Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona had not long finished the season as both La Liga and Champions League winners, the latter secured thanks to a 3-1 win over Manchester United at Wembley. A team described by Sir Alex Ferguson as the best he had ever faced, the Catalan side’s fourth Champions League trophy was made all the sweeter thanks to a semi-final aggregate victory over arch rivals Real Madrid, then managed by Jose Mourinho.
While the rest of the footballing world (players and managers alike) jetted off on their summer holidays to the idyllic, crystal-watered paradises of the world, Mourinho stayed put. Much to their surprise, the Spanish press reported that Mourinho was in “bunker mode”, holed up within the bowels of the Bernabeu concocting his plans for future world domination with his Real Madrid side.
This ‘plan of action’ had its seeds sown in then Director General Jorge Valdano’s somewhat surprise sacking, as Real Madrid, at president Florentino Perez’ initiative, Madrid sought (and are still seeking) to adopt a style of organisation akin to that of the top English sides.
Perez himself spoke out following the decision, talking about putting young people front and centre of the club, backed by an organisation which gave Mourinho autonomy alongside the avoidance of what he called ‘dysfunctions of a sporting character’.
The month that Mourinho spent working helped lay the foundations to effectively change and “better” the workings of the Madrid machine and clarify what work needed to be done – work which involved far more than purely purchasing new footballers.
Amongst other things; player analysis, player database-building, scouting and youth team set-up all became equal parts of the agenda. An agenda for change labelled “Waking the sleeping elephant” by the pro-Madrid Marca sports newspaper.
Perhaps “giant” could have provided less of an undertone of quiet dismay that commentators took from the “elephant” tag; perhaps not. What wasn’t up for debate is the “waking up” aspect, which inferred a need for Mourinho to break the then Barcelona monopoly, with the solutions to be found as much off the pitch as well as on it.
At the time, reading through the pro-Madrid blogs I was surprised to come across some vehement criticism of Mourinho’s “method” of stripping the Real Madrid car and fine-tuning its parts.
Some obviously held Madrid as tight to their hearts as possible, and felt Mourinho was venturing into utterly forbidden territory given the rhetoric on show...
“Mourinho has decided from now on that Venus will no longer be considered a planet.”
“With Mourinho at the helm we are entering into a period of pure Stockholm Syndrome; he is destroying everything and we are happy.”
Others labelled Mourinho as Madrid’s new “garden director” in response to his focus on going through the Madrid pyramid with a fine tooth comb, illustrated with rumours that he paid specific attention, more than he should, into how the Bernabeu grass is cut and watered.
But to a man, the critics were made to eat their words. Barcelona, perhaps at that point the greatest side in the history of modern European football, were knocked off their throne, at least domestically. Mourinho’s men produced a season the likes of which had never been seen before in La Liga, one dubbed "La Liga de los Récords" by the media. And not without reason. They finished the campaign on a record 100 points, having scored 121 goals (also a record) in 16 away wins and 32 overall wins. And let’s not forget the + 89 goal difference.
Achievements that were made more impressive when considering how good Barcelona were that year, led by talisman Lionel Messi, who helped himself to a record 50 league goals that season after 37 games, to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 47.
A season clouded by the agonising exit to Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final after a penalty shootout in the Bernabeu. A tie they really should have won, but for Manuel Neuer’s heroics between the sticks and Mario Gomez’s 90th-minute winner in the first leg.
A lot of discussion within the Spanish press at the time focused on whether this ‘revolution’ had been undertaken before, and if so, what parallels existed between then and Mourinho's root and branch reform.
In Mourinho’s own case, some put forward arguments solely based on his signing policy. A term that cropped up continually was that of the “De-Spanishisation” of Madrid, as the influx of Turks, Germans and Portuguese, according to the hardcore among the press, left Madrid resembling that of a “holiday camp”.
“First it was Chelsea without the English, second it was Inter without the Italians and next it will be Madrid without the Spanish”, one observer noted.
With regard to this ‘hand in everything sense of management that Mourinho seemed to be adopting, the most interesting parallel was to be found with Louis Van Gaal, the ex-Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AZ Alkmaar manager.
During his first year in charge of the Catalan Side in the 1997/1998 season, he himself bound to change the organisational workings of the Barca machine off the pitch to help achieve the success wanted on the pitch.
Legend has it that the straw that broke the camel’s back, generating Van Gaal’s staunch desire for in-house structural change, took the form of a scouting report which landed on his desk in the build up to a Champions League group stage clash against Newcastle.
The report compiled first hand by the scout, dispatched to England to watch over then-manager Kenny Dalglish’s side, was said to have paid little attention to the threat posed by a fresh-faced right winger by the name Keith Gillespie, whom he felt lacked any real danger to the Barca defence due to his inability to put in a good cross for the forwards, who normally consisted of Faustino Asprilla or John Dahl Tomasson alongside Alan Shearer.
For those of you with a patchy memory, Newcastle recorded a famous 3-2 victory over Barcelona at St James’ Park, with Faustino Asprilla scoring a memorable hat-trick. One was a penalty, while two were powerful headers off the back of two pinpoint crosses from none other than Keith Gillespie.
The young Irishman took the game to the Spanish side and specifically their left back, the Spanish international Sergi, who, himself a quick defender, must have believed he would be in for a comfortable night. But it was anything but, due to the sheer pace of Gillespie alongside his direct, incisive running and dangerous crossing into the six-yard box.
In Gillespie’s own words, he “tasted perfection” that night. “Send me to a desert island and tell me I can only take a video of one football game and I wouldn’t even have to think about which, he told Newcastle’s The Evening Chronicle newspaper in an interview last year.
“I wanted a piece of the action. I demanded the ball. Wingers know when they have the measure of an opponent and Sergi, my marker, was petrified. He was a Spanish international and, being quite quick, he obviously thought he would be comfortable, but he couldn’t handle my pace.”
And let’s not forget, this wasn’t just any Barca side. Among their starting eleven names to be found included Luis Figo, Rivaldo, Luis Enrique and Sonny Anderson.
And it was after this memorable night in September 1997, certainly from a Spanish perspective, that it became fashionable for managers themselves to take part in less obvious managerial tasks, tasks such as “rival analysis”. Tasks which put badges on the lapel of a certain, forgotten, Andre Villas-Boas when he was working under Mourinho at Chelsea.
As a final note, by what name did the scout within the Barca set-up during this period go?
José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix.
By Craig Williams, IBWM writer. Header image credit goes fully to In Mou We Trust.