Here’s a great shot of new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal from around 1998 whilst in charge of Barcelona, deep in conversation with his assistant at the time, a certain Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho arrived at the Nou Camp as Bobby Robson’s assistant in 1996. Robson guided Barca to a cup treble that season, winning the Copa del Rey, UEFA Cup Winners Cup and the Supercopa de España. But Real Madrid pipped them to the title by 2 points, and that meant Robson, always viewed as a short-term appointment anyhow, could be moved on.
Robson quickly found work at PSV, but Barcelona insisted his young assistant stayed on to work with Robson’s successor; Louis van Gaal, the man the Catalans were waiting for all along.
Mourinho learnt much from the Dutchman’s diligent style. Both assistant and head coach combined well, their studious approach to the game saw Barcelona crowned La Liga champions twice in Van Gaal’s first two years as coach.
Van Gaal saw that his number two had a lot of promise. He let Mourinho develop his own style whilst coaching the Barcelona B side and also let him take charge of the first team for certain trophies, like the Copa Catalunya, which Mourinho won in 2000 with van Gaal supporting him in the role of assistant.
Soon after Benfica came calling for Jose, initially as assistant manager. Mourinho said “When I spoke with van Gaal about going back to Portugal to be an assistant at Benfica, he said: “No, don’t go. Tell Benfica if they want a first-team coach you will go; if they want an assistant you will stay.”
Mourinho did go to Benfica, and his opportunity to call the shots came quicker than anticipated after Jupp Heynckes was dismissed just four weeks into the season, and the man who would be later known as The Special One was promoted to his first managerial role. The rest, as they say, is history.
Next season he will go head to head with the man who – along with Sir Bobby Robson – helped shape him into the extraordinary success story of modern day football management. And while Mourinho will be looking to find the answers to his striking problems at Chelsea, van Gaal will be tasked with returning Manchester United to the force they were under Sir Alex Ferguson, which already seems a distant memory despite only being a year ago.
Roll on next season; their battles are set to be nothing short of fascinating…