Roman’s Empire: Chapter One: The Special One Arrives

“Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.” Those, the words spoken from the fresh-faced, charismatic José Mourinho, in his first press conference shortly after being announced as Chelsea’s new manager, succeeding the “Tinkerman” Claudio Ranieri. What an entrance.

Exactly one week before, the then 41-year-old had just won the Champions League with an efficient, yet hardly blockbuster Porto side, his second consecutive European triumph. For the first time since 1993, a team outside of the major four leagues had lifted Ol’ Big Ears, as Porto only lost one match through the entire Champions League campaign. He had joined Porto in January 2002 as the Dragões languished in fifth place, and promised to make Porto champions next year. He won the next two league titles. This was more than just an exciting young coach. This was “The Special One,” as he had been immediately dubbed by the English media, this was someone who could be the best manager in the world, and who could be the man to bring the dreams of Chelsea’s new messiah, club owner Roman Abramovich, to life.

Big signings followed Mourinho through the door at Chelsea. Porto’s defensive maestros Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira made the move to West London, and a certain Didier Drogba was bought in from Marseille, with Mourinho publicly stating that he had demanded Drogba over the marvelous Ronaldinho, who was apparently offered to Mourinho from Abramovich. Mourinho had the assets, and now, he needed to produce the results to back up the hype.

Things started swiftly in this new era. While the Blues had finished 16 points off the top the previous term, by Christmas, Chelsea were top of the table, and had reached the knock-out stages of the Champions League. A couple months passed, and Mourinho had his first trophy as Chelsea manager, defeating Liverpool 3-2 (AET) in Cardiff. Mourinho showcased his charisma (or braggadocio depending which side you’re on) early on in his tenure, proceeding to put his finger to his mouth in the direction of the Liverpool fans, as a response to taunts at him when Liverpool were leading. In typical Mourinho fashion, of which we were still coming to grasps with, he unleashed his revenge on the pitch with astute in-game management, and off it with his fierce response to the taunts. This game kicked off what would be a lucrative, unprecedented pursuit of silverware at Chelsea.

Unfortunately, the outfit from Merseyside would come back to haunt them, literally; when Luis García’s controversial “goal” knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League at the semi-final stage, after the Blues mastered a marvelous aggregate win over a tricky Barcelona the previous round. Nonetheless, more silverware was on the horizon, as Mourinho’s Chelsea stampeded through the domestic league, on their way to a first top-flight domestic title since 1955, setting a string of English football records in the process, including the most points ever achieved in the Premier League (95) and fewest goals conceded (15). How’s that for an entrance to the vigorous demands of English football from the self-proclaimed “Special One?”

The 2005/06 season started on a similarly wonderful path for Mourinho, with Chelsea defeating Arsenal 2-1 to win the 2005 FA Community Shield, with Drogba bagging both goals, showcasing early on in his Chelsea career what he is now vividly known for by Chelsea fans: making the difference in big games. Further recruits were brought in, with English international Shaun Wright-Phillips switching over from Manchester City, and Lassana Diarra coming in on the cheap from Le Havre after a breakout performance in the Toulon Tournament, but the biggest signing would be Lyon’s tenacious, ball-winning midfielder Michael Essien.

Chelsea kicked off the Premier League with a record-setting nine straight wins, and a record 17 wins out of the first 19 games, including away wins at Arsenal and Liverpool to maintain the top spot from the first weekend. Evidently, Chelsea never lost that top spot throughout the whole season and went on to effectively cruise to a second straight top-flight title, winning the league with 91 points, eight ahead of Manchester United. Up until 2017, Mourinho’s Chelsea in the 05/06 season held joint records for the most wins at home in a season (18) and fewest home defeats in a season (0).

However, Mourinho’s Chelsea were unable to replicate their magical league form in the cup competitions. They were eliminated at the hands of Charlton Athletic in third round of the League Cup, while tasting bitter revenge from Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona, who knocked them out in the Round of 16 en route to winning it all. They did reach the FA Cup semi-final that year, but they were defeated at Old Trafford by their arch-nemesis, Liverpool, in what was becoming a compelling rivalry between the two. Nevertheless, Mourinho finished his second season with Chelsea with another Premier League title. Subsequently, Mourinho decided to throw his Championship medal and blazer into the crowd at Stamford Bridge, solidifying his envious connection with the Chelsea faithful. He was awarded a second medal within minutes of this happening, and again proceeded to throw this one into the crowd as well. Mourinho loved Chelsea, and Chelsea loved him.

The 2006/07 season began in less than ideal circumstances, with friction beginning to surface between Mourinho and Abramovich, in what would soon snowball into a power struggle within the club, a struggle that would envelop the sporting director at the time, Frank Arnesen, and Abramovich’s advisor Piet de Visser. It was widely reported that Mourinho’s time in SW6 would come to an end this season. Mourinho, in typically abrasive fashion, cleared doubts regarding his future at Stamford Bridge, stating there would only be two ways for him to leave Chelsea; if Chelsea were not to offer him a new contract in June 2010, when his contract was up, and if Chelsea were to sack him.

Despite the tension behind the scenes, Abramovich’s lucrative spending continued, in arguably the most productive transfer window of Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea. Arguably the best left back in the world at the time, Ashley Cole was brought in from Arsenal. Midfield stalwart John Obi Mikel arrived from Lyn in controversial fashion, Feyenoord’s Salomon Kalou was bought in, and legendary German midfielder Michael Ballack arrived on a free from Bayern Munich to shore up the middle of the pitch. Finally, AC Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko would arrive in West London, much to Abramovich’s delight, after two years of pursuing the Ballon D’Or winner. Mourinho was effectively backed in the board-room, and he was tasked with producing more than ever, with the most talented squad he had ever managed so far.

Unfortunately, the season didn’t start as productively as the previous one, with Chelsea falling to old foe Liverpool 2-1 in the season’s curtain raiser, the Community Shield. In their second league match, Chelsea fell 2-1 at lowly Middlesbrough, after a convincing 3-0 win at home to Manchester City to start the season. Things weren’t looking as rosy as in previous times, but this was José Mourinho. This was “The Special One.” If anyone could turn things around, it was him.

Chelsea went on to lose only one league game in the next 21 games, a 2-1 away defeat to local rivals Tottenham Hotspur. This solidified Chelsea back into the title race, with a strong Manchester United side fighting alongside the London outfit. Chelsea’s extended focus on the domestic cups was paying dividends, as they went on to reach the final of the Football League Cup, proceeding to beat Arsenal 2-1 in the final, coming back from 1-0 down, behind another cup final brace from Drogba at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. In Europe, Chelsea were proceeding well, topping the group stage ahead of Barcelona with 13 points, then defeating Mourinho’s old club Porto, as well as Valencia in the quarterfinals. Who would await them at the semifinals? None other than Mourinho’s kryptonite: Liverpool.

Up until May 1, 2007, Chelsea were in the race to win a historic quadruple. Transitioning back to the Champions League, Chelsea won the first leg 1-0 at home, with Joe Cole’s 29th minute strike sealing the win. In the return leg, Liverpool’s Daniel Agger sent the tie into extra-time with his 22nd minute goal, and the fixture eventually came down to penalties. Liverpool went on to win 4-1 here, with misses from Arjen Robben and Geremi punctuated by Dirk Kuyt’s winning pen. Another disappointment yet again in Europe for Mourinho’s Chelsea, at the hands of their current arch-rival.

Chelsea continued to tussle with Manchester United in an attempt to win their third consecutive Premier League title. However, that dream would soon disappear into obscurity, when five subsequent draws in the final five league fixtures, including a stalemate against Manchester United in the penultimate match, effectively handed the trophy over to the Red Devils. Chelsea would end up finishing in second place with 83 points., six points behind Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, yet 15 points ahead of the next-closest challenger, Liverpool. Mourinho would round off his third year at the club with a FA Cup trophy, beating Manchester United 1-0 in the final at the new Wembley Stadium, with a single Didier Drogba (who had the highest goal scoring season of his career) goal in the 166th minute of extra time gifting Chelsea their second trophy of the season, a domestic double for the boys in blue. Winning the FA Cup meant Mourinho, in just three seasons, had won every domestic trophy available to a Premier League manager.

The rumors began to swirl again in the summer: would Mourinho remain Chelsea’s manager through the 2007/08 season, despite the increased tensions between him and the Chelsea board? The source of animosity came from Mourinho’s reluctance to play Shevchenko, who was the most expensive signing in Premier League history at the time. Abramovich wanted to get a return on his investment, but Mourinho was right not to play the Ukranian, with his Ivorian talisman scoring a team-high 33 goals in 59 appearances last season, and with Shevchenko recording a disappointing four league goals, and a mere 13 strikes in all competitions. The friction continued to grow when Avram Grant was appointed as director of football, a new role within the club, despite objections from Mourinho. Grant’s position was further enhanced by being given a seat on the board. In spite of these tensions, Abramovich continued to back Mourinho in the transfer market, with Lyon’s Florent Malouda being drafted in to replace the gaping hole left by the departure of Chelsea’s fundamental winger, Arjen Robben, who had left for Real Madrid. Further signings followed, with Nicolas Anelka, Branislav Ivanović, and Juliano Belletti all arriving at Stamford Bridge. 

In the first match of the 2007/08 season, Chelsea beat Birmingham City 3-2 to set a new record of 64 consecutive home league matches without defeat. Despite surpassing the record set by Liverpool between 1978 and 1981, the start to the 2007/08 Chelsea season was less fruitful as previous starts. Losses against Aston Villa, followed by a goalless draw at home to Blackburn Rovers had Mourinho on the ropes. Chelsea’s opening Champions League match saw them scrap a 1-1 home draw against Rosenborg BK, in front of only 24,973 spectators (an almost half-empty stadium) which included an unimpressed and conflicted Abramovich.

Two days later, José Mourinho left Chelsea by “mutual consent.” The Chelsea board held an emergency meeting and decided it was time to part ways with “The Special One.” He left as the most successful manager in Chelsea’s history, having won six trophies for the club in three years. Out of 60 home league matches, Mourinho didn’t lose a single one, making Stamford Bridge the fortress it needed to be. In just three years, Mourinho had announced himself as one of the greatest managers in Europe, while Chelsea had announced themselves as one of the greatest teams in Europe. Whilst his time ended abruptly in West London, José Mourinho’s sign of character, strength, determination, and resilience will never be forgotten amongst the Chelsea faithful.

By: Abhishek Mishra

Photo: News Limited