Timing is everything and the day after Manchester United folded up the Champions League banner it was the fourth anniversary of Jose Mourinho’s ‘football heritage’ press conference.
Mourinho is more masterful at diversions than road works and in 2018 United had just lost to Sevilla at Old Trafford, a scandalous result against the most beatable team in the last 16. Some supporters started to turn against Mourinho, especially after he reminded them he had been responsible for two of their ejections at the same stage in the past.
“I sit in this chair with Porto, Man United out,” Mourinho said in the press conference room at Old Trafford. “I sit in this chair with Real Madrid, Man United out. So it’s not something new for the club.” They should have charged admission for his box office press conferences.
At Carrington three days later, Mourinho outlined United’s dismal European record since they last reached the Champions League final in 2011. His sermon has aged like Portuguese wine. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer actually achieved quarter-final, semi-final and final appearances with United but the latter two were in the Europa League and the disasterclass in Leipzig is just as memorable.
United have won two of their last 14 Champions League knockout matches. “Tottenham won more in the season they got to the final,” a colleague quipped in the same press room Mourinho used to hold court in.
The European rot began with the schooling by Barcelona in the 2009 final in Rome. United’s tactical naivety and game-management cost them against Bayern Munich in 2010 and in 2011 they overachieved by reaching the final, where they were in need of smelling salts after 90 minutes on the Barcelona passing carousel.
United have since suffered three group stage eliminations and heard the Europa League anthem in five seasons. The emotionally charged Europa League triumph in 2017, staged two days after the barbaric attack at the Manchester Arena, made the occasion emotional. That United completed the set with their maiden Uefa Cup win to qualify for the Champions League enhanced the achievement.
Long before that final, Mourinho had compiled two separate transfer lists, one in the event United qualified for the Champions League and the other for another season of Thursday night football.
Mourinho had doubts about a deal for Antoine Griezmann and shortlisted the Torino striker Andrea Belotti. Matt Judge, now the director of football negotiations, had gauged the possibility of a deal to sign Paris Saint-Germain defender Marquinhos while Eric Dier, Nemanja Matic and Tiemoue Bakayoko were the midfielders under consideration.
Griezmann was insistent on playing Champions League football at his next club and eventually stayed at Atletico Madrid for another two years after the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld their transfer ban. Belotti dropped down United’s shortlist once they had qualified for the Champions League, with a deal worked on for Alvaro Morata until Mino Raiola advised Romelu Lukaku to choose United over a return to Chelsea.
Victor Lindelof completed a protracted transfer after Jose Gimenez, Griezmann’s teammate, was too expensive and Mourinho reunited with Matic after Tottenham refused to budge over Dier. Bakayoko replaced Matic at Chelsea.
Mourinho spoke with Ivan Perisic but United refused to meet Inter Milan’s valuation of a player not deemed ‘marketable’ enough by club suits. Perisic went on to score in the World Cup semi-final and final before winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich.
United’s stock in the transfer market in 2019 was at its lowest in decades. Without Champions League football or an esteemed manager to entice targets, they raided Swansea, Crystal Palace and Leicester for three signings now regarded as unsuccessful. Daniel James has already been sold and many fans would be supportive of selling Aaron Wan-Bissaka or Harry Maguire.
Erik ten Hag or Mauricio Pochettino are names that would attract a higher calibre of player but United’s trophy drought is certain to stray towards six years and joining them has been detrimental to some careers. Paul Pogba, the headline signing in 2016, has underachieved in the peak years of his club career. Donny van de Beek and Jadon Sancho were omitted from their national squads again this week.
Despite Ralf Rangnick’s lobbying, United had little chance of snaring Erling Haaland even if they finished fourth. Declan Rice arguably has more of a chance of savouring the Champions League anthem next season through West Ham’s Europa League run.
That is football heritage.