Jose Mourinho looks unfamiliar in red. Blue has usually been the colour for the new Manchester United manager, whether that has been at Porto, Internazionale or Chelsea – there is no red at Real Madrid either – but as he spoke at length for the first time about his new challenge, the Portuguese did little to dispel the sense that he would always end up in red one day.
“I always had that good feeling (about United), for sure, and I think the fans feel the same,” Mourinho said during an extensive interview with English newspapers in Shanghai.
“I remember playing at Old Trafford and the way to the dugout was always nice. It was never like in other stadiums. There was always a connection.
“Then can you end up being their manager one day or not? I always felt that what has to happen happens and it happened, so …”
Mourinho’s first experience of United was a winning one – eliminating Sir Alex Ferguson’s team from the Champions League with Porto on the way to the Portuguese club’s European Cup success in 2004 – even if it offered his only confrontation with the club, when Ferguson refused to shake his hand after a first-leg defeat at Estadio do Dragao.
“That was him [Ferguson], not me!” a laughing Mourinho insists. “It was him, not me.
“The only thing I thought is that every club I was at, I was always playing against Man United – with Porto, Inter, Real Madrid, always, Champions League matches, big matches, then with Chelsea matches to decide the title, FA Cup finals, Community Shields.
“I’ve played so many times against Man United and what I felt was – and you know this is not easy with me – so many matches and no problems.
“It’s very difficult to play against a club so many times and I have no problems. No problems.
“Not a yellow card, not a red card, not an offensive word. I won a lot of times but I also lost and there were not any negative comments.”
Having inherited a team from Louis van Gaal which, despite winning the FA Cup last season, finished outside the top four for the second time in three years, the negativity which Mourinho claims to have avoided during his association with United is there to be banished by the Portuguese in a football sense.
United have fallen from the perch they occupied under Ferguson, with Van Gaal and David Moyes both failing to halt the slide, and Mourinho must now take on a club that will play Europa League football rather than in the Champions League this coming season.
But having returned to training with his squad last week, ahead of the departure to China for fixtures against Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City, Mourinho insists he has been impressed by the determination and resolve of the players.
“As we know, not every player is here working yet – quite a few – but I was impressed,” Mourinho said. “Not surprised, because I think at this level, players are professional, they want to work.
“But I was impressed with the way they were working. Even here, we have had two training sessions where it’s very easy not to work well, it’s very easy to be affected by the weather, to be affected by the pitch which is dry and slow, it’s very easy to say ‘I’ve got jet lag, I didn’t sleep very well’ and [on Wednesday] we’d arrived, had lunch, had commercial duties but the training in the first session was fantastic.
“So the attitude is very good, the appetite is very good, they want to work, they want to improve.
“And they need to work a lot really because the most difficult thing in football that I’ve found during my career is when I go to a new club and I need to change the dynamic, the way of thinking, things that the players do automatically.”
With Van Gaal ultimately losing the faith of his players because of his prescriptive approach and overly-detailed tactical requirements, Mourinho hinted at having to give the squad the freedom to think again.
“This is quite hard for the players because they become quite automatic in their way of thinking, so to change some dynamics is not easy,” Mourinho said.
“They must be very focused, but the players are giving all of this.”
Restoring United to the summit of English football, and reinstating the club to the Champions League, is Mourinho’s immediate objective.
And he insists that setting sights as low as fourth – a target United missed last season – will not be acceptable.
“I want to challenge,” Mourinho said. “I’m not going to hide behind three bad seasons, three bad championships, behind two seasons not even without the fourth [place]. I’m not going to hide behind that.
“I’m not going to hide also in that fourth is the target and everything better than fourth is amazing for us.
“No, I want to win the title and I want my players to feel that.
“If at the end of the season anyone is better than us then great, but now in this moment, before the flag to start the race, I’m not going to say we don’t want to win.
“Can it be nice for my career to win trophies in every club? That would be amazing, to be champion in every club would be amazing, but that’s an individual, selfish perspective that I don’t want.
“I work for the club, the club brought me here because they trust me. I have the feeling – of course not everyone I guess – that the majority of the supporters they trust me, they believe that I can help the club.
“I have the feeling that the players want me. I’m not saying they didn’t want Mr Van Gaal, I’m not saying that, I’m saying that since I arrived I feel that they are very fine with me and my way of leading and my way of work.
“But I want just to see my things in this way of perspective and let’s enjoy the season because a big season is waiting for us.”
But for a disastrous campaign at Chelsea last season, which saw Mourinho sacked in December, the 53-year-old would almost certainly now be preparing to face off against United and the rest in the Premier League.
Yet having left Stamford Bridge behind, he insists his partnership with United has come at the perfect stage of his career.
“I’m not at Chelsea because the owner didn’t want me,” Mourinho said. “If he wanted me I would still be there.
“At United, I have the contract I have and for that the owners are happy. To give me a new [extended] contract I will be happy to do that because that is what I want at this moment in my career, that’s what I want, but I think it depends on many things.
“And I will try to do my work to make the owners realise that I am the right guy for this job. But in this moment I’ve just played Wigan.
“But I was lucky enough to work in some of the biggest clubs in the world and of course Man Utd doesn’t need words from me for everybody to know what Man Utd is.
“That challenge comes in a stable moment in my career, lots of experience, so I feel it comes in the right moment, I feel very calm about the job.”
Even if he still doesn’t quite suit red.