning and counter-attacking, a Benitez team.
But at least the Portuguese would have had something he has long pursued: freedom to operate without interference (at least until, assuming it still happened in this sliding-doors scenario, Tom Hicks and George Gillett’s takeover). He would not have had Andriy Shevchenko foisted upon him. Perhaps instead of being the great short-termist, Mourinho could have proved an empire builder at Anfield.
Certainly it would have precluded him from taking up a similar role at Old Trafford. At Chelsea, Mourinho could wage war on Benitez and Wenger while paying tribute to Ferguson. That would have been impossible at Anfield and, while it appeared a one-way friendship as Mourinho was overlooked by United in 2013, his credentials were not destroyed by his past. Poking Tito Vilanova in the eye, which drew criticism from Sir Bobby Charlton, appeared a greater impediment than managing Chelsea.
So, with his objection to the Mourinho camp’s methods, Parry changed not one club’s history but at least three: Liverpool, Chelsea and now United. For better, for worse, the landscape of English football altered with a decision that may be celebrated and rued in equal measure. A dozen years on, its impact is still being felt.