The “Special” Apprentice and his Philosophical Master


Resurging English giant, Manchester United and league leaders Chelsea will lock horns in a promising fixture on Saturday April 18 at the Stamford Bridge. Both teams have been in a good run of form in recent times and would probably set up another scintillating fixture. Manchester United, on their part, got back to winning ways after crashing out of the FA Cup to second place and in- form Arsenal and have gotten more points than all their rivals in the top four fixtures this season which could just have secured them a place in the prestigious top four spot and consequently, a triumphant entry back to the Champions league—something that the board used to plan their budget this year. The Blues hasn’t been the all-firing team we’ve known all season but their fans are not complaining as long as they continue to show the resilience of a champion that has characterized their recent games. Their ability to extract result out of a naughty fixture has kept their rivals at bay and set up a catch-me-if-you-can ending to the league, with just 7 games to cross the finish line. In the past four games or so, Chelsea has shown nerves of a team whose title is theirs to lose—but they’ve also been remarkable in the way they’ve grounded out results and how they have edged out their opponents with the slimmest of margins. Later today, they’ll face a Manchester United that is beginning to find its form and adapt to the philosophy of Iron clad Louis Van Gaal, but would be going to Stamford Bridge depleted, having lost in-form Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones to injury and still have Johnny Evans serving the last part of his six- game ban.

Beyond the tantalizing end-to-end stuff that fans would be anticipating in this kind of fixture, the one thing that would add some pizazz to the game as the players file out from the dugout would be the two managers at the helm—Jose Mourinho and Louis Van Gaal. These duo are two big personalities in their own right and have great respect for each other. Louis cut his teeth in the early nineties when he molded a very young Ajax team to become a domestic and European force, winning the Champions League and also adding a runners-up medal. Interestingly, the Ajax team back in the day featured great Nigerian players like the artistic Kanu Nwankwo and the finishing—George Finidi. Beyond the Nigerian connection, his team paraded great Dutch players like: Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Michael Reiziger, Jari Litmanen, Edwin van der Sar. Van Gaal developed this possession football which he would later import to Barcelona along with some of his Ajax players. It was there that he crossed path with a young translator—Jose Mourinho.

Jose Mourinho, the man who never had a great time playing football and whose talent was even doubted studied Sports Science in Technical University of Lisbon and attended coaching courses in Britain. Sometime in the early nineties, the polyglot Mourinho became an interpreter for Sir Bobby Robson at Sporting CP and Porto and when Robson got the job to manage Barcelona, he knew “I’m not going to go to Barcelona ill-prepared, am I? I knew taking Jose was going to be an advantage to me, to Barcelona, and of course for him it was wonderful.”


As Robson later left the Catalan giants, he left back Jose Mourinho and the guy who took over the job was Louis Van Gaal. When Van Gaal stepped in, it wouldn’t be long for him to decipher the asset in the promising young Mourinho: “His analysis was good. You could see he understood football.” In no time, Jose’s job specification had to change and he was elevated to become a part of the coaching staff. Robson had also noticed the same thing and had even confessed that Mourinho does better analysis than experienced analysts with world cup experiences. LVG, a former school teacher who loves fine details and rigorous analysis, would relish Mourinho’s presentations. Being a man who is not afraid to give youths chances— it was Louis Van Gaal who first gave Mourinho a shot at top level football management as he made him to take charge of friendly games at Barcelona. It was here that Mourinho first learnt how to rub shoulders with larger-than-life players as he was able to coach a galaxy of stars like: HristoStoitchkov, Rivaldo, Luis Figo, and the real Ronaldo.

When Mourinho was given the offer to become an assistant coach in Benfica under Jupp Heynckes, it was Van Gaal who told him to “Pick up the telephone and tell the Benfica president, if he wants you to assist Jupp Heynckes, no. If he wants you to be the manager, I will take you to the airport and you go, because you are ready for that. No more assistant. When you leave me, it is to be a top manager.”

Van Gaal would later express that he was always elated to see Mourinho become the phenomenon that he became. It was this managerial spell that culminated to his rising to become the top coach at FC Porto— where his stock rose so high— clinging the European title and metamorphosing into the Special One. His first stint at Chelsea then took Mourinho to the echelons of his career as winning titles now became second nature. As fate would have it, when Mourinho left to manage Internazionale and grabbed his second European title, it was at the expense of his master who had sent him a text when he first qualified for that final that “I will be waiting for you in Madrid.” The special apprentice that time had become a grand master in his own right and the philosophical master never bore acrimony as his boy denied him of a treble in his spell with Bayern Munich. He knew that these things happen and heartily congratulated Jose.


Mourinho knows he gleaned a good deal of his football acumen from Louis Van Gaal and while they vie for the same objective and compete in the same space, it hasn’t dampen the camaraderie that had grown between the two and you could sense that he would be eternally grateful for the man who believed in him when every other person thought he was nothing but just a translator.

I as a Manchester United fan would only hope that the master, like the precarious Kung fu masters, would have saved one last kick in his books to knock off the student who has become too good for his master’s liking!

O.P. Philips is a freelance writer/entrepreneur. He is the author of The “OBAMA” in You! His new book, “What Football Teaches About Life” will be released soon.

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