As “Brexit” made its debut in the news bulletins, then found its way into everyday speech, maybe there was complacency over the anticipated outcome of the EU referendum – continuation of the status quo – and this meant the shock of the result was that much greater. Similarly in English football there was much talk of a surprise challenge to its elite – the top four – but no-one really believed it could be sustained and that by the season’s end the natural order would have been restored. But “Leicester City” turned out to be just as credible, serious and dangerous as Brexit.
Come Theresa May, the Cabinet was pulled apart and rebuilt. Come the month of May and Leicester’s improbable, fantastic triumph, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea were pulled apart and rebuilt. The last of the new managers to take up his post, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, had to fight for column inches on Friday with Boris Johnson, just installed as Foreign Secretary, and unsurprisingly the Stamford Bridge boss lost.
Now that they’re all in, I’ve pored over the reports of these big unveilings, compared them, searched for the big idea, the big joke and the big proof that things will be different for the elite this time, that their sense of entitlement – the Champions League – will transfer into consistent success in the competition with no more of the jammy, one-off wins achieved by Chelsea in 2012.
Conte is the most intriguing because we know least about him, although his goal celebration from Euro 2016 where he was in charge of the Italian national team was a vivid introduction to his excitable nature. When the Azzurri clinched victory over Spain he leapt on top of the dugout shelter and hammered the roof, seemingly intent on smashing it. “Chelsea need my passion, says Conte,” was one headline. They certainly need something after the appalling collapse from champions to relegation contenders, finishing a dismal tenth. “Work,” he said, is “the only verb I know”. You’d guess, from their performances last season, that Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and the rest have greater verb awareness. “Squander”, “loiter”, “coast”, “indulge” and “insult” might be ones with which they’re familiar.
Chelsea’s under-performers got Jose Mourinho the sack. No blame can be attached to him, of course. So he turns up at Manchester United despite his former club having been steered – by regular Stamford Bridge Red Adair Guus Hiddink – to a position four places below where David Moyes signed off with Everton before moving to Old Trafford.
How can this be? Never underestimate the cult of the Special One. United, after all those years of rigour, certainty and serenity under Sir Alex Ferguson, nowadays fall for any wheeze going. The club fell for Louis van Gaal’s goalie-changing trick, also his water-break trick, from the 2014 World Cup. Maybe Man U thought the Dutchman was actually suspending time and making people disappear, in the manner of a superstar illusionist like David Copperfield. If the club had studied Holland’s form closely at that tournament they’d have noticed that after what seemed like a freak win over Spain they got ever more turgid. Van Gaal’s success in Manchester wasn’t copper-bottomed, and so it proved. They aren’t used to turgidity at Old Trafford.
Enter, then, the Special One, a manager who was previously discounted from what Mourinho says is the greatest job in football because he wasn’t one for legacy or bringing through the kids or – as the fans like to shout on the Stretford End – “Attack, attack, attack”. Then there was that unfortunate business when he poked a rival coach in the eye. So what’s changed?
Well, Mourinho finally won La Liga with Real Madrid though he might have preferred some impairment of his vision given that Barcelona were so dominant during his time in Spain.
Maybe there’s no shame in having to play second fiddle to Pep Guardiola’s Barça but then Mourinho was managing Real Madrid and not Unreal Portobello from Edinburgh’s Sunday Churches League, the apogee of your correspondent’s football career.
Then it was back to Chelsea for another title closely followed by that spectacular failure. “I was the future once,” quipped David Cameron last week before quitting Downing Street. You could say the same about Mourinho, whose jibes at rivals and predecessors at his grand unveiling, which might have amused us in the past, now sound tired.
What’s he going to get out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic? With signings like the Swede and Bastian Schweinsteiger there’s the sense that Old Trafford is a must-see stadium for the international superstar before he retires, except that these football tourists get to stroll around the pitch. At the other extreme, do United really believe Paul Pogba is worth £100 million? For that price you’d want a midfielder who not only scores more goals, but can perform real magic, like turning a water-break into a wine-tasting with the finest French sauvignon.
Such an outrageous bid, should it come off, looks like an attempt to scare Man U’s rivals as much as anything. Among them of course are City, latest stop-off for manager-cum-tourist Guardiola, inset left. His big launch featured less braggadocio than the other two. He wonders what his first experience of Boxing Day football will be like, also a stadium where it’s “freezing or windy”.
The winds of change currently blowing through Westminster are expected to die away in the so-called best league in the world, especially given the arrival of these big shots. Shame about that.