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May 19, 2003

The master's interpreter

Apart from fans of Glasgow Celtic and FC Porto, there will be no more enthusiastic follower of the UEFA Cup Final in Seville than Newcastle United boss, Sir Bobby Robson.

Not only did Sir Bobby spend an enjoyable and successful part of his illustrious managerial career at the Porto helm, leading them to back-to-back Portuguese League titles in 1995 and 1996, he is also a good friend of current Porto boss Jose Mourinho, who for six years served as the ex-England boss's number two at Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto and Barcelona.

Rated one of the most promising young coaches in Europe, the 40-year-old Mourinho has worked wonders this season in steering FC Porto to the UEFA Cup Final and Portuguese League title and Sir Bobby was quick to pay tribute to his former protege.

'I'm delighted to see how well Ze (Mourinho's nickname) has done,' he begins. 'To have such success at home and in Europe is a fantastic achievement. I'm proud of him. He deserves all the praise he's been getting. I do have a soft spot for FC Porto. It was one of the best periods of my life. I liked the club, the supporters, the city and we had a lot of success.'

Robson and Mourinho first came together in the summer of 1992 following the former's appointment as coach of Sporting Lisbon. Initially, Mourinho, who had enjoyed a rather undistinguished playing career at youth level with Belenenses and Rio Ave, was only supposed to be Robson's interpreter.

But Mourinho turned out to be much more than a fine linguist. From an early age he had been fascinated by football tactics and impressed by his attention to detail, work ethic and passion, Bobby Robson would give him increasingly more responsibility with the first team.

'When I first arrived at Sporting, the president Sousa Cintra told me he had two staff members who could work with me,' recalls Sir Bobby. 'They were Jose Mourinho and Manuel Fernandes. The idea was for Ze to be my interpreter, while Manuel Fernandes would work with me on the training pitch.

'But what struck me about Mourinho was that he was a student of football. He was very intelligent, enthusiastic and was very keen to learn. He never said to me that he wanted to be a head coach, but I had a feeling that one day he would go a long way in the game. He had great confidence in his own ability.'

Despite building a solid platform in his first season at Sporting and then taking them to the top of the Portuguese table at the mid-way point of the 1993-94 campaign, Robson was mysteriously sacked. Yet within a couple of months, FC Porto moved in to hire the future knight of the realm and one of the Englishman's first acts was to bring in Mourinho as his assistant.

'Like me, Ze loves football and is a hard worker,' says Sir Bobby. 'He craved knowledge. We shared the same philosophy about the game. We wanted to win by playing the right way, by attacking. We had a very strong relationship based on trust and respect for one another. We were colleagues and good friends.'

The Robson-Mourinho combo moved on to Barcelona in 1996, where they won a pair of Spanish Cups (1997 and 1998) and the European Cup-winners' Cup in 1997. However, the Nou Camp was to be the last staging post for the partnership. 'In 1998 I received an offer from PSV Eindhoven and thought it was right to accept,' says the Newcastle United boss.

Mourinho: Never shy about offering an opinion.
Mourinho: Never shy about offering an opinion.

'At the same time, Ze had been asked by my successor at Barcelona, Louis van Gaal to stay on with him and that's what he decided to do. He wanted to learn from Van Gaal. Ze went his own way and is now having lots of success as a manager in his own right. I would like to think he had a good apprenticeship under me.'

In recent weeks, Portuguese football writers have spent much time measuring Bobby Robson's Porto side of the mid-1990s against the team assembled by Mourinho since he took over the club in January 2002 and they are right to conclude that both elevens have a lot in common, both being attack-conscious, tactically-disciplined and extremely industrious.

But Sir Bobby argues that attempts to evaluate which FC Porto side was the strongest are irrelevant. 'Such comparisons just cannot be made. The only way to judge is when teams come face to face and that's impossible.'