Rolling Back The Years: On Sir Bobby Robson, his managerial adventures in Portugal, and the two bright young football minds whose careers he helped launch...
Looking through the prism of modern perceptions, ones that invariably paint British managers as tactically naive or preoccupied with antiquated methods, it can be hard to remember that it was actually not that long ago that they were revered throughout Europe.
After all, it was only 25 years ago that an Englishman was in charge at Barcelona—the one and only Terry Venables, who came to be affectionately known around the Catalan region as ‘Meester’.
When Venables considered leaving the club to return to England in 1986 (he would ultimately decide to stay for another campaign), it was an Englishman, Everton boss Howard Kendall, and a Scot, Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson, who were prominently discussed within the Barca boardroom as Venables’ possible successors.
Englishmen had been integral in the founding of both Barcelona (the St Georges’ Cross is a prominent element of the club’s badge) and Real Madrid, and both clubs often returned to their roots for direction as they grew into two of the biggest sides in the world.
But, when Venables did leave in 1987, he was ultimately succeeded on a permanent basis by Barcelona’s former star player Johan Cruyff, who redefined the club’s ethos and, perhaps as a consequence, helped move Spanish football beyond its reverence for the old British boss.
As a result, the incoming Spurs manager would prove to be one of the last of the high-profile Brits to manage abroad, joined in that select group by John Toshack (two spells at Real Madrid) and Sir Bobby Robson, who passed away in 2009.
Robson, who recommended Venables to Barcelona and eventually replaced Cruyff after the Dutchman’s eight-year stint (managing for one season, then moving into a director's role), was perhaps the most travelled of the trio, also managing in Holland and Portugal before returning to the English top-flight.
And it was in Portugal that he would, through serendipity, coincidence, or whatever other term by which you might wish to describe it, help launch two of the game’s best current managers on the path towards the elite.
Lost in Translation
Having proved his managerial acumen with Fulham, Ipswich and, in an up-and-down eight-year tenure, with England (leaving, in 1990, having been a penalty shootout away from the World Cup final), Robson spent two title-winning seasons in Holland with PSV Eindhoven before accepting the manager’s job at Sporting Club in Lisbon.
The only problem for Robson was that he was yet to learn the language. The Englishman abroad needed a translator; but not solely a translator—he needed someone with a sophisticated understanding of football.
After all, it was the underlying ideas that Robson wanted conveying to his players, more so than the specific words.
A former schoolteacher by the name of Jose Mario dos Santos Mourinho Felix found himself in the right place at the right time. Mourinho, the son of a one-cap Portugal international goalkeeper, had persevered with an unremarkable playing career before accepting his limits and turning his sights towards management.
He embarked on a number of coaching courses, soon leaving a school job as a PE teacher to take on staff roles with lower league sides including Vitoria de Setubal, Estrela da Amadora and Ovarense.
Working for Robson as a translator would mean a reduction in his direct football involvement (at Amadora he had been assistant manager) but Sporting were one of the biggest clubs in the country, offering Mourinho exposure to a vastly superior level of the game.
Mourinho’s CV got him the role, ensuring he was ready to start as soon as Robson arrived in the country.
"He introduced himself at the airport,” Robson recalled of his first meeting with Mourinho, in an interview with The Guardian in 2005. “'Hello Mister. My name is Jose Mourinho and the president has hired me as your interpreter. I hope I can do a good job for you, Mister.’
“He always called me ‘Mister’. That was Jose. Very nice, very respectful, very handsome.”
The two men quickly seemed to develop a rapport, united not necessarily by their matching views of the game they both loved, but perhaps instead meshed together by their differing approaches to mastering it.
Mourinho the schoolboy never had much time for the arts, preferring the initial mystery and eventual clarity of maths equations and scientific experiments. He approached football with a similarly analytical approach—while also paying special attention to the potential value of psychology to get in the minds of the players, and thus draw more out of them.
In this aspect, he found a kindred spirit in the more experienced Robson.
“To be honest, he [Robson] had no real interest in tactics,” former Dutch international Stan Valckx, who played under Robson at PSV and followed him to Portugal, told the Daily Mail four years ago.
“‘Some people think tactics win games but the point about Bobby was he was such an admired manager that every player was prepared to go the extra mile for him.
“That was the difference between him and other coaches.”
With Robson an expert in the difficult, inexact science of man-management, Mourinho made sure to pass on messages and lessons with the inflection intact, realising it to be just as important as the words themselves.
“If I said something hard and direct, he never tried to soften it in translation,” Robson remembered. “Jose was strong but he developed a nice, positive rapport with everyone. The players loved him.”
Initially at Robson’s side at almost all junctures out of necessity, over time Mourinho’s continued presence became a signifier of the valuable tactical input he also offered.
As Robson acknowledged: "He’d come back and hand me a dossier that was absolutely first class. I mean first class. As good as anything I’ve ever received. Here he was, in his early thirties, never been a player, never been a coach to speak of either, giving me reports as good as anything I ever got."
Mourinho became a confidante, albeit one virtually unknown outside club circles—to such an extent that, when both rocked up at Barcelona in 1996, rumours circulated that the handsome translator who never strayed far from his boss was actually Robson’s gay lover.
If only other relationships at the club were going so smoothly. While Sporting were reasonably successful on the pitch—finishing third in the 1992/93—Robson found himself struggling to maintain a good relationship with the club’s mercurial owner, bottled water magnate Sousa Cintra.
Robson complained at one point that Sporting’s infrastructure was “in a terrible state”, with Cintra, adding another chapter to the long book of successful businessmen believing that talent naturally stretches to sporting matters too, occasionally cutting Robson out of transfer dealings entirely.
This ensured a tense stand-off between the two men and, at the start of the 1993/94 season, with Sporting top of the table, Robson was unceremoniously fired—Cintra citing a UEFA Cup exit to Austrian side Casino (now Red Bull) Salzburg as the reason.
“I was being sacked,” Robson recalled in his autobiography, Farewell but not Goodbye, blaming an “inexperienced goalkeeper” Cintra had signed [Costinha], for the Salzburg loss.
“Jose was with me when the bullet was fired. This loopy president was jabbering away, ‘We’re out of Europe, it’s a disaster for the club, you have to go!’”
The firing was a surprise to Robson, but he was not out in the cold for long. Porto, impressed by his work with their close rivals, immediately appointed him—with Mourinho duly arriving in tow.
“I owe him for so much,” Mourinho said in his official biography, Jose Mourinho: Made in Portugal. “I was a nobody in football when he came to Portugal. He helped me to work in two clubs here and he took me to one of the biggest clubs in the world [Barcelona].
“We are very different, but I got from him the idea of what it is to be a top coach."
By the time Mourinho and Robson’s working relationship was coming to end (the Portuguese would take on more coaching responsibilities when his mentor was replaced by Louis van Gaal as Barca boss), the proverbial Jedi Master could see his Padawan was ready to graduate to management ranks.
“You should have seen him with Ronaldo,” Robson recalled, remembering the £20m Brazilian striker he signed for Los Cules. “Ronaldo, for the short time we had him at Barcelona, was phenomenal. No girls for Ronaldo then. No disco, no fashion, no earrings, no flash cars.
“He had the need to be a great player - and so he listened to Jose. It didn't matter that Jose had done nothing as a player. With a young genius like Ronaldo, he was perfect. Jose knew how to speak to him."
In his autobiography, he added: "Where does his talent stem from? Well, he served a good apprenticeship. He was a student of the game and he was working at the top of the tree.
"I was open with him and he had a thirst for knowledge. Somehow our personalities interlocked."
Mourinho would soon return to Portugal to begin his own managerial career with Benfica, leaving in somewhat acrimonious circumstances before earning Robson’s old job at Porto after an impressive spell with Uniao de Leiria.
He would win the Champions League (something Robson never managed) in 2004, a success that paved the way for him to become ‘The Special One’ at Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and, for a second time, Chelsea.
Another Chance Encounter
That was all to be in the future, however.
While both were still just getting adjusted to life in Porto, another chance encounter with Robson would set a second bright young Portuguese mind on the path to the upper echelons of the management game.
Living in an apartment block on the outskirts of Portugal’s second city, a young Luis Andre de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas was amazed to discover the new manager of its biggest club had been moved into the same residence.
Fluent in English thanks to his family history (his grandmother was English) and emboldened by his love of football and its intricacies, Villas-Boas felt compelled to approach Robson over one of Porto’s disused players, Domingos Paciencia.
Leaving a note in Robson’s postbox outlining why he was adamant Paciencia was worthy of a starting place in the Porto lineup, Robson, perhaps intrigued by the youngster’s chutzpah, replied by inviting the youngster to join him the next day in observing training—asking him to compile evidence to support his assertions from what he witnessed.
When a dossier followed, complete with statistics and diagrams, Robson was impressed—immediately offering Villas-Boas a more formal internship with the youth team staff.
"He was someone who was decisive in my career,” Villas-Boas later noted. “Bobby allowed a 16-year-old to approach him and talk about football tactics with him.
“Then he took me to training, watching training sessions. He had that respect for a young boy who had just approached him in an apartment block in Porto.''
The experience with Mourinho perhaps also affected how Robson nurtured Villas-Boas’ interest.
Initially surprised by Mourinho’s tactical insight given his limited professional career (in a couple of his quotes above, it is noteworthy how he seems to dwell on Mourinho’s lack of playing credentials), the eventual breadth of his translator’s knowledge perhaps made Robson realise that an exalted playing career was not necessarily required to become a successful coach.
Thus he helped Villas-Boas pursue his coaching dream, at an age when most of the teenager’s contemporaries with ambitions in football were waiting to find out whether they might receive their first professional contract.
At 17, Villas-Boas was technically too young to go on a Football Association coaching course at the national base in Lilleshall, but Robson still had plenty of contacts with the FA, enabling them to overcome such red tape.
“I shouldn’t really have been there, because I was too young, but Bobby smoothed the way," Villa-Boas said.
Britain would prove a training ground for Villas-Boas, with the young man going on to earn his UEFA C, B, A and Pro licences at the National Sports Centre in Inverclyde, Scotland.
Like Mourinho, Villas-Boas sought to educate himself in left-field disciplines too, believing they might prove just as useful to a manager as knowledge of 4-4-2s and zonal marking.
"He was very studious, very dedicated,” Jim Fleeting, the Scottish FA director of football development, later noted. “I remember he used to read everything he could get his hands on, books on psychology, physiology."
He also did the same course more than once (in different countries), absorbing the way differing cultures had developed diverging approaches.
“Because I was so young I often decided to try in different schools. From Scotland to England to Portugal, I managed to repeat a couple of courses,” Villas-Boas told UEFA this year.
“The Scottish are very, very open minded people and want to share opinions. The English are a bit more closed but have very good perspectives as founders of the game. And the Portuguese, with their culture, look at a more technical game and tactical game.”
At such an early stage in his development, Robson had less reason to call Villas-Boas into his inner circle—especially with Mourinho still aiding him.
Instead, he made sure to help Villas-Boas expand his education, helping him get a short-term position with Ipswich Town, among other league clubs.
“Bobby told me the boy was going to be something special in the coaching world,” then-Ipswich boss George Burley recalled to the Daily Mirror. “He called me at Ipswich and Andre spent two weeks at Ipswich shadowing me.
“He was a delight to have in the building. He came to all the training sessions, the meetings with the board, and everyone liked him.
“He was inquisitive, alert and well-mannered and I thought that Bobby had found something special.”
When Robson went to Barcelona, however, Villas-Boas did not follow—instead continuing his progression through the UEFA licences and learning from clubs around the continent.
He even spent a short spell as technical director of football with the British Virgin Islands, talking his way into filling the vacant berth.
There only for a short-time, Villas-Boas nevertheless made a real impression with his ideas.
"He told us that we had to put the team first," Avondale Williams, captain under Villas-Boas and subsequently national team manager himself, told The Independent in 2011. "He got us passing the ball better, and put the emphasis on attacking. But he also got us defending better as a team. He had a lot of ideas that were quite different to us."
On the adventure, Villas-Boas once noted: "I was basically the country's coach. I was a kid, but they didn't know that.
"I only told them my age the day I left the post. It was such a grand job for a 21-year-old."
Robson’s influence saw Villas-Boas handed a role with the Porto Under-8s before his departure for Spain, a link-up with the academy setup that would continue, with occasional sabbaticals for further educational trips, until 2002—by the time Mourinho returned as manager, he was working with the U-19s.
Mourinho, perhaps remembering the inquisitive youth who loved to badger 'Mister' Robson, soon made Villas-Boas his “advance scout”, head of the grandly-titled “Opponent Observation Department”.
In this role Villas-Boas produced vast dossiers on upcoming opponents, works of meticulous research that became increasingly famous for their thoroughness as Villas-Boas followed Mourinho to Chelsea and Inter.
“It takes me four days to put an entire file together, it is very comprehensive,” Villas-Boas revealed in a rare interview while with the Blues. “The reports are given to all the players as well as the manager.
“The idea is that when the players go out on the pitch, they are totally prepared, so there can be very few surprises during the game.”
The Prodigies Become Enemies
Alongside Mourinho as they won title after title—the Premier League with the Blues, three Serie A crowns and a Champions League with Inter—eventually Villas-Boas decided the time had come to strike out on his own.
At Inter, he initially demanded to be made Mourinho’s No. 2; so usurping Rui Faria, the fitness coach who had first met Mourinho at Leiria and been his de-facto second-in-command ever since.
Mourinho preferred to keep the status quo and Villas-Boas, acutely aware that his request was really little more than an ultimatum, one that would irrevocably change their relationship one way or another, duly moved on.
"I was never his number two. I was part of his staff, but I was never his assistant," Villas-Boas told L'Equipe this week. "That's one of the reasons we went our separate ways. I thought I could give him a lot more, but he didn't feel the need to have someone next to him."
Like Mourinho, he made his first foray with a more provincial Portuguese side, Academica de Coimbra.
Like ‘The Special One’, a impressive first campaign saw Porto come calling—where their former prodigy would lead the side to the domestic title in his first season after an unbeaten campaign, also adding the Europa League to his list of triumphs.
Continuing the parallels with his old boss, those triumphs had Chelsea come calling. But Villas-Boas—still perhaps viewed as a soldier not a general by many of the senior Chelsea players who remembered his first stint at Stamford Bridge—never had the support of the entirety of the squad, and lasted just nine months.
The 33-year-old watched from the sidelines as his successor, Roberto Di Matteo, then led Chelsea to Champions League glory—before being dismissed himself months later.
But his standing around the game remained high, with Tottenham surprising many casual observers by releasing Harry Redknapp in order to appoint Villas-Boas to oversee their project to become one of the Premier League’s best.
Spurs wanted to step out of Chelsea’s shadow (among others). Villas-Boas wanted to step out of Mourinho’s.
Now the two men oppose each other as managers for the first time, as Tottenham host Chelsea in the Premier League on Saturday.
Mourinho has always shown himself to have something of a vindictive streak—he delighted in needling his old employers, Barcelona, after being appointed at Real Madrid—and has not sought to continue a friendly relationship with Villas-Boas, perhaps believing there is no room for sentiment at this level of the game.
Perhaps, too, he still feels betrayed by Villas-Boas’ Inter departure, with Villas-Boas admitting last summer that he no longer had Mourinho’s phone number and the pair had “not spoken for a long time”.
Nevertheless, "there is always an influence when you have worked so close together for seven years," Villas-Boas acknowledged on Thursday.
"You want to know those methods that have brought so much success and make them work for you.
"Jose's career speaks for itself and I'm very proud of what I've done so far and what I've achieved."
Whatever their current personal enmity, both are united in their respect, admiration and gratitude for Robson and the way he guided their respective careers.
“It was the decisive factor to be formed in the Porto school,” Villas-Boas has said. “It is a school that likes to promote talent throughout … I am very grateful to have been able to have these experiences.”
In a separate interview, he joked: "I see myself much more in the image of Bobby Robson than Jose Mourinho. Like him, I've got English heritage, I've got a big nose and I like red wine!"
As Burley opined: “Jose Mourinho is a legacy of Sir Bobby, but Andre is even more so as Sir Bobby took him under his wing at an early age.”
Mourinho’s tribute to Robson upon his death gives an indication of his own depth of respect for the Englishman. In his eulogy, Mourinho said:
Bobby Robson is one of those people who will never die.
Not just for what he did in his career but for everything that he gave to those who, like me, were lucky to know him and walk by his side.
I will always keep it with me, the Bobby Robson of every day, a man with an extraordinary passion for life and football, with extraordinary enthusiasm.
Two great foreign managers will meet in the Premier League on Saturday, then; held up by some as examples of the sort of coaches Britain no longer produces.
But if you look closely, their shared lineage to the revered British managers of yore—one in particular—can still clearly be seen.