José Mourinho arrived bang on time. At 9.20pm on Saturday night he emerged from the tunnel at the Santiago Bernabéu and walked out on to the pitch, alone. There were still 40 minutes to go before kick-off and there were few people in the stadium, except for the mass of cameras that awaited him. He stood there for a while, looked around, and went back inside. As plebiscites go, it was not up to much.
When fans chanted his name during the previous game in the Copa del Rey, others had whistled their displeasure, prompting Mourinho to throw down a challenge. On the eve of Saturday's Madrid derby against Atlético he announced that he would appear on the pitch at 9.20. Should anyone want to whistle him, that was the time. They could whistle away. And so, at 9.20, there he was. The stadium, though, was virtually empty and on Monday evening, the Real Madrid manager claimed that he had mostly been watching Iker Casillas warm up.
Mourinho added that if fans wanted to boo him he preferred them to do it before the game and not affect the team. He also insisted that there is "no story" when it comes to his future. But there was a story. The headline on the front cover of the sports newspaper Marca in the morning declared: "Divorce in sight". Inside, a broken heart: Mourinho on one side, Real's president Florentino Pérez on the other. Stories of this ilk can be mistaken and indeed mischievous, not to mention downright wrong, but Mourinho knows that they are not published in isolation.
The relationship between Pérez and Mourinho, ran the article, has broken down. The opening line to the article was to the point: "José Mourinho will not be Real Madrid coach next season." The media has long since turned on Mourinho, sometimes viciously so; it has long been clear that, put in the most basic of terms, he has not enjoyed himself in Spain as he did in England. He considers his nationality to be a problem for the Spanish and that the media see him as an easy target. "Attacking me has become the national sport," he says.
As for the club, the discomfort is becoming increasingly palpable even as it is not made public. There have been countless conflicts and confrontations. For those who have followed his career elsewhere there is a familiar feel about this process. It feels like the end-game. Similarly, he is entitled to feel that he need not put up with it much longer. The situation is not irretrievable but, in its current form, it is untenable. The dream of winning Real's 10th European Cup provides a target for everyone. But after that, Mourinho continuing is hard to imagine.
He refused to be drawn on the subject on Monday. Asked about the Marca story during the press conference prior to Real's final Champions League game, against Ajax, he replied: "No, no, no ... Why don't you do a press conference with the journalist who wrote the story? Organise a dinner and speak to him. I will not say a word and the president won't either. I am not going to contribute to this."
Pushed on the issue of his relationship with Pérez, he responded: "Ask the president." He added: "I have no problem. I don't have to say when I speak to the president or what we speak about. The only thing I can do is pay for the meal, which I will not even attend." But would he be there next season? "That is not a story," he said. "My future is that tomorrow I will take charge of my 101st game in the Champions League."
Mourinho knows the very fact that the story was published at all is significant and will no doubt wonder about its source, given not only the by-line but also the shift over the last few weeks. He has also been positioning himself, with Chelsea and Manchester City potential destinations, while in a documentary screened on ITV on Monday night Sir Alex Ferguson said Mourinho would be more than capable of succeeding him at Manchester United.
Again, the Portuguese batted the question away. "That's what friends are like," Mourinho said. "They always say nice things about you, they are always on your side. He [Ferguson] is a proper friend and that's why he said that. But that is out of the [time] slot. The succession will be in 10 years time. [Ferguson] is fine and is better by the day."