It is a remarkable story that gives hope to all young and aspiring football coaches. A 17-year-old Andre Villas-Boas, a fanatical Porto fan, discovered he was living in the same apartment block as the new Porto manager Bobby Robson. The former England and PSV Eindhoven manager had parted company with city rivals Sporting Lisbon, and he was just beginning his spell with Porto when the young Villas-Boas recognised something not quite right in the Dragoes line-up.
Villas-Boas wrote to Robson, informing him of his concerns about the first-team selections – most notably that forward Domingos Paciencia should have been in the starting XI. Robson, a fatherly figure to so many in football, wrote back – asking for the young man to provide analytical and statistical evidence to support his argument. The aspiring journalist did so, and Robson was so impressed that he organised to take Villas-Boas to a training session with Porto and the rest, as they say, is history.
“When I approached Sir Bobby it was as a fan, because I was asking questions about the team,” Villas-Boas said in an interview with TheFA.com. “I was just 17 and he didn't take it as an insult. He opened the door completely; he told me everything had an explanation. These are memories I cherish a lot.”
Villas-Boas on the move
Robson offered the Portuguese a trainee position in the team’s coaching staff and was sent to England and Scotland to complete FA coaching badges. In most cases he was the youngest member of the class. Following experience at Robson’s former club Ipswich Town, Villas-Boas became manager of the British Virgin Islands’ national side at the tender age of 21.
After 18 months in the Caribbean, Villas-Boas returned to his native Portugal after being offered a role with the U-19 side at Porto by then-manager Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho’s relationship with Robson started at a similar time to Villas-Boas’. The current Chelsea manager had been Robson’s interpreter during the English manager’s ill-fated spell at Sporting Lisbon and had followed him north when he moved to Porto. Successful years followed, winning two consecutive Primeira Liga titles and a Portuguese Cup. Mourinho worked alongside Robson as his interpreter, also discussing tactics and planning training sessions. While Robson had taken Villas-Boas under his wing and sent him to his homeland to learn the trade, he was exchanging ideas with Mourinho in Portugal.
The duo moved to Barcelona, leaving Villas-Boas behind in Portugal, and Mourinho began taking on more coaching responsibilities. In fact, the Portuguese’s stature grew so much during his time with Robson at the Camp Nou that, upon Robson’s departure in 1997, Mourinho was persuaded to stay as assistant to new coach Louis Van Gaal.
Robson comes back for Mourinho
Robson first returned to PSV Eindhoven and then, in his final managerial role, took over his boyhood club Newcastle United in 1999. Even then, his admiration for his Portuguese protégé Mourinho remained. He offered the current Chelsea manager the role as his assistant on Tyneside and, knowing that Mourinho had aspirations to manage himself, promised his former interpreter that he would have the St James’ Park hotseat within two years.
“Since Bobby suspected I wouldn't accept [the assistant role], he told me it would only be for a year, two tops, and that at the end of that time I would be head coach and he club manager,” Mourinho said of Robson’s Newcastle offer. “But he had forgotten that I had worked with him for many years and so I knew him well. It is unthinkable to picture him watching from the stands. I didn't take him up on his offer, knowing sooner or later, my time would come."
Mourinho’s time did come, first at Benfica and then at Uniao de Leirira before being hand-picked to return to Porto, where he hired Villas-Boas first as the U-19 coach and then as scout. Villas-Boas would report to Mourinho with detailed dossiers on the club’s next opposition, a role he continued when the pair moved to Chelsea in 2004. The Portuguese pair continued to work together when Mourinho moved to Inter Milan in 2008 but they parted ways in 2009 when Villas-Boas left for his first coaching role, at Academica in his homeland. He moved to Porto and won a historic treble, before moving to Tottenham via an ill-fated return to Chelsea as manager. Mourinho has now also returned to Chelsea, after himself winning a treble in charge of Inter Milan and La Liga while at Real Madrid.
The pair are reunited this weekend for the first time since Villas-Boas departed Inter wearing a ‘Villas-Boas No1’ Inter jersey handed to him by the coaching staff, and an embrace from Mourinho captured by photographers. Despite the apparently warm send-off, Villas-Boas has revealed the pair are not on speaking terms, with the Tottenham manager saying he does not even have Mourinho’s phone number.
Regardless of their current relationship, a strong bond remains between the two, in the form of Sir Bobby Robson’s tutelage of the Portuguese pair.
“Bobby Robson is one of those people who will never die,” Mourinho said in 2009. “Not just for what he did in his career but for everything that he gave to those who, like me, were lucky to know him and walk by his side.”