A manager who has crisscrossed Europe for two decades, coaching clubs in all branches of UEFA competition, can expect, from time to time, to find himself in places outside the limelight.
Twelve months ago, two-time Champions League winner Jose Mourinho oversaw Tottenham Hotspur’s Europa League exit at Dinamo Zagreb. On Thursday, he tries to guide current club Roma to the inaugural Europa Conference League final as they travel to Netherlands’ Vitesse Arnhem in the first leg of the Round of 16.
Vitesse are infrequent visitors to European competitions. But Mourinho knows them reasonably well due to the long developed relationship Vitesse has developed with Chelsea. Since 2010, Vitesse have been Chelsea’s preferred club for loaning out young players, allowing footballers to gain experience and the Dutch club access to promising talent.
The relationship was at its peak when Mourinho last managed Chelsea, from 2013 to 2015. During the 2014 pre-season, he took his Chelsea players to Arnhem for a training camp. To remember this expedition is to remember how pre-seasons tended to promote prospects and showcase the talents of young Chelsea players. Then the season itself would usually frustrate them.
In the summer of 2014, when Mourinho’s future English champions faced Vitesse in a friendly match at Arnhem, Chelsea had just won the FA Youth Cup, the most illustrious minor club trophy in English football. Mourinho praised the stars of this campaign, such as striker Dominic Solanke, now from Bournemouth. That summer, Chelsea would also sell 21-year-old Romelu Lukaku, who joined them aged 18. They ended up paying almost €100m to bring Lukaku back last summer.
Another promising centre-forward was progressing through the Chelsea academy at this stage. Her name? Tammy Abraham. Over the coming seasons, he would see contemporaries such as Mason Mount thrive on loan at Vitesse, while Abraham developed his range of skills, as a finisher and creator, as a target man and skilled operator playing on the shoulder of defenders, while rented by Chelsea to clubs in the English top two divisions. He was precocious, called up to the England senior team shortly after his 20th birthday, while on loan at Swansea City.
Abraham had played his first senior game, aged 18, for Chelsea at the end of Mourinho’s final season there, 2015-16 – the Portuguese was sacked midway through the campaign – and in his early twenties seemed to have broke through the glass ceiling. faced by so many talents from Chelsea’s fine academy: the difficulties of securing a regular place in the first team of a club that spends a lot on recruitment. In 2019-20, under Frank Lampard, Abraham scored 18 Premier League goals; the following season he again reached double figures in all competitions.
But by the time Chelsea lifted the European Cup last May, Abraham was clearly on the sidelines. Thomas Tuchel had replaced Lampard; Costly newcomers Kai Havertz and Timo Werner felt their roles in Chelsea’s forward line; Lukaku would soon return to Stamford Bridge. As Abraham said last week, “it was a tough time in my career.”
Roma and Mourinho saw an opportunity, inviting Abraham to support each other in a new country, in an Italian league where traditionally high standards of defense challenge forwards to be smart and resourceful. Six months after Roma paid Chelsea almost €40m – inserting a buyout clause that can be activated in 2023 – Abraham is on the rise.
He scored his 20th Roma goal in all competitions at the weekend, his fifth in seven unbeaten Serie A games. Stealthily, Roma are vying for a place in the top four. They sit in sixth place, six points and two places below Juventus.
“Roma trusted me, and I’m happy to give it back,” Abraham said after his goal on Sunday settled the result against fifth-placed Atalanta. At the Stadio Olimpico, someone had hung a banner: ‘Tammy Tre Punti’ – Three Points Tammy.
If he is to complete his first season in Rome as ‘Trophy Tammy’, it will mean winning the inaugural Europa Conference League. It’s a competition he’s grown accustomed to – he averaged a goal every 50 minutes in the group stage – and one that would round out Mourinho’s extensive collection, a new title to line up with those two European Cups. Europe, with Porto and Inter Milan, his UEFA Cup with Porto, and the Europa League that Mourinho won at Manchester United.
Updated: March 10, 2022, 04:25