Sometimes relationships are as much a matter of timing as romantic destiny. And maybe that is how it is for Jose Mourinho and Tottenham.
You can imagine the lonely hearts ad: Super-talented but ultimately brittle football squad seeks experienced and serious man to help them achieve life ambition.
Mourinho does not seem a natural candidate for the aesthetic ambitions of the club forged by the push-and-run philosophy of Bill Nicholson.
Bill Nicholson (middle of the top row) led Tottenham Hotspur to their last league title in 1961Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Jose Mourinho could take Spurs back to the Premier League summit against ex-club Chelsea
And the team whose name has become an adjective to indicate footballing fragility — ‘Spursy’ — look an unlikely fit for a serial winner who despises vulnerability and cherishes solidity. But maybe they just needed each other right now.
Perhaps these players at this point in their careers are receptive to the relentless focus on results over and above style? And maybe Mourinho just needed to be loved and respected again?
‘There’s a spring in his step and a sparkle in his eyes,’ says one training ground source. ‘It’s like he has his mojo back.’
‘I think he’s happy being back in London, being with his family,’ said a separate source. ‘It couldn’t have been easy to be in a hotel in Manchester. But he seems satisfied here. I think the club have embraced him, whereas at United, there were always people who resented him being there.’
In those opening weeks of his appointment, he went out of his way to embrace staff and get to know individual names. A point often missed amid the caricature of aggressive, sulky Mourinho is that he has extraordinary charm when necessary.
But it is not as if he has changed his ways. Tanguy Ndombele and Dele Alli will testify that the same cold focus on trophies can see players brutally discarded. Yet Ndombele’s appearances this season suggest that there is a path to redemption.
‘He’s ruthless,’ said Eric Dier, recently. ‘I’m 26 now and I need to be ruthless in my performances too. When you are younger it’s a bit different, but I enjoy the way he man-manages. He’s very honest, very direct, even if you don’t like it, and I like to have that clarity.’
Hugo Lloris laughed, a little embarrassed, when reminded that the recent Amazon Prime documentary was punctuated with regular reminders from Mourinho that he wanted the team to be ‘a bunch of c****’.Insurance Loans Mortgage Attorney Credit Lawyer
Tanguy Ndombele has thrived under Mourinho this term after a poor first season in England
Lloris, captain and World Cup winner with France, is about as far from being that as can be imagined. But, eight years at Tottenham, constantly answering questions about when a trophy will come, can make a man receptive to Mourinho’s ways.
‘It doesn’t mean outside the field you are not a good guy,’ said Lloris. ‘You can be a good guy outside the field, but when you are on the field you have to do everything. And everything means also having this personality to be naughty, to get the winning taste.
‘You have to know how to win in the ugly way. And that kind of win makes you even stronger. Because you know how to win on a bad day.’
Talking to Harry Kane earlier this month, the trophy issues clearly dominate his mindset at the age of 27. A generation, such as Lloris, Dier, Toby Alderweireld, Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min, have grown up with him and were the heart of Maricio Pochettino’s team.
England international Eric Dier appreciates his 'very direct' manager's clear communication
‘There’s a lot of us in this squad who have been here for a period of time and haven’t won anything, so we’re always as hungry as ever,’ said Kane. ‘We all know that it takes an awful lot to get over the line and we just need to find a way of doing it.
‘It’s not as easy as just having a good squad and winning a few games to challenge for the title.’
It is not as if it was plain sailing from the moment Mourinho arrived just over a year ago. One source who has watched the process from inside says: ‘It was always going to take some time to adapt after Pochettino left because he had five years with those players.
‘But the same players are buying into Jose because he’s a winner. And that’s what they want at this stage of their careers.’
Not everyone is happy. There were some grumbles about the Amazon documentary, which was dubbed ‘Jose goes to Hollywood’ at the training ground, such was the relentless focus on the manager. But that was a decision of the documentary team, not Mourinho.
Harry Kane is hungry for silverware at his boyhood club and has improved under Mourinho
‘The vast majority are happy at present and the spirit is there,’ says a training ground