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Champions League Gold: Manchester United 1-1 Porto (2003/04) - The Making of Jose Mourinho

Rob Cottingham recounts the tale of a truly remarkable night under the lights at Old Trafford that would go on to shape modern football history like no other. A new managerial superstar announces himself to the world with THAT touchline run as he lands a stunning knock-out blow on his legendary opposite number.

Off he went. Ejecting himself from the bricked Old Trafford dugout, wide-eyed and bellowing, Jose Mourinho set off and never looked back. 

Sprinting down the touchline, pumping his fists, the tails of his black trench coat billowing behind him – this was his moment, the birth of the Mourinho cult.

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Sir Alex Ferguson watched on in disbelief as the man destined for his throne stole the spotlight at the Theatre of Dreams. Mourinho’s assault on the landed aristocracy had begun and all the Manchester United manager could do was stand and stare.

Benni McCarthy’s free-kick, Tim Howard’s parry and Costinha’s finish on the rebound. The Porto midfielder’s 90th-minute equaliser had set in motion a series of events that would alter the landscape of English and European football forever.

 

Gunning for the godfather

25 February 2004. Prime minister Tony Blair is distancing himself from an ongoing row surrounding the release of British detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

British 100m sprinter Dwain Chambers has just been handed a two-year ban after testing positive for anabolic steroid use.

Boy band Busted sit top of the billboard charts while Kelis, OutKast and Ronan Keating also feature in the top ten singles that week. 

It’s past 10pm in the bowels of Porto’s shiny new Estadio do Dragao but the club’s charismatic young coach has a heaving media scrum hanging on his every word.

José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix has just steered his unfancied side to a shock 2-1 win over the mighty Manchester United in a wild Champions League last-16 first leg. 

Quinton Fortune gives United the lead but goals either side of half-time from McCarthy see Mourinho’s men turn the match on its head.

Roy Keane is sent off for a stamp on Porto keeper Vitor Baia in the 87th minute, ruling the United captain out of the return leg and both quarter-final ties should they advance.

United are furious. Ferguson’s legendary temper boils over at the final whistle and he uses his ‘handshake’ with Mourinho to angrily pull the Portuguese towards him until they are practically nose to nose.

Ferguson takes the opportunity to tell a visibly startled Mourinho exactly what he thinks of his Porto players. He brands Baia a diver for “making a meal” of the contact from Keane’s boot.

As Mourinho faces the press, still basking in the warm afterglow of his most significant managerial victory to date, he can easily diffuse the situation and pour cold water on a potential feud with Ferguson, the undisputed master of managerial mind games.

But Mourinho senses his moment has come and takes aim at football’s godfather.

"Ferguson told me in the tunnel that he thought Vitor had made the most of it," he says in near-perfect English, delivered in a thick Portuguese accent.

"I said I wanted to see it on television before I would make a comment but if he was right, I would apologise. However, if he has no reason to make the claim he can apologise to me.

“I understand why [Ferguson] is a bit emotional. He has some of the top players in the world and they should be doing a lot better than that.

"You would be sad if your team gets as clearly dominated by opponents who have been built on 10% of the budget... we had 21 shots to four and at Old Trafford we will go there to win again.”

As an introduction to the huge UK television audience and beyond, this calculated, cocksure show of disrespect is nothing short of astonishing.

Ahead of the second leg, the touch paper has been well and truly lit.

 

The outsider

Mourinho has trodden an unorthodox path to this moment.

The son of a former goalkeeper and coach, Felix Mourinho, his playing career was unremarkable but he showed an early aptitude for coaching by providing scouting reports on the opposition for his father while turning out for him at Rio Ave and Belenenses.

“I don’t belong in the football tribe,” Mourinho would admit in January 2019 in his first interview after leaving Manchester United. “I love football, football is my life and I've been in football for as long as I remember. But I don’t belong to the tribe.”

His battle for recognition had begun at the side of another tribe member, Sir Bobby Robson, who hired the 29-year-old initially as a translator but soon in a wider coaching capacity when he took charge at Sporting CP in 1992.

Mourinho’s coaching roles to that point had been with smaller Portuguese sides – Vitoria de Setubal, Estrela da Amadora and Ovarense.  

Even as a translator, Mourinho was influential.

“He was picking and choosing which of Robson’s words to translate,” Santi Gimenez, of Spanish newspaper AS, told FourFourTwo. “He continued to translate, but only inside the dressing room and not to the press.”

“I saw that he was very ambitious and encouraged that,” Robson recalled. “I told him he shouldn’t be content with being an interpreter.”

And so it proved. 

When Robson went to Porto two years later, Mourinho followed – and they claimed six trophies in three seasons.

When Robson was appointed at Barcelona, he again followed.

“Whenever I needed him, he was there, even if it meant putting himself in the firing line,” Robson wrote in his autobiography, Farewell But Not Goodbye.

The former England coach was dismissed after one season at Camp Nou but Mourinho remained, spending four years enjoying a growing influence at one of football’s biggest clubs. 

In September 2000, Benfica came calling and at 37, he had his first managerial role. It didn’t last long - a change in Benfica’s leadership saw Mourinho resign after only nine games.

He achieved eye-catching results in his second post at modest Uniao de Leiria, prompting Porto to give him another shot in charge of one of Portugal's 'Big Three'.

Success was almost instant. In his first full season, 2002/03, Mourinho won the treble – claiming the Primeira Liga, Portuguese Cup and UEFA Cup by beating Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in the final. 

And now this last-16 tie against United.

An opportunity for Mourinho to make a name for himself at the very highest level, against the very best.

A chance for a disarmingly self-assured outsider with his star on the rise to upset the footballing hierarchy.

A chance his whole career has been slowly building towards.

 

 

Red alert

The Porto defeat plunges United into crisis.

Under Ferguson, they have been the dominant force in English football. The Reds have accumulated an unprecedented 23 trophies in the 18 years since his appointment, including the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble of 1999.

But in the aftermath of Ferguson’s 100th Champions League match as a manager, the landscape is shifting.

United sit seven points adrift of Premier League leaders Arsenal following a 1-1 draw with Leeds United at Old Trafford four days earlier and their hopes of landing a ninth title in 12 seasons are receding fast.

Arsene Wenger’s free-flowing Gunners are undefeated after 25 matches, have just reeled off six straight victories and are in search of their second title in three seasons.

Talk of an era-defining power shift to north London has become impossible for Ferguson to ignore.

Ferguson’s decision to rest skipper Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo against Leeds backfires as Alan Smith’s header secures a 1-1 draw for a side staring down the barrel of both relegation and potential financial ruin.

That result follows a 3-2 home defeat by Middlesbrough – United's fifth league loss already this season. 

Keane, such a crucial figure in United’s recent success, is struggling to impart his snarling influence on the team amid a series of injuries.

David Beckham is gone – sold to Real Madrid the previous summer after a well-publicised row with Ferguson following an FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford.

Ferguson had kicked a stray boot in anger during a post-match dressing-down of his team and it struck Beckham on the head, cutting his eyebrow open.

“We are missing him as a player and a person,” top scorer Ruud van Nistelrooy admits in the build-up to the Porto first leg.

Ferguson is already without his best defender, Rio Ferdinand, who is serving a nine-month ban, while Mikael Silvestre is out for three weeks after being forced off injured in the draw with Leeds.

United’s defensive woes – McCarthy’s winner is the 13th goal they have conceded in their past six games – have coincided with Ferdinand’s ban and Wes Brown’s return from a knee ligament injury. 

John O’Shea has looked shaky in recent weeks and is dropped for the first leg against Porto, with Gary Neville shifting over from full-back to partner Brown in central defence.

Phil Neville slots in at right-back and is relentlessly targeted by Mourinho’s side, while McCarthy is able to get in between Brown and Gary Neville for his headed winner.

United’s summer signings, meanwhile, have largely flopped.

Striker David Bellion has managed just two goals. World Cup winner Kleberson and fellow midfielder Eric Djemba-Djemba have failed to adequately adapt to life in the Premier League and Howard is the latest goalkeeper to be cowed by the challenge of stepping into Peter Schmeichel’s formidable boots.

A 19-year-old Ronaldo is yet to fully adjust to the rigours of English football, with critics accusing him of showboating and lacking end product. “I still had the Portuguese mentality of too many step-overs and bad decision-making,” the future five-time Ballon d’Or winner would later admit of his first season in Manchester.

Off the pitch, things are just as bleak for Ferguson.

He is locked in a bitter dispute with business magnate and former friend John Magnier over the ownership of Irish racehorse Rock of Gibraltar.

Ferguson believes he owns half of the horse’s lucrative breeding rights but Magnier disputes those claims.

Magnier’s persistence during an acrimonious and expensive court battle is making life intolerable for the United manager. He is considering conceding defeat in the form of an out-of-court settlement.

There are even suggestions that Ferguson should contemplate retirement.

During the 2000/01 campaign, he had announced his intention to stand down at the end of the following season. The Scot cited reaching 60 as a “psychological barrier that changed my sense of health”. 

He reneged on those plans in February 2002, convinced by his wife Cathy to stay at the helm, and successfully recaptured the Premier League title the following season. 

But nine months on and with his legendary powers apparently on the wane, there are growing doubts over whether he made the right decision.

And those doubts hang heavy in the air at the Estadio do Dragao during his post-match press conference, midway through a tie that could define United’s season and, potentially, the Ferguson era. 

“There was no malice in the [Keane/Baia] incident, it is not Roy's style to do anything like that,” he snaps, somewhat mystifyingly, in defence of a player who has just been sent off for the 11th time in his United career.

"The goalkeeper made more of it than he should have done. Certainly he stood on the lad but I don't know whether he could have got out of the way. I can understand why the linesman flagged but the keeper made a meal of it."

Mourinho and his Porto players have clearly rattled Ferguson. Little does he realise at this stage that they are only just getting started.

 

Mischief and mind games

“The common practice for European coaches visiting Old Trafford is not to take on the old Scotsman who rules the roost there,” The Telegraph’s Sam Wallace writes after Mourinho’s press conference ahead of the second leg between United and Porto.

“Usually they doff their hats to Alex Ferguson’s great track record, praise his attacking teams and generally pay their respects. But Porto’s Jose Mourinho decided to play it rather differently.”

Mourinho had been quietly respectful ahead of the first leg, hailing the quality of United’s players and describing them as one of the top teams in Europe.

Now, emboldened by a successful tussle and its subsequent fall-out, the ambitious coach heaps praise on United with a different intention - to unsettle them.

“You say mind games? They are no problem to me... They think they are better than us,” Mourinho says.

“The last time Porto were here [in 1997] we lost 4-0. They are the best team. They are the favourites. They have everything.

"So it is difficult for me to understand why they are so worried. Are they afraid because they have to play us and beat us?

"All they have to do is beat us and we will go home with a smile on our faces. It’s so simple.”

The Portuguese offers his opinion on why Ferguson is still smarting from the Keane red card.

“I prefer to talk about the good things in football, not stupid things,” he says.

“It is not easy to lose to a small team. If they had beaten us 5-0 no-one would be talking about diving and cheating. All they have to do is beat us and everyone goes home happy.” 

For his next trick, Mourinho takes the unprecedented step of naming his team more than 24 hours before kick-off.

“Baia, Paulo Ferreira, Jorge Costa, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente, Dmitri Alenichev, Costinha, Maniche, Deco, Carlos Alberto, McCarthy.”

The one change is Costinha - suspended for the first leg - in for Pedro Mendes.

Mourinho also mischievously says he hopes to finally shake hands properly with his United counterpart before the game.

“One side of football is always intelligence,” he warns cryptically. “But never think that the other guy is stupid.”

After emerging unscathed from his first brush with United, Mourinho is unflinching, undaunted by his opponents’ reputation.

If his aggressive approach is unusual for managers visiting Old Trafford, then it’s because Mourinho is no normal visiting manager.

And for United, the circumstances are far from normal.

While Mourinho’s Porto cruise to two league wins – defeating Academica 1-0 and Belenenses 4-1 – the 11 days between the last-16 matches further rock the boat at Old Trafford.

The media reaction to the first leg is brutal.

“An embarrassment writ large,” writes The Telegraph’s Henry Winter, who views Keane’s sending off as “a deeply unprofessional act”.

“Is the empire crumbling? Are we seeing the beginning of the end for Fergie?” ponders the Evening Herald.

“Ferguson looks rattled,” writes ex-United winger Johnny Giles. “His argument with the Portuguese coach was the classic reaction of somebody trying to draw attention away from a central, damaging fact… that for the moment, United are lost.

"All Arsenal’s current strengths magnify the United weaknesses.”

That point is made emphatically in the domestic matches following the Champions League action.

United are held to a 1-1 draw by lowly Fulham at Loftus Road, meaning they’ve taken just one point from six against the relegation-threatened Cottagers this season.

Louis Saha, a £13.6 million January signing, scores on his return to his former club but United are pegged back by Luis Boa Morte’s equaliser.

Ferguson rants at the officials over their failure to award his side a penalty but the real reason for the dropped points is the United manager's team selection, with Van Nistelrooy, Ryan Giggs and Howard all named on the bench. 

“No disrespect to the guys in there, but it did give us a lift,” admits Fulham assistant Steve Kean after the draw.

It’s a bizarre gamble by Ferguson, whose judgement is growing increasingly erratic. By leaving the trio out, he seems to be hoisting the white flag on United’s title defence.

The result is compounded by Arsenal scoring twice in the opening four minutes against Charlton en route to a seventh straight league victory. United slip to third, below Chelsea and nine points adrift of Arsenal. 

Ferguson's rotation is made all the more perplexing by the call to restore the rested trio for the FA Cup quarter-final against the same opponents the following weekend, just three days before the Porto return leg.

The move pays off initially, Van Nistelrooy scoring twice as United come from a goal down to beat Fulham 2-1 at Old Trafford.

But it’s another display littered with defensive mistakes and there’s even the jarring sight of Giggs deployed at left-back for the final 15 minutes.

Worse still, Steed Malbranque’s penalty is the ninth goal United have conceded in five home matches.

Their reward for victory is a tantalising showdown against Arsenal, who stroll to a 5-1 quarter-final win over Portsmouth at Fratton Park, storming five goals up before the hour mark in a devastating display.

United, though, look shaken to the core.

Ferguson’s men are no longer the Premier League’s great entertainers, no longer the chief purveyors of free-flowing football in England. That mantle has been seized by Wenger’s irresistible Arsenal.

United’s period of dominance under Ferguson has also been built on the club’s financial might.

Mourinho is correct when he suggests they are the “most powerful” club - the latest Deloitte Money League is released between the two legs and shows United above Real Madrid at the top of the pile.

But United’s supremacy in this department is suddenly under threat too from elsewhere in London.

Chelsea are newly flush with Roman Abramovich’s billions and have just beaten United to the signature of coveted PSV Eindhoven winger Arjen Robben.

The Dutch international meets with Ferguson in January but United’s £5 million offer is deemed derisory by PSV, whose chairman jokes that it is barely enough to secure an autographed shirt of the player.

A week before United v Porto, Chelsea announce they’ve signed Robben for £12m.

“Between them, Arsenal and Chelsea have removed the two most important pillars in the dominance that United have established over English football in the last decade,” Liverpool legend and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen writes in The Telegraph

Two days before Ferguson’s pre-match press conference, he is handed a small reprieve when he finally reaches an out-of-court settlement worth £2.5m with Magnier over the Rock of Gibraltar affair.

But the agreement represents the latest in a long line of defeats for Ferguson, whose original plan was to sue the Irishman for £110m.

Ferguson relishes a fight in football but in seeking a battle with a billionaire United stakeholder, he has greatly over-estimated his power off the pitch.

“He misjudged his own importance,” reads an editorial in the Irish Independent. “It is because of this lunatic litigation that United, both company and team, have been destabilised and their season is falling apart.”

And it’s with this cloud hanging over his head that a bad-tempered Ferguson is tasked with dissecting Mourinho’s mind games ahead of the crunch return leg at Old Trafford.

“I read that Porto want a good referee and they always seem to want the referees to help them,” he growls at the assembled media, banging the match officials drum once again.

“My opinion is that [referee Valentin Ivanov] is experienced – let him get on with the job.

"I said at the time that Baia over-reacted and I haven’t changed my mind. Roy had nowhere to go and he tried to tread lightly rather than go hard.”

The United boss dodges a Rock of Gibraltar question and offers a glare when it’s suggested that Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy were just as guilty of diving as their Porto counterparts in the first leg.

“You have to think that we will improve drastically, we were nothing like Manchester United last time,” Ferguson insists, not entirely convincingly.

“We feel that if we don’t let in a goal we will do enough to go through.”

One thing he does concede is that the result of the Porto match will determine United’s season.

After all, a European exit would leave United reliant on beating Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final to maintain their hopes of silverware.

Never has Ferguson’s empire felt so ready to crumble.
 

 

Daring to dream

Whether an arrogant misstep or the perfectly-laid bait, Mourinho’s decision to name his team early places the ball firmly in his opposite number’s court.

Ferguson, his options limited by Keane’s suspension and Silvestre’s injury, has a big decision to make over who he deploys on the right-hand side of midfield.

He opts for Darren Fletcher, who impresses in the FA Cup win over Fulham. Saha’s calf strain means he’s only fit enough for a place among the substitutes alongside Ronaldo, Diego Forlan and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United deploy a 4-2-3-1 that can revert to 4-5-1 without the ball.

Howard continues in goal, Gary Neville replaces Keane at the heart of United’s defence, his brother Phil goes to right-back and O’Shea is on the left.

Djemba-Djemba – making his first start since October - and Nicky Butt offer protection to the back four while Giggs, Fletcher and Paul Scholes feature behind lone striker Van Nistelrooy.

It’s a cautious selection for what is a must-win match but United are without a clean sheet in eight games and know conceding an away goal could prove fatal.

Despite United’s struggles, they remain heavy favourites with the bookies to overturn the deficit and seal their spot in the quarter-finals for a ninth consecutive season.

Expectation is building at a packed Old Trafford as fans filter into the stands ahead of kick-off.

“I was confident we would be going through,” Mick Thorne, one of the 67,000 in attendance, remembers. “I didn’t see any reason we wouldn’t.”

Mourinho is true to his word and Costinha comes in for Pedro Mendes as Porto's only change from the first leg.

The visitors line up with a diamond midfield featuring Deco as its attacking tip. He is tasked with providing support for Carlos Alberto, making just his third-ever Champions League appearance, and McCarthy.

The South African striker stokes the fire in the build-up by saying he is “shocked” by United’s lack of spirit in the first leg and “disappointed” with their level of performance.

Aside from Deco and McCarthy, the team is largely workmanlike and exemplified by their 32-year-old captain Jorge Costa, who had spent the 2001/02 season exiled on loan to Charlton Athletic before resurrecting his career under Mourinho.

The centre-back is handed the daunting task of keeping last season's Premier League Golden Boot winner, Van Nistelrooy, quiet. 

But Mourinho is quickly building a reputation as one of the best-prepared and most effective man-managers in Europe and his team are quietly confident they can spring an upset.

“It didn’t matter who we played,” Costa would later recall. “We went to the game and thought, ‘Can we win? Yes we can’.”

“Mourinho is brilliant because of his human qualities,” squad member Carlos Secretario added. “He can extract everything a player has.”

For the biggest game of his managerial career so far, Mourinho’s pre-match rituals remain the same.

He kisses a photo of his children and a crucifix before emerging from the tunnel and strolling purposefully along the side of the pitch towards his dugout.

“Jose Mourinho has said that his dream is to coach in England,” says Clive Tyldesley, introducing the Porto coach to the ITV audience.

“He already claims to have been approached by Tottenham, a claim that Spurs vehemently deny...”

Ferguson offers a reassuring wave to the supporters and positions himself on the edge of his technical area, arms folded across his navy coat as he awaits kick-off.

The Champions League theme rings out and the players line up, absorbing the atmosphere. Referee Ivanov blows his whistle and Deco gets the match underway. A roar reverberates around the ground. 

“The stadium was deafening at kick-off. I was 13 at the time and I was literally pushed back from the noise when I walked out,” recalls Joshua Lino da Costa, a Porto fan in the away end.

“It was a sea of colour, full of flags waving and scarves held up. There was a belief we could do it. We felt we had enough to get the draw.”

Ferguson is soon gesticulating on the touchline, clapping his hands and throwing his arms forward to urge his team on.

The opening stages are played out frantically with both sets of players feeding off the nervous energy inside the stadium.

Fletcher, an unorthodox right winger, brushes past a fresh-faced Ferreira and the Porto defender crumples to the ground. Ivanov blows his whistle and Ferguson is left with his head in his hands in frustration.

If the Scotsman’s accusation that Porto players are divers looks justified, it’s quickly undermined when Van Nistelrooy stumbles over inside the penalty area between Costa and Ferreira. Ivanov awards a corner. “Keano! There’s only one Keano, there’s only one Keano!” chant the Old Trafford crowd.

Van Nistelrooy wins a free-kick but Scholes blasts his effort wide and into the front row. Carvalho fouls Van Nistelrooy with a high boot. Phil Neville is booked for a challenge on Carlos Alberto and Mourinho saunters down to the touchline to protest.

“Like a couple on a first date, it's taking a while for any noticeable action to take place,” The Guardian’s Sean Ingle writes.

But the match springs into life 24 minutes in.  

Costinha earns the game’s first yellow card as he cynically scythes down Van Nistelrooy.

The Portugal captain then almost gifts United the opening goal when his blind backpass is seized upon by the Dutchman.

To Costinha’s relief, Baia smothers the striker’s effort and Porto launch a counter that sees Carlos Alberto’s shot blocked brilliantly by a lunging Gary Neville. 

The first real moment of quality arrives just past the half-hour mark and with it comes the opening goal.

O’Shea plays a one-two with Giggs and charges deep into Porto territory to receive the return pass.

The left-back cuts back on to his right foot, deceiving Ferreira, and delivers an in-swinging cross into the Porto box.

Scholes times his vintage late run to perfection and guides a glancing header past Baia from five yards out. 

It’s a nerve-settler of the highest order.

Relief washes over Old Trafford and fans pump their fists as the TV cameras pan around the stands.

The replays show Ferguson nodding his head forward as the cross sails in before turning in delight to greet his coaching staff.

“Beautifully created by O’Shea and typically taken by Scholes,” roars Tyldesley.

Normal service is resumed. United are ahead on away goals and the tie has swung decisively in their favour. 

The noise levels rise even higher when Costa is forced off with a hamstring injury and replaced by Pedro Emmanuel.

Porto are suddenly floundering but they are handed a golden opportunity to respond when Djemba-Djemba badly slices a routine clearance.

The loose ball is seized upon by Carlos Alberto, whose close-range effort is blocked by Howard before Maniche blasts the rebound over.

It’s the sort of fragility that has cost United’s defence all season but Djemba-Djemba's mistake, mercifully, goes unpunished.

With a minute remaining in an increasingly positive first half for the home side, United briefly look to have one foot firmly in the quarter-finals.

Giggs’ free-kick is nodded on by the impressive O’Shea and from a ricochet, Scholes reacts well to control and poke past Baia from close range.

The United midfielder wheels away with his arm held aloft but a linesman’s flag curtails his celebrations.

“I’m telling you, Clive, it’s the latest decision you’ve ever seen,” former United boss and ITV co-commentator Ron Atkinson growls. “It might be the right decision, but it’s the latest.”

Except it’s not the right decision: the replays show Scholes is a yard onside. The error keeps United’s lead to one goal heading into the interval.

Ivanov’s whistle sounds and Ferguson, smiling wryly, offers a few choice words to the fourth official.

Mourinho marches off towards the tunnel deep in thought but, crucially, with his side still afloat.

 

Man on the run

Djemba-Djemba’s rib injury forces Ferguson into a change during the break, bringing on a half-fit Saha and switching to a 4-4-2.

Almost immediately, the decision looks a mistake. 

Porto seem buoyed by their let-off on the stroke of half-time and emerge with renewed intent, dominating possession.

United, clinging to a precarious advantage, start retreating deeper. Given their poor defensive record, it’s hardly a fool-proof plan.

Maniche’s effort is blocked by Brown minutes before Carlos Alberto fires just wide of Howard’s post. Nerves are creeping back into United’s play.

Scholes overruns the ball and thunders in, studs-up, on Emmanuel to earn a yellow card. He’ll miss the quarter-final first leg if United make it – but they are far from home and dry. 

Mourinho makes his first tactical switch on the hour mark as he brings on Edgaras Jankauskas in place of the 19-year-old Carlos Alberto. The towering Lithuanian striker offers United centre-backs Gary Neville and Brown an altogether different challenge.

United are now playing on the counter. Baia comes for, and misses, a Phil Neville cross but Ferreira is on hand to head over the bar. In another wave, Scholes sends Van Nistelrooy through but the forward takes too long and the chance is snuffed out. 

Porto continue to carry a threat and Alenichev’s effort narrowly clears Howard’s crossbar.

United don’t know whether to stick or twist. The game is becoming stretched and the passing is growing increasingly erratic.

Maniche catches Scholes’ shin with an ugly stamp, sparking fury from the United dug-out. He escapes with just a booking. “That was far worse than Keane’s on Baia two weeks ago,” insists Ingle. 

With 15 minutes remaining, Fletcher’s number is held up by the fourth official.

His replacement: Ronaldo. The flamboyant Portuguese teenager, his hair pinned back with an Alice band, puffs his cheeks out and enters the fray.

“It’s a brave decision, Clive, the way the game is staged,” warns Atkinson. “I’d expect a more defensive player to come on and replace him.”

Ronaldo’s first contribution is also his last. The substitute knocks the ball past Nuno Valente but is caught late by the left-back and tumbles across the Old Trafford turf, clutching his thigh.

He receives lengthy treatment from physio Rob Swire but is unable to continue. Solskjaer replaces him in United’s third and final change. 

Seven minutes remain.

United are on the precipice of a season-defining result but know a Porto goal will see the tie slip decisively from their grasp.

The visitors are launching long balls into Jankauskas, who is barging his six-foot-four frame into all comers. An exasperated Ferguson waves his arms around. There’s no sign of Porto’s final substitution. 

Ferreira pumps a hopeful ball up towards Jankauskas, who is jostling with Phil Neville. The United defender, outmatched by his opponent, shoves the Lithuanian. Ivanov awards Porto a free-kick, 25 yards out, slightly to the left.

The Russian’s whistle sends a palpable wave of anxiety through the hordes of home supporters. One United fan buries his cheeks into his palms, his brow furrowed.

“Looked a bit of a cheap decision, that,” Tyldesley says. 

Howard barks out orders to his defensive wall and clanks both boots on his left-hand goalpost as he awaits the free-kick.

Another home supporter peers out from between his fingers. Whistles grow louder and louder as the tension reaches a crescendo.

Deco positions himself over the ball but is waved away by McCarthy. Jankauskas lines up behind the South African as a decoy.

“It may all come down to this free-kick,” Tyldesley riffs. “We are inside the last minute. It is now or never for Porto.”

McCarthy takes a three-step run-up and wraps his right foot around the dead ball. Gary Neville breaks rank from the wall and flings his body forward in a desperate attempt to block.

But the strike is clean, clearing the wall, and Howard is sent scampering to his left. The goalkeeper palms the stinging shot with both gloves but the ball falls back into his six-yard box.

As Howard crashes into his goalpost, a blur of blue and white pounces in anticipation of the rebound and clips home into the unguarded net.

“It’s been turned in by Costinha! Last minute! And it could be the last minute of Manchester United’s European season!” yells Tyldesley.

Costinha runs towards the away fans and propels himself off the ground, thrusting his fist upwards in jubilation. Maniche catches up, bundling his team-mate to the ground, and Porto players begin piling on top of the goalscorer by the corner flag.

United’s defenders are shell-shocked, helplessly dotted around the penalty area. Howard is lying face down in the muddied goalmouth. 

The goal sparks pandemonium among the 3,000 Porto fans.

“I was cheering before it went in,” Lino da Costa recalls. “There was a bundle of bodies flying all over the place, people you didn’t know trying to lift you. I’ve never experienced an atmosphere like it since.”

The TV cameras pan to a distressed United supporter, fingers clenched across the back of his head, eyes wide in shock. 

At that moment, a lone figure in black spills out from the visiting dugout and charges down the touchline.

“As soon as we saw Mourinho coming we went even crazier, we knew we were through,” Lino da Costa says. “Just seeing him running towards us, you could see the passion.

"He was never getting knocked out of that game.”

Just like Costinha, Mourinho has anticipated the goal.

The Porto coaching staff rise as one above their bricked enclosure as Howard parries. By the time Costinha’s shot nestles in the net, Mourinho is on his way, leaping, shaking his fists, shouting to himself, coat tails flapping in his wake.

He charges down the steps and sprints on to the turf, adrenaline and instinct carrying him towards the frenzied pocket of away supporters and an ever-growing bundle of his Porto players. He embraces Carlos Alberto and then McCarthy, who punches over the corner flag.

“I was going crazy, everyone was going crazy,” Costa, unburdened by his earlier injury in celebration, would later tell BBC Sport.

“Jose Mourinho may well have the last laugh!” cries Tyldesley. 

“It was disbelief, the rug had just been pulled out from under us,” recalls Thorne. “My seats were right behind the dugout so I had a great view of Mourinho’s run. It was just a kick in the teeth.

"He was the first guy to do anything like that... that was the first time we really knew about him.”

There are still three minutes of injury time to be played.

Old Trafford stays standing amid a cacophony of whistles from the away end.

United restart, position six men in attack and lay siege to Porto’s penalty area with long ball after long ball. With each attempt, desperation grows as Mourinho's men repeatedly hoof clear.

The ball bounces inside the Porto box and Van Nistelrooy vainly attempts to control but Ferreira thumps a clearance high into the Manchester night sky.

Ivanov's full-time whistle sounds and a chorus of boos rains down from the stands.

Porto’s victorious players leap about wildly on the hallowed turf.

Their manager wastes no time in taking his leave. Seething home supporters strain to shout abuse as he disappears back down the Old Trafford tunnel.

But Mourinho, arms pumping furiously, can’t hear them. 

“In a trip to the Theatre of Dreams, the Manchester stage bowed before Mourinho,” Portugal’s Zero Zero would later recall.

“It would scarcely be known that he, along with Ferguson, would be the most influential protagonist of English football.”

 

Darkness, bitter darkness

Mourinho’s actions throughout the tie have been inflammatory and disrespectful, designed to rile up his opposite number.

Yet Ferguson, still reeling from the shock defeat and with his season freshly torn to shreds, finds the humility to congratulate his conqueror.

“Sir Alex said congratulations at the end and we shook hands,” Mourinho confirms in his post-match press conference.

“That’s what I like in football. Sometimes somebody is incorrect. I have done it before and I will do it again.” 

“We were in the dressing room,” Mourinho would later tell UEFA.tv. “And it was not like we’d won the last 16. It was like we had won the final.

"Somebody knocks on the door. It was Sir Alex and Gary Neville – the captain and the manager. They told us, ‘Congratulations, you deserve it, enjoy it.’ And that was something in Portuguese culture that I was not used to.

"It’s something I kept during my career when an opponent does something magnificent against my team. Something from big people to make others feel special.”

Ferguson’s show of respect resonates deeply with the Porto coach as he celebrates the landmark result of his managerial career to date.

“That was when I felt the two faces of such a big man,” Mourinho noted later. “The first face was the competitor, the man that tried everything to win.

"And after that I found the man with principles, with the respect for the opponent, with the fair play. I found these two faces in that period, and that was very important for me.”

Far removed from his fury at the end of the first leg, Ferguson cuts a muted figure as he trudges off down the tunnel.

He bows his head to the floor as the stadium’s frustration punctures the spring air.

“You get shocks in life. I did not see that one coming,” he admits frankly at his post-match press conference.

“You are overcome with worry when you have an abject failure but here you have to assess the game and say we are unlucky to go out,” he adds.

“I’ve had many disappointments very many times. If you join the club of managers one thing is certain – you are going to taste defeat. That’s the nature of the job. You have to react to adversity and how you recover from it is down to you as a person.”

There are legitimate grievances at Scholes’ disallowed goal.

“I could not believe it,” Ferguson laments. “One player can play you onside and be missed by the linesman but three of them played him onside. It would have been a very comfortable position to go 2-0 up.”

But his complaints lack the lustre of his rant a fortnight ago in Porto.

Asked if he is offended by Mourinho’s celebrations, Ferguson is unmoved. “No. They got out of jail and that’s the way you should celebrate goals,” he says. “It’s part of the game.”

Ferguson’s claim that his side are unlucky to be out of Europe is not shared by the media. The match reports in Wednesday’s newspapers read like an obituary to the United manager’s career. 

“Has Fergie Stayed Around Too Long?” asks the Evening Herald’s headline.

“United Despair As Season Crumbles In Fatal Moment,” bills The Telegraph.

The Guardian’s Kevin McCarra describes Costinha’s goal as “an incident that will go down in the dark folklore of the club... a potential £10 million of Champions League income has eluded Old Trafford and Ferguson’s credit rating is sure to be downgraded”.

McCarra is spot on. The Daily Mail reports that United’s exit has cost the club £10m and the Sunday Tribune predicts a period of financial uncertainty coinciding with the departure of chief executive Peter Kenyon to Chelsea.

“United's season has descended into darkness, bitter darkness,” writes Winter.

“Costinha’s goal right at the death sent waves of depression through Old Trafford as United’s season continues to unravel disastrously.”

“United may have indeed suffered more than the convulsion of an unexpected defeat,” warns James Lawton. “They may have glimpsed the end of the story.” 

The desperate plight of England’s leading club is understandably the focus. There is only fleeting mention of Porto’s “extravagant celebrations that saw Mourinho running on the pitch”.

“Ferguson’s prospects have never been at a lower ebb since United’s re-emergence as the power in the land a decade ago,” stresses Giles.

"Has one of the most successful managers in the history of British football simply stayed around too long?... He is now fighting for his football life.

"Just to aggravate that reality, there is the beautiful form and rhythm of bitter rivals Arsenal... the semi-final tie against the Gunners suddenly looks a lot more than a single cup tie.

"Potentially it is the moment when United are cut adrift and sent bobbing out to sea.”

 

 

Silver lining

Things get worse before they get better.

Just five days on from the disastrous European exit, United suffer more humiliation with a chastening 4-1 defeat in the Manchester derby. 

Their desperate defence is run ragged by winger Shaun Wright-Phillips at Eastlands as Ferguson’s men lose a Manchester derby for just the second time since 1989.

A shock exit to unfancied Porto and a three-goal thrashing at the hands of their inferior local rivals: the second week of March 2004 serves up a devastating one-two combination that floors Ferguson and looks to have finally started the countdown on his time at the top. 

But like a punch-drunk boxer, lifting himself off the canvas, Ferguson comes out swinging.

United thrash Tottenham 3-0 and hold runaway leaders Arsenal to a 1-1 draw at Highbury, with their FA Cup semi-final showdown against the same opponents on the horizon.

They put it together when it matters most against the Gunners.

Scholes scores a first-half winner while Keane, Brown and Ronaldo deliver their finest performances of the season in a surprise 1-0 victory at Villa Park. Ferguson hails the “spirit, determination and desire” of his side. 

Not only have United thrown their floundering season an FA Cup lifeline – crucially, they have ended Arsenal’s hope of replicating their 1999 treble.

“Finally, we recognise the distinction between ‘most attractive to watch’ and ‘most successful’,” writes The Telegraph's Paul Hayward.

“The Gunners may play the finest football in the land but they won’t duplicate Ferguson’s crowning glory – that will live on.”

United breeze past second-tier Millwall 3-0 in the final thanks to a Van Nistelrooy brace and a goal from Ronaldo.

“I’m delighted,” Ferguson says. “Our target at the start of the season is to win a trophy and we’ve done that.”

The Reds finish third behind Chelsea and Arsenal, who record the first unbeaten league season in English football for more than a century en route to the title.

But the United manager has steadied the ship – a season of failure ends in silverware.

 

 

Power play

In north-west Portugal, Mourinho returns from Manchester a legend and sets about building his already burgeoning reputation.

“Mourinho was the best in the world to us,” says Lino da Costa. “He was like our idol. He was young but spoke to the press with charisma, with sarcasm.

"He was arrogant, too, which unfortunately is something that resonates with fans in Portugal.”

Winning is everything for Mourinho and he does all he can off the pitch to enable his players on it – winding up opposition managers, putting pressure on referees, fabricating conspiracies against his side.

Porto ease to a second successive Primeira Liga title but it’s the Champions League that provides the stage for the Mourinho cult to truly take off. 

After seeing off United, Porto defeat Lyon and Deportivo la Coruna in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively before meeting Chelsea’s last-four conquerors, Monaco, in Gelsenkirchen.

The match is a masterclass of Mourinho pragmatism. Carlos Alberto, Deco and Alenichev score as Porto dominate from the first whistle to the last and capture the Champions League with a 3-0 victory.

“We were completely in control,” Mourinho would later recall to UEFA.tv. “It was perfect.”

It's the first - and remains the only - time since 1995 that a team hailing from outside England, Spain, Italy or Germany has won the Champions League. In a season where Europe’s elite fail to show, Mourinho seizes his chance.

Yet with the confetti still raining down on the Arena AufSchalke pitch, Mourinho immediately removes his winners’ medal and excuses himself from the podium.

He marches off to the media room and delivers an extraordinary post-match interview.

“It’s the best way to finish my career with Porto,” Mourinho declares, half-smiling.

“I decided I wanted to go when I thought the challenge in Portugal was not enough for me.

"England is the country I would like to go to... The club I gave my word to would be my favourite to go to – I don’t change my mind. I will be in England almost for sure.”

Mourinho, with two years remaining on his contract, is absent from the Champions League parade through the Porto streets the following day.

Three days later, Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri receives a call from Blues director Eugene Tenenbaum informing him he’s been sacked. The day after Ranieri’s dismissal, Mourinho catches a flight to London.

“Hasty, abrupt and bizarre,” Porto president Jorge Pinto da Costa would later say of his coach’s departure.

That doesn’t matter to Mourinho. He has done his job – and now it is on to the next one.

 

The butterfly effect

Manchester United 1-1 Porto has become one of the most influential matches in modern football history. It set in motion a chain of events that defined an era.

Mourinho, on his first visit to English soil, charges down the touchline with the eyes of the world watching, wildly celebrating at the stadium he would later call home. 

Porto win the Champions League and Chelsea employ him that summer. The era of the billionaire chairman and the A-list manager – echoed by Manchester City and Pep Guardiola today – is born.

The self-appointed 'Special One' helps propel the Premier League to the greatest, most competitive, most entertaining division in the world.

His Chelsea side halt Ferguson’s all-conquering United and kill the Arsenal dynasty in its infancy by winning back-to-back titles.

The age of pragmatism is ushered in by Mourinho and Guardiola’s brilliant Barcelona emerge as a counterbalance.

Ferguson rises from the ashes while Mourinho begins an obsessive pursuit of the Scotsman’s throne from afar.

He is overlooked for the Barcelona job and seeks revenge by defeating Guardiola’s juggernaut with first Internazionale - winning another treble in 2010 - and then arch-rivals Real Madrid, roaring to the La Liga title in 2011/12.

When United choose David Moyes as Ferguson’s successor two years later, Mourinho feels betrayed.

And when he eventually does succeed in making it to Ferguson’s throne in 2016, it’s too late. The outsider’s face does not fit at the helm of football’s most aristocratic club.

His time at United, after a bright start featuring League Cup and Europa League glory in his debut campaign, descends into near-farcical in-fighting with both his own players and the club's hierarchy.

Mourinho's tenure ends in its third season - a notably regular theme throughout his career - as he is sacked following a poor run of form amid a damaging fall-out with star man Paul Pogba.

But Mourinho’s path to the summit, a journey that defined a modern era of European football, would have been stopped in its tracks without the events of 9 March 2004.

There is even an argument that the footballing landscape of today would be unrecognisable without Costinha's dramatic intervention on that raucous night at Old Trafford.

Instead, the goal has become modern football’s answer to the butterfly effect – a sliding doors moment that continues to shape the narrative arc 15 years after thrusting a little-known, touchline-sprinting Portuguese coach into the global spotlight.

Champions League Gold

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