On the evening of the 18th of May, spectators at Dublin’s rebuilt Aviva Stadium should be afforded a double-take towards the sharply dressed figure stalking the technical area of the 2011 Europa League Final. With top button undone, tie slightly askew and adorned in a fitted, Club crest emblazoned suit, this talismanic young Portuguese cuts a swathe eerily reminiscent of a certain self-styled ‘special one’. Yet this, most definitely, is not José Mourinho; this is André Villas Boas.
Schooled under the inimitable Sir Bobby Robson; with an unobtrusive, unerring capacity for intrinsic man-management (“every player in the squad is important. They all have a place”) and tactical acumen; an outspoken nature wedded to multi-lingual cultural appreciation; and enjoying unprecedented success with FC Porto after a non-existent playing career, which has subsequently seen links made with the top job at both Liverpool and Chelsea. It’s easy to see why Villas Boas
immediately commands parallels be drawn with Mourinho; even more so once the latter entrusted the former as apprentice to his mastery during tenures as Porto, Chelsea, and Inter Milan.
However, the effervescent protégé now stands on the verge of expunging the majority of both the memories and records inked by his former mentor. With the Primeira Liga title already secured – courtesy of a 2-1 win at arch-rivals Benfica and with five games to spare, no less – Porto find themselves on the cusp of a domestic-continental treble. In their way
stand counterparts FC Braga and Vitoria Guimaraes, in respective finals of the Europa League and Taça de Portugal.
Villas Boas has already surpassed Mourinho’s Porto record of 33 games unbeaten in all competitions (by three), and the scenario seems to carry a certain air of satisfying inevitability. Such has enveloped the career trajectory of this exuberant 33-year-old to date. Evidently self-assured from an even younger age, Villas Boas is certainly helping to eschew the traditional pre-requisite for would-be coaches to boast an established playing background.
Bobby Robson’s genial nature is well-vaunted in football circles, and his tutelage of Mourinho has been equally as espoused. Sir Bobby’s repute as the kindly grandfather figure is further enhanced in the case of Villas Boas. While at the helm at Porto, the former England Head Coach found himself resident of the same apartment block as a spritely, intelligent 16-year-old. With enthusiasm and attentiveness – coupled to a strong grasp of English – the dogmatic teenager quickly impressed Robson. For his part, the cordial Englishman then called in a favour from the corridors of the FA to see his young charge attain UEFA C Licence credit at just 17 (qualifying in Scotland, and at an age ten years younger than nominally permitted).
After returning to the bosom of Señor Robson – Villas Boas always retained a due sense of propriety – he then enjoyed a brief stint in East Anglia, with Ipswich Town. The Tractor Boys’ Manager of the time – George Burley – recalls how “André [was]really nice…intelligent and [eager]to learn”. Soon appointed to the Porto scouting network, Villas Boas’ status grew rapidly, and he assumed charge of the junior ranks in 1997. Embodying the cultural endeavour pressed by Robson – who had since left the Club for Barcelona – he then took a sabbatical of sorts, coaching the British Virgin Islands for just shy of twelve months. His return, in 2002, saw history beckon in the guise of the self-aggrandising Mourinho’s arrival at Oporto. Mourinho espied something of a kindred spirit, identifying an analytical obsessiveness which mirrored his own.
Over the next seven years, Villas Boas enjoyed prime counsel within the court of King José as head of opposition scouting, and his seemingly limitless capacity for learning shone through; as he himself recants in an interview from his time at Chelsea: “I travel to training grounds…incognito, and then look at our opponent’s mental and physical state before drawing my conclusions and presenting a full dossier”. That word – “dossier” – carries overtones and conjures ready memories in accordance with José Mourinho: think of the FA Cup tie with Scunthorpe United; profiling of referees; and that infamous voyeurism claim levelled against Arsène Wenger. Now reconsider those – especially the latter – in the context of Villas Boas’ admission: “mental and physical…dossier”. Fast forward three years, marry that intricacy and tactical development to a fervent dynamism, and you begin to garner an appreciation for Villas Boas and what makes him tick.
Such was the character of the Porto native that he was never likely to be satisfied as merely part of the rank-and-file, and deep-seated ambitions of leadership soon bubbled to the surface. Rumours of a falling out with Mourinho at Inter persist, but all parties have remained steadfastly tight-lipped over that period. Nonetheless, in October 2009, he relinquished the umbilical cord to take the role of Head Coach at the floundering Académica de Coimbra. Without a victory five fixtures into a 30-game season, and adrift at the foot of the table, he steadied the ship to steer them to the calm waters of mid-table mediocrity, and ten points clear of the relegation berths.
Typifying his unabated drive for development, Villas Boas’ time at Académica was short, as he was head hunted as the man to reinvigorate Porto. Again, his impact was nigh-on instant: appointed on the 2nd of June, his first competitive game in charge saw the team lift the Portuguese Supertaça, offering a tantalising glimpse of what the future might hold for their beleaguered followers.
Impassioned and exuberant, the approach adopted by Porto’s energetic 4-3-3 formation runs quintessentially parallel to that of their trainer, with players wilfully buying into his philosophy. Uncompromising in his commitment to a convivial blend of style and substance, it is in the on-field transition from chalkboard to pitch where the difference between José and André is most evident.
To the casual observer, success at Porto – particularly on a domestic front – may appear nothing ‘special’, let alone potentially ‘extra special’. And with only four teams ever having had their name etched onto the Primeira Liga crown during its 76-year history (Porto, for the record, 25 times), that view may carry a justifiable credence. Yet consider the circumstances into which Villas Boas stepped: failure to qualify for the Champions’ League football for the first time in a decade; the relative ignominy of a third place league finish; the sale of the side’s heartbeat – in Raul Meireles and Bruno Alves; and a financial shortfall of around €15m. Now contrast that -just 12 months hence – with a record boasting the highest points tally for any side in a domestic campaign (84); the highest number of consecutive league wins (16); an unbeaten league season; and a goal difference of +57, and the impact of Villas Boas becomes somewhat more clear.
And now place their European showing – most wins by a Portuguese team in a European campaign (13); a 7-4 aggregate win over Villareal in the Europa League semi-final; a 10-3 aggregate win over Spartak Moscow in the quarter-final – alongside. Impressive, no? One small twist of fate for the final will see Villas Boas come face-to-face with Domingos Paciência (the head coach of Braga); a former striker at Porto destined to leave the Club until Villas Boas persuaded Robson to reconsider. But that offers a mere sideshow to the course of fate.
Villas Boas appears to have taken all the strengths that Mourinho is widely acknowledged to exhibit, and married that to a more attacking, easy-on-the-eye style of play, all cast with a more effusive sense of modesty. The sense of occasion – it can be assured – will not be lost on a certain Madrid-based observer come Wednesday night, as the younger man seeks to update the record books once more and further dull the memory of his senior countryman. And, with openly stating that he “wants to be a coach for no more than ten years” (sound familiar?),Villas Boas clearly has designs on being renowned as not just special, but just that little bit extra special.