Manchester United v Chelsea: Villas-Boas wants to put one over on grand master Fergie
When Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of Manchester United in November 1986, Andre Villas-Boas had celebrated his ninth birthday the previous month and was, by his own admission, too “in love” with his hometown team of Porto to pay much attention to the latest attempt by one of English football's faded giants to resurrect themselves.
Tomorrow at Old Trafford, Villas-Boas, 33, will shake hands with Ferguson, 69, before attempting to beat the old master.
Whether he likes it or not, the issue of his relative youth will follow ‘AVB’ around for some time yet and, it would be fair to say, that is never more significant than it will be tomorrow when he faces a man whose three sons are all older than Chelsea's new Portuguese manager.
Yesterday, ahead of the game against Manchester United, Villas-Boas walked a difficult line between being respectful to Ferguson without being overtly deferential.
Of course the old boy deserves great respect for his achievements but no opposing manager should ever forget that Ferguson is first and foremost an adversary, and a bloody ruthless one at that. It does not help your cause to bend at the knee.
Furthermore, every English manager of this era has grown up with Ferguson as the dominant force of the last 18 years and he looms large over all of them.
There is a generation of British coaches who probably cannot stop themselves asking the question “What would Sir Alex do?” once a day. But for Villas-Boas, schooled in a very different football environment, one in which life revolved around his childhood obsession, Porto, the same is not so true.
Subtly, in his briefing at Cobham yesterday, he put some distance between himself and Ferguson.
Had he, for example, read Managing My Life, the Ferguson autobiography from 1999 that is the equivalent of a set-text for British managers? Villas-Boas said he had read a Ferguson book a long time ago but he could not recall whether it was the official version or not.
How had he approached Ferguson in their first meeting since Villas-Boas became Chelsea manager? As it happened, he replied, they bumped into each other outside the gents' loos.
On that occasion the two men were in Switzerland for a Uefa coaches' congress. What had they talked about? Stoke City, of course, who were the hot topic of discussion among Europe's elite managers.
“It was just because we were talking about introducing off-sides for throw-ins,” said Villas-Boas. “And there was another question about Stoke; I won't share it. I've already been to Stoke.
“I want the other guys [managers] to go through that.”
Despite the fact he was only 15-years-old when United won their first Premier League title in 1993, and so began their dominance of the modern game, Villas-Boas has not grown up in a football culture that has been dominated by Ferguson and that is probably an advantage.
His former boss and sometime mentor, Jose Mourinho, has never entered into a dispute with Ferguson, at least not on the scale that he has with a long list of other adversaries in England, Italy and Spain.
The feeling was that, apart from preferring enemies that displayed vulnerability, Mourinho was also ensuring that, when the time came, he would have Ferguson's endorsement to succeed him at Old Trafford.
As for Villas-Boas, he said yesterday that he would not rule out publicly standing up for his players in the future.
“You can react in different ways, and tell different things to the players,” he added. “The most important thing is for the players to have belief in the manager. Last year in Porto, I had my disagreements with the Benfica manager, which was normal when they were threatening to the title, but it had no effect on the title race.”
It was intriguing that on the subject of Mourinho's occasional baiting of the likes of Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez, Villas-Boas said: “I don't feel it plays [sic] that much importance.” If strong, understated confidence, a relentless work-ethic and 12-hour days at the training ground were enough on their own to topple Ferguson then Villas-Boas would be there already. But to make inroads into a title race that already looks as if it will come down to United or Manchester City will take something more.
It will take brilliance, flair and inspiration and tomorrow's match will be the first big test of whether the Villas-Boas character possesses those elusive ingredients.
There is a major call to be made on the team regarding the selection of Frank Lampard and John Terry. Villas-Boas said: “I have to pick my team first, then the 18. When everybody is so good, it takes; you can almost become sentimental, but it takes a bit of my heart out.”
Tomorrow will be two days short of the fourth anniversary of Mourinho's dramatic departure from Chelsea which itself came three days before a league game at Old Trafford.
Villas-Boas left with him that evening, his last scouting dossier on United rendered redundant. Four years on, the protege is back, an impressive, deep-thinking coach, mature beyond his years. Win tomorrow and Ferguson will be the latest who has to sit up and take notice.