For a young coach in Portugal’s second city during the mid-1990s the choice between university classes and a trip to Porto’s practice pitches barely registered. José Gomes would not think twice about skipping an afternoon’s studies when he heard a training session was open; he was spellbound by the famous English manager who had taken over at the club he loved and, in his words, “it was like time stopped” as he stood at the side and watched the old master put the players through their paces.
Gomes is hardly alone in having a Sir Bobby Robson story but the feelings stirred by those glimpses of his work have particular resonance. A month has passed since Gomes was appointed the manager of Reading and it was while watching Robson during that 1994-95 season that he resolved to make working in England his ultimate goal.
“The way that this man, in his 60s, passed such passion to his players … I looked at him and it was impossible to split him from English football. He was like a symbol of what English football means.”
Gomes vividly recalls a drill in which António Folha, the Portugal winger, enraged Robson with repeated errors. “He was shouting at him, ‘Stupid, stupid,’” he says. “But a few seconds later Folha, in the same exercise, did well and Robson dropped to his knees on the ground [he mimics a figure with arms aloft], shouting, ‘Fantastic. Fantastic.’ The guy is 62 and living one simple football exercise with such intensity and love. I keep this picture in my mind for ever, because it is the way a manager must respect his job.”
It has taken almost two and a half decades but Gomes’s wish has come true. He joins Reading “full of motivation and energy” and a glance at the Championship table shows both will be needed. They are in the relegation mire after a disastrous first half of the season under Paul Clement, although Tuesday’s draw at Bolton, a place lower in 23rd, brought them to within a point of safety before Saturday’s meeting with Aston Villa.
“I arrived in the middle of the war; I didn’t know the directions the bombs were coming from,” says Gomes of his start, which pitched him into a frantic Christmas schedule. He does, at least, have experience of adapting quickly. Gomes is 48 but an extraordinary professional career, which began as a coach at Paços de Ferreira a year after those encounters with Robson, has involved 21 positions in seven countries. He regards most of what has passed as preparation for the job he faces now.
Gomes remembers travelling to England for Euro 96 with some friends, visiting Portugal’s camp but refusing to hunt autographs with them because he felt he might be working with international players soon and feared a loss of face. Initially he took mid-ranking jobs around Portugal: some as assistant, some as fitness coach and, by the mid-2000s, several as head coach.
It was during a spell as a fitness coach at Benfica that he met Jesualdo Ferreira, who remains active at the age of 72. “He is a master of the small details a player must improve on,” Gomes says of Ferreira, whom he later assisted at Porto, Málaga and Panathinaikos.
By 2013 he felt it was time to go solo again and an opportunity arose at Videoton, the celebrated Hungarian club. “The mentality and organisation were completely different,” Gomes says. “At Paços de Ferreira we had 17 directors who lived and breathed the club’s problems. At Videoton the owner did not even know the rules of football.”
When Gomes wanted something resolving he would meet Viktor Orban, the prime minister and a Videoton fan whose passion for football is – political considerations to one side – well documented. “We’d go for coffee or dinner and Orban would help me,” he says. “He’s a football man, loves to talk football.”
When tensions between Hungary and Ukraine mounted, Orban became preoccupied. Gomes left Videoton, satisfied with league finishes of second and fourth but frustrated at the club’s reluctance to appoint a director of football. Efforts to secure a job in England fell short; bored of watching matches on television, he accepted an offer to join the Saudi club Al-Taawoun.
The Buraidah-based club, 375km from Riyadh, qualified for the Asian Champions League under his watch. “If I’d had this experience 10 or 15 years previously I could have stayed there for a maximum of a week. It’s a completely different pressure, culture and mentality. You arrive in a new country with different people and rules, and the important thing is not to lose your ideas and the way to follow them.”
He describes the exasperation caused on an almost daily level by the Saudis’ preference for telling white lies. If a player had overslept and missed training, his staff would report he had been involved in a car crash, reluctant to anger the manager. Another player’s maternal grandfather “died” on more than one occasion.
He walked into a shower cubicle to find three of his squad smoking; it turned out they were in the overwhelming majority. Gomes learned that sometimes there are things you have to let go and, across two spells at Al-Taawoun that sandwiched a stint at Al-Ahli and a season in the UAE with Baniyas, he felt enriched.
His progress back in Portugal with Rio Ave, whom he had led to sixth place this season with some slick attacking football, persuaded Reading to make their move. Early performances have been promising; a win over Nottingham Forest suggested they have the wherewithal to pull clear and there was honour in an FA Cup defeat at Manchester United.
“Ole Gunnar Solskjær told me after that game, ‘Don’t change your style, follow your ideas, your football is great,’” he says. “I feel I’m ready to help this club, these players, go the right way. We have all the conditions here to achieve what we want, and then next year go for more ambitious targets.”
The Guardian Sport