There was once no holding Jose Mourinho back when his team had won a football match, because the arena where games are discussed is one which he has loved and played peerlessly. You can take your pick of his countless moments of virtuoso theatre, though the press room at Manchester City 14 months ago has always lived in the mind.
His Chelsea team were under development at the time and yet they’d just seen off City 1-0. The light in Mourinho's eyes sparkled at a press conference which he brushed with gold dust that night. “Chelsea are a little horse that needs milk and to learn how to jump,” he said. An audience not at all sure what he was talking about left the room enchanted by it all the same. That's the point about Mourinho holding court. It's never had to be comprehensible in the strictest sense.
Manchester United are a team in development, too, and the victory over Northampton Town on Wednesday night carried a significance after three defeats in a week, even though the opposition was modest and a goalkeeper's blunder put them out of sight. Yet the only sight we had of Mourinho was him walking around at the back of the narrow Northampton corridor before heading for the bus. He was not in the mood to talk.
His people told us the club were not “contractually bound” by the Football League to speak after EFL Cup games. But it was the broadcast on Thursday of the one interview he could not duck – with his employers’ in-house TV station – which revealed the real explanation for this reticence. He hadn’t liked the dissection of United that he has been reading in the past the days.
“I know that some football Einsteins – football is full of Einsteins – I know that they tried to delete 16 years of my career,” Mourinho told MUTV. “They tried to delete an unbelievable history of Man United Football Club and to focus on a bad week with three bad results. But that's the new football – it's full of Einsteins.”
To discover Mourinho piqued and defensive so soon into his new adventure runs against the grain of what defines him as a manager: that capacity to defy the odds. He has been displaying for years, be it winning titles against Manchester United and Barcelona or eliminating the latter in the Champions League. It is when the pressure is on that he flourishes. He really does know how to step up to the table.
The retreat in victimhood contributes to a sense that his failure at Chelsea last season has changed him and removed some of the old certainties. That might also explain the subdued manner in the technical area in Northampton. There was a telling moment in the second half when his captain, Wayne Rooney, arrived at the touchline to return a water bottle during a break in play. The two were a couple of feet from each other. Nether a word nor or glance was exchanged.
Mourinho's talk came to his assistants: a questioning kind of talk, with pained expression, from our perspective directly in front of him at the top of the stand. It wouldn’t have helped that the burden at the heart of his Old Trafford inheritance - Wayne Rooney – weighs heavy. The 30-year-old ended the game wide right, a bystander to the United recovery which substitutes Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford had instituted. MUTV did not venture into muddy Rooney waters with him, but he will be the elephant in the room at 13:30 on Friday when Mourinho fulfils his contractual obligation to talk about facing Leicester City next. The performance of Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford at Northampton make the clamour for the jersey Rooney claims even more intense.
All of this may well be a temporary early blip, of course; a footnote to Mourinho's emergence as the man who saves Manchester United. But something doesn’t feel quite right. Mourinho is digging out his players in public. He is putting them through training sessions in hotel car parks. And he is passing up the chance to proclaim his contribution to a victory for all the world to see.