As he fights for his Manchester United future, Luke Shaw might want to consider the case of Pedro Leon and wonder if he has got off lightly. Leon was bought by Real Madrid in 2010, but was signed by President Jorge Valdano rather than coach Jose Mourinho.
Within four months, Mourinho was publicly scathing about the winger. “You talk of Pedro Leon as if he was Zidane or Maradona or Di Stefano,” he told the assembled press. “He was playing for Getafe two days ago.” The insinuation was clear: ‘If you aren’t my man, you’ll know about it.’
Even by Mourinho’s standards, he went too far with Leon. Writing for the Guardian in 2013, Sid Lowe recalled the day Mourinho told the winger that he had such a low opinion of his ability and mentality that even if the Real team plane crashed on the way to the game without him onboard and he was the only player in the squad available for selection, he still would not play. Leon was 23.
And then there’s the lesson of Iker Casillas, dropped by Mourinho for speaking to Barcelona captain Xavi on the phone and for disagreeing with the team’s tactics. And Pepe, subsequently dropped for disagreeing with Casillas being left out of the team. And Sergio Ramos, who sided with Mesut Ozil over a substitution and whose relationship with Mourinho deteriorated to the point that he pretended not to know Mourinho’s name last year.
And what about about Ricardo Quaresma, who was so marginalised to the fringes of Inter’s squad by Mourinho that he would wake up crying before training sessions. Or David Luiz, who Mourinho said would be “no great loss” after selling him. Or Samuel Eto’o, who was offended after Mourinho questioned whether 32 was his real age.
The list could go on, and firmly reiterates three things: Mourinho has no hesitation in falling out with his players, he is not afraid of airing his dirty laundry in public and he is not a man who usually changes his mind. None of these three suggest a Hollywood-style reparation between Mourinho and Shaw, the pair in warm embrace while an Ellie Goulding cover of United On My Mind plays in the background.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with hanging a player out to dry. Many managers have long used it as a motivational tool, and many players have taken the public chastising as a call-to-arms and responded positively. Brian Clough was a master of the art. Knock them down; toughen them up; watch them come back stronger.
But Clough also varied his response according to the individual player. The pertinent question is not whether Mourinho should criticise players publicly, but whether Shaw has the right personality type to justify use of such an abrasive media tactic? Is this a manager challenging a young player to be better, or using him as a puppet (at best) or human shield (at worst)?
Shaw evidently struggled with the move to an elite club at the age of 19, becoming the most expensive teenager in the history of the game and also the fourth most expensive defender of all time. There were questions regarding his professionalism, but those judging him might do well to remember how they behaved at 19. Maturing under a spotlight’s glare is not easy.
Just as he was finding his feet after a difficult first season, Shaw suffered a double fracture of his right leg. It was an injury that could easily have ended his career and, in the months that passed, Shaw spoke not just of his physical recovery but mental scars. He had to learn not just to tackle again but walk, and spoke at length about the difficulty in trusting his leg every time he trained.
“I remember I said I didn’t know if I was going to play again,” Shaw told the Guardian in 2016. “I didn’t properly think that, but it did go through my head a couple of times at the start.” He was just 20 years old, and his world was crumbling.
Since then, Shaw has never quite sparked. The starts have been irregular. The performance level has offered hope that he can fulfill his potential, but not proof. A left-back taken to the 2014 World Cup at the age of 18 is 12/1 to be on the plane in June.
There has always been a suspicion that players bought by Mourinho’s managerial predecessor have had to work doubly hard to impress the manager. The cast of Louis van Gaal’s signings certainly adds weight to the theory: Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Angel di Maria. Four have left, three more may leave this summer and one of the other two (Herrera) has been frozen out this season. That leaves Rojo; how strange that Mourinho would appreciate a glorious bastard.
While Mourinho hounding out a player with previous confidence issues might be a d*ck’s trick, leaving Shaw on the bench certainly isn’t. Ashley Young merits his place in Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad and in United’s starting team. Mourinho’s responsibility is only to win matches, not people-please. He’s a man happy to stick to that motto.
Shaw’s only option now, whether Mourinho stays beyond this summer or not, is to leave Manchester United. There are a list of attractive, interested clubs, on a sliding scale of where Shaw might consider his current level. Tottenham have Champions League football and former manager Mauricio Pochettino, Everton require the heir to Leighton Baines’ throne and Southampton provide the ‘hard reset’ option; Shaw joined the academy at the age of eight.
Moreover, Shaw will retain the goodwill within the game that comes from falling out with Mourinho. Plenty are predisposed to people who suffer Mourinho’s wrath, while many others will take pleasure in seeing a young sportsperson overcome a sticky patch to thrive elsewhere. You can include plenty of Manchester United supporters in that second group.
Shaw’s story can still have a happy ending because this is not its end. If leaving an elite club on anything other than your own terms will always be considered a failure, it need not prove as such. Romelu Lukaku was 21 when he was sold by Mourinho, Kevin de Bruyne was 22 when he left and Mohamed Salah 23 when he joined Roma from the same club. Take one step backward to make two more forward. Setback can motivate redemption.