Exclusive: John Mortimore reminisces on his Benfica tenure
Chelsea fans certainly regard coach José Mourinho as a legend. But decades before the Special One moved from Portugal to England, a Stamford Bridge hero had made the journey in the opposite direction and was busily writing his name in the history of one of Europe’s greatest clubs.
In a fascinating interview with John Mortimore, the two-time Benfica championship winning coach – and former Chelsea centre-back who clocked up close to 300 games for the London club – describes how he arrived in the Portuguese capital, how he launched the careers of some Benfica greats, his collaboration with club legends such as Eusébio, Bento and Toni and an emotional night in 2012 when his footballing past came together in a beautiful moment.
Tell us a bit about how you came to take the Benfica job for the first time back in 1976?
The Benfica job came up through the Football Association and I jumped at the opportunity. I think the club approached the FA, who recommended one or two people and we were interviewed. I moved to Lisbon with my family and my wife used to teach at one of the schools out there.
It was a tremendous experience for me and to a degree there was some pressure to win things. I remember looking at the team early on, studying them and thinking there were probably a couple not quite up to the standard of the rest of them, because the majority of them were international players. But there were one or two positions that needed improving, so I watched the youth team a couple of times, which was always my natural inclination because I’m an ex-schoolmaster, an ex-PE teacher.
I love developing young players coming through and I saw one or two players in the juniors who I thought were better than what I’d got in the first team, so I decided I was going to pinch them and I got them playing in the first team after about half a dozen games. One of them was a left-sided player called [Fernando] Chalana and then there was José Luís, who was a right-sided midfielder, a No7. Then there was a big lad, Alberto, who played centre-back for the juniors but I put him in the first team at left-back.
They had first-team potential and they looked better prospects than the players who were in the first team at that particular time. What can I say? You see something in them and you stick by it.
[All three of the above-mentioned players became multiple champions with Benfica and Portugal internationals.]