When Villas-Boas took the high road
His rise has been sufficiently rapid that football's most expensive and precocious manager retains an air of mystery. Yet the players of Porto and Academica de Coimbra are not alone in having an insight into Andre Villas-Boas' personality and abilities. A select group of Scottish coaches shared some of their education with Chelsea's £13 million replacement for Carlo Ancelotti and, if their careers have taken divergent paths, memories remain strong.
"You can forget people who were on the course but I instantly remembered Andre," said Jim Weir, now manager of Brechin City. "I felt he was going to go on and be a good coach." Villas-Boas' appointment at one of the world's richest clubs has taken him back - "it's not something I would ever have expected," he added - but the makings of a manager were apparent.
"He was very sure of himself," said Weir, who met Villas-Boas when both were studying for their UEFA A Licence in 2000. "He wasn't presumptuous or in any way big-headed. He had a presence about him. He was full of confidence in his coaching method and coaching style." The Portuguese was then 22, a fact his competence and confidence camouflaged. "I didn't realise he was so young," Weir admitted.
Surrounded by seasoned Scottish players, the youthful foreigner must have been an incongruous presence on the SFA's course at Largs. "You can really feel for the guys coming in from different countries," Weir said. "Some really struggle but Andre was really well equipped and knew what he was going on about. He was popular and he offered a lot to the course."
While Villas-Boas' initial employment was as a scout, Weir was willing to testify to his early excellence on the training ground. "His coaching style was something his players would like," he explained. "It was how he handled players, how he took control of every session. He was easily understandable, strong with his voice and very confident. He certainly stood out."
An exotic unknown there, Villas-Boas returned to Largs with a higher profile in 2006 when, as a member of Jose Mourinho's backroom staff, his star was in the ascendant. His Pro-Licence classmates were eager to learn more. "Even the players at the top level in Scotland like Ally McCoist and Iain Durrant were intrigued by the Chelsea way," Weir added.
"He was very happy to talk about their methods, how they planned. They would watch opponents four or five times, collecting match data, doing as much homework as possible. He was planning four or five weeks ahead in case the team would change formation." Part of the course entailed a presentation in front of the group. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his work at Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas shone. "It was very detailed, it was excellent," Weir said. "I still have it on my computer."
What endeared Villas-Boas to Craig Brewster, who is now coaching Football League newcomers Crawley Town, was his modesty. "He never bragged about anything," he said. "That's not Andre. He never shouted his mouth off. Everybody liked Andre. He was an intelligent guy who tried to make friends and enjoyed being part of the team. That was a big, big thing - he makes sure everybody's part of the team."
His modern methods nonetheless ensured that Villas-Boas stood out. "We would go to games to do match analysis and even then he was typing his match report on his Blackberry," Weir recalled. "It was at a completely different level to the rest of us."
His subsequent fortunes would seem to prove that. Brewster sensed that Villas-Boas' ambitions stretched beyond life among Mourinho's acolytes. "Deep down he knew he would go out on his own one day," he added. "But probably he didn't realise how quickly things would happen for him."
Porto's 145-goal, Treble-winning season suggested an overnight success. Brewster, who was in email contact with Villas-Boas when the younger man won the Europa League last month, argues that the wunderkind of management is benefiting from years of learning. "He has studied the game hard," said the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle manager. "He is not a young 33-year-old. He is a mature, switched-on 33-year-old."
Indeed, Weir believes he had similar attributes when he first encountered Villas-Boas. "At 22 he was doing his coaching badges among seasoned professionals, but he was very confident," he explained. Comparisons with his predecessor at Stamford Bridge are, he believes, misplaced. "He is a completely different character to Mourinho," he added. "Jose is very extrovert and controversial and I don't see Andre being that type. I don't think anything fazes him."
Nothing, perhaps, except the game itself. Famously, Villas-Boas did not have a professional career, something which doesn't surprise Brewster. "He wasn't much of a player," said the former striker. "We had a couple of kickabouts and you could see he wasn't a natural." A natural player he might not have been; a natural manager, however, is a very different matter.