There was a moment, away from all the cameras, when José Mourinho could sit down and try to put into words what has changed at the age of 50. "More grey hair," he began. Then he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a pair of reading glasses. "And these …"
The new José, he told us. Older, wiser. Less confrontational, more clued-up. "Humble" was the word he used. Well, until the moment he was reminded of the time, at one of his first Chelsea press conferences, he had lifted his hand above his head to show approximately where he regarded his own ego. Did he still feel the same? "Of course," he replied, and for the first time he cracked a smile. "I'm still very confident. But, at the same time, I'm more stable, more mature. If I was a proud guy because of what I did before, now I've done more. I've been at Inter Milan, Real Madrid, I've won titles. The only thing that affects me is the glasses, man. After that, I'm happier than ever."
That was one of the 18 times the soft-focus, best-behaviour Mourinho used the word "stable" or "stability". And if you didn't know the man, you might have wondered why Chelsea had received more press applications than for a single match at Stamford Bridge last season. It might have passed you by that, a couple of months before Roman Abramovich moved him out in 2007, Mourinho had gone for the same line about "mellow Mourinho". Or that the reason Manchester United and Manchester City overlooked him was because he could not guarantee the one thing he now promised: stability.
The only flicker of irritation came afterwards, having left the bedlam of the Harris Suite, when it was pointed out to him that the man he had just described was not the guy we had seen at Madrid. You remember the one: the manager who poked Tito Vilanova in the eye, the acrimony with the Spanish media, the breakdown in his relations with all those modern-day galacticos and, finally, the long, drawn-out break-up.
Mourinho took that to mean a specific reference to Iker Casillas. "A football decision, nothing else," he said. "The same decision Sir Alex [Ferguson] made by leaving Wayne Rooney on the bench when they played Madrid in the Champions League. The same thing for me to leave [Marco] Materazzi on the bench when he was a God at Inter – decisions that every manager makes around the world, based on meritocracy. After that, I can sleep at night.
"But the Real Madrid captain … that was a problem for the media. For them, a meritocracy doesn't exist. Some guys are untouchable. They can be injured for three months but, when they're back, there's no respect for the other guy who has come in. The goalkeeper [Diego López] played more than 20 matches in three months. Real won at Old Trafford because that goalkeeper was man of the match. But people wanted Casillas back after three months out, with two training sessions. That was it. They wanted him back. Like that [swats his hand]."
Point made. The Happy One, as he wanted to be known, glossed over the fact his fallouts at the Bernabéu were not just restricted to Casillas. But he still had that disarming knack, as implausible as some of it was (there was never a fallout with Abramovich, apparently), of sounding like he believed every word.
He mentioned being "happy" that Arsène Wenger was still around, but it did not carry the read-between-the-lines mischief of old. As for David Moyes and Manuel Pellegrini, there were kind, supportive words – "good decisions, good decisions" – and only a passing reference to the fact Moyes had never managed in the Champions League "so people can't expect him to be a fish in water". Mourinho, of course, has managed "I think, 108 matches" at that level.
On Chelsea, he said he would not talk about Rafael Benítez's time in charge. That, too, wavered a little with his assessment of the squad. "Europa League winners can be analysed in two ways. One way: you won it. The other way: why did you win it? You won it because you didn't get through the group phase of the Champions League. You don't have teams like Steaua Bucharest in the Champions League …"
What is clear is that he fits more snugly into English football than its Spanish counterpart. "I don't enjoy too much winning 6-0. I don't enjoy a league where you are against one team and it is about 90 points, 92 points, 96 points, 100 points; 100 goals, 110 goals, 120 goals. The number of points Barcelona got last season, finishing second, they would win every other league with this number. The same with Real this season.
"It's a two-horse race, and that is a big difference with English football. But also, I missed the mentality of the 90 minutes in England, pushing everybody to the maximum, playing the extra competition [the Capital One Cup], 60 matches, 70 matches, three matches in a row, the Christmas period, the Easter period. Fantastic.
"I'm not saying it's right, I just love it. Sometimes you love things that aren't right. But would I prefer to have a week's holiday in Christmas? I went to New York two years ago, last year Brazil. But I'd prefer to play. I was envious at home, watching the Premier League. Envy. Total envy. Is it right playing four consecutive matches? Probably not. But I love it."
This was the point at which he was asked how the Premier League compared now to his previous stint. "In terms of quality, I don't think it's better. In terms of quality, we all have to work together to raise the level. But in terms of competitiveness, it's harder.
"Last time, everyone knew it would be between Chelsea, United and Arsenal. Now City have appeared with this fantastic economical power. Tottenham had a very good period with Harry [Redknapp], reaching fourth spot, playing Champions League, going up and up and up. André [Villas-Boas] did a good job and they have conditions to fight for the Premier League, not just a Champions League spot. And Liverpool. I know Brendan [Rodgers] and I know he can do it. I know his ideas, his project, and Liverpool will go up, too. So there are six teams. Who's going to be first, who's going to be sixth? I don't know."
And therein lies the problem. What happens if Chelsea finish second or worse when, historically, that tends to mean one thing with Abramovich: the sack? "I don't need anybody to push me to have that ambition [winning the title]. I've enough motivation and self-esteem myself, enough desire to do it. But if we don't do it, yet show we're moving in the right direction, I think we'll be champions in the second season. I don't think it's a drama. I'd expect to be here to win it in that second season. Of course."