Buffalo to Bristol Rovers: The story of Big Mal, the Great Gatsby & Supermou

Malcolm Allison’s death moved people in many ways, but it made me think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, and Jose Mourinho’s future.

Fitzgerald probably didn’t even know soccer existed. But in the final three paragraphs of his magnificent, flawed novel Tender Is The Night, he perfectly envisages the tragic fate that befalls most managers.

His hero, the psychoanalyst Dick Diver, is initially as commanding a presence on Fitzgerald’s French Riviera as Mourinho is at the Bernabeu. But in those final paragraphs he has become a nomadic exile, cycling between a series of smaller towns and smaller practices in New York State.

Fitzgerald even loses track of his erstwhile hero concluding: “In any case, he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.”

From Buffalo to Bristol Rovers

Fitzgerald famously said: “Show me a hero and I will write you tragedy”. And Allison’s heroic tragedy could have easily have been written, suitably mythologised, by Fitzgerald.

The Guardian’s Michael Henderson saw Allison as a footballing Jay Gatsby who epitomised Fitzgerald’s description of his most famous hero: “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.”

Yet Mourinho seems more of a Gatsby, a self-created hero, than Allison. The coach’s personal bible of notes even recalls the young Gatsby’s schedule of self-improvement which includes the Mourinhoesque note:  “No wasting time”. And that dismal schedule of Diver’s small towns – Buffalo, Batavia, Lockport, Geneva and Hornell – recalls the nomadic decline of Allison’s last years as a coach shuttling from Yeovil to Sporting, Middlesbrough, Willington, Kuwait, Vitoria de Setubal, SC Farensie and Bristol Rovers.

In his heyday, Fitzgerald declared that life was something you dominated if you were any good. Yet his fiction traced the many tragic ways life overwhelms even the very best. Personality – no matter how long your unbroken series of successful gestures lasted for – was ultimately not enough for Gatsby or Diver.

Tolstoy made the same point, tediously, in War And Peace, suggesting that the outcome of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia could not be wholly explained by the character, genius or behaviour of Napoleon, Tsar Alexander or their generals.

But the media ignores Tolstoy’s reproof and Fitzgerald’s tragic wisdom, preferring to interpret European football largely as a clash of personalities. These heroes and villains are eulogised and criticised like contemporary Napoleons.

This approach is not entirely wrong – it would be churlish and stupid not to recognise Mourinho’s part in ending Inter’s 45-year wait for the European Cup – but it is far from the whole story, as Liverpool’s travails have shockingly revealed.

Daisy, Judy and Jose

Whether Mourinho loathes Benitez or vice versa is an entertaining Punch and Judy show, but is it anything more than that?

If you look beyond the cult of personalities, what is most striking about European football is not how radically geniuses like Mourinho have changed matters but how much remains the same.

At the top of the game, though competition has varied in intensity since the late 1960s, the profound resilience of Ajax, Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus, Inter, Liverpool, Manchester United, Marseille, Milan has been impressive. They have all had their struggles but the sheer longevity and overall consistency of their success would be deemed phenomenal in any other industry.

To give you a point of reference, between 1970 and 1983 a third of the 500 largest global companies ceased to exist. The difficulty of merging and acquiring clubs skews the comparison a bit – mind you, clubs face far fiercer competition than the giant multinationals.

In this context, Mourinho’s rise looks slightly different. The Special One got his big break at one of Portugal’s big three, cemented his reputation at a rich, long-established English club (albeit one with a gift for flashy underachievement), reconquered Europe with one of Italy’s most successful, well-off clubs and now reigns as football’s greatest living superhero at the wealthiest club in the world which has won the European Cup nine times.

Once you set aside the matter of Mourinho’s genius, the other common factors in his remarkable story are pedigree (which implies a position of power, an expectation of success and, in many cases, a certain quality of infrastructure) and wealth.

One of Mourinho’s lesser spotted gifts as a coach is his instinct for selecting clubs with the financial resources to give him a temporary, but hefty, competitive advantage. There’s an echo of Gatsby here too. Fitzgerald’s doomed hero says of his beloved Daisy “Her voice is full of money”. Since he’s been able to pick and choose, Mourinho invariably joins clubs that are “full of money”.

So, for me, even if Mourinho rewrites history and becomes the first coach to win the European Cup with three clubs or the first to win it twice in a row with different clubs, his greatest feat will be winning the UEFA Champions League with comparative underdogs, Porto.

The haunter becomes the haunted

Mourinho’s alliance with the media has created a myth – let’s call it Supermou – that is so powerful it has diminished Phil Scolari – a coach who had merely won the World Cup – and haunted the likes of Avram Grant, Jesualdo Ferreira and Benitez.

But ultimately, as Allison discovered, such myths haunt the very person they celebrate. One of the recurring trials in superhero fiction is the moment the baying, betrayed mob turns on a superhero deemed to have lost his superheroic gifts.

Brian Clough avoided such nastiness by achieving a kind of success so unprecedented and spectacular that most Nottingham Forest fans never blamed him when the club fell to earth. The fans, owners and presidents of the clubs that hire Mourinho are less forgiving.

Mourinho does not talk like a student of football history. But as he basks in the deserved adulation in Madrid he might want to reflect on one line in Brian Glanville’s obituary of Allison: “The worst thing that happened to him was what, at the time, appeared the best: when, in 1971, he was made manager of Manchester City.”

Mourinho is more disciplined than Allison but Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Glanville would probably suggest he ought to think ahead if he seeks to avoid the worst.

If he could avoid the Diver/Allison syndrome by bowing out at the top (as a World Cup winner with Portugal?), the legend of Supermou would remain untarnished. And that might just be the most special thing The Special One ever does.