at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Dublin – At the end of his press conference on Wednesday night, Jose Mourinho stepped off the low stage at the front of the big lecture room underneath the Bernabeu stadium and made his way to a Scotsman in his seventies wearing a Manchester United tie. Not Sir Alex Ferguson but Paddy Crerand, the tough United midfielder of the 1960s and still a presence around Old Trafford for his punditry on the in-house channel, MUTV.
At the court of Real Madrid, there are plenty of people eager to catch the eye of the manager, or to follow him towards the dressing rooms, but on this occasion it was Mourinho who sought out Crerand for a handshake and a few friendly words.
Mourinho will know who Crerand is and who he works for because it is Mourinho's way to know such things. At his pre-match press conference on Tuesday, as Mourinho took guard against a room of around 100 journalists, he spotted a familiar face at the back of the room. “Jamie!” he shouted and waved at Jamie Redknapp, keeping a low profile at the back.
When he left the room later Mourinho beckoned the Sky Sports pundit over to leave the press room with him. Mourinho is no fool. He knows Redknapp from his days in the Premier League but he also knows that the former England international is a frontline pundit for Sky.
The abiding impression from three days in Madrid? That Mourinho is, at the very least, building some bridges in England. With the second leg in Manchester in 18 days' time in the balance, he knows that life at Real Madrid could become intolerable if they are eliminated by United. He has revived Madrid's dismal Champions League record of the past decade with two semifinals in his previous two seasons in charge, but yet another second-round exit would feel like a return to the bad old days.
The return leg at Old Trafford should be bigger than any one man. But if it had to be about someone then surely that someone is Mourinho. Win, and he has overcome one of the larger obstacles to Real winning their first European Cup in 11 years, and the club's season is preserved. Lose and he opens up the story of discontent and quiet betrayal that heralds the end of all Madrid's coaches.
Mourinho has been back to England twice before with Internazionale, losing to United in the last 16 in 2009 and then eliminating Chelsea a year later on his way to winning the competition. Each time he has treated the return as a chance to reaffirm his love of English football. Especially in the midst of his combustible relations with the Italian press, he reached out to their English counterparts like old friends.
But it was very different when he was Chelsea manager. The notion that he and the English media got along famously is largely a myth and indeed by the end of his third season at Chelsea, and the few months until his departure in September 2007, we hardly ever saw him. As the problems at the club got worse, his attendance at pre-match press conferences dwindled away.
Of course, when he began there was his famous “special one” press conference which set the tone. Even now, he never dodges a question and he still has an ability to tap into the English obsession of the day. His joke in April 2006 that he was more worried about a case of bird flu diagnosed in a swan in Scotland than getting the sack was one prime example. By the end, however, he was tiring of it.
We lost count of the occasions that Steve Clarke was obliged to take the Friday press conferences. On his last pre-season tour with Chelsea, to Los Angeles in 2007, Mourinho lightened up a bit, but by the final few months he saw conspiracy everywhere. Not too different to how it seems now with the Spanish press.
Even Mourinho's affection for England seems a little rose-tinted to be believable. The famous case of the attempted seizure in May 2007 by Metropolitan police of his children's Yorkshire terrier was one occasion when he found himself very much at odds with the English way of doing things, although it did make for an entertaining press conference.
At Madrid the suggestion is that Mourinho distrusts some of his players. There is said to be jealousy among them towards Cristiano Ronaldo, and Mourinho himself is incredulous at how little those players recognise the debt they owe to their prolific goalscorer. Mourinho's early return to the dugout at half-time on Wednesday did not make him look like a confident man, it just left him looking isolated. Neither did his substitutions later in the match feel particularly game-changing. There was no grandmaster move to unnerve United.
Mourinho talks in general terms about coming back to the Premier League, but where? The Barcelona bloc that now runs Manchester City appear to be wholly resistant to him. Sir Bobby Charlton has indicated United are not interested and while that is not definitive, Mourinho will probably need a job in the summer and there is no guarantee there will be one at Old Trafford. That leaves Chelsea which, with all its attendant complications, surely makes Paris Saint-Germain a better fit.
Nevertheless, doors open in football all the time for a manager with Mourinho's prestige. His charm offensive towards English football and United this week suggests that he realises he can take nothing for granted. With his power of recall and eye for detail, he will remember very well that the last time he worked in England, the relationship with the media and the authorities was not as harmonious as some would like to portray it. – The Independent