On the morning of September 17, 2015, Luke Shaw took a telephone call from Mauricio Pochettino that reduced him to tears.
At his lowest ebb his former manager was thinking of him. It meant a lot. A little over two years on, one suspects he would love nothing more than another call from Pochettino. Albeit for very different reasons.
Just two days prior to Shaw picking up a phone and hearing the Argentinian's familiar and comforting voice on the line, his whole world had been turned upside down. A tackle from PSV Eindhoven's Hector Moreno had left him with a double fracture to his right leg. There's no good time to get an injury like that, but this was the worst time.
Up until that fateful night in Eindhoven, from which he has never seemingly recovered, Shaw had been Manchester United's best player that season. His injury occurred after a thrusting run saw him beat two men before cutting inside into PSV's box.
For the first time since pitching up at Old Trafford the previous campaign as a callow-to-the-point-of-being-gauche 19-year-old who, in his own words, criminally, wasn't in the correct shape, he was looking like a proper Manchester United player.
That the halcyon days of more than three years at United can be condensed into a period spanning little over a month or so tells us everything about his time at Manchester.
According to the journalist Paul Hirst of The Times, it is a time very much of the borrowed variety. His piece on Saturday said: "United paid £30 million to sign Shaw from Southampton in 2014, but he has failed to make a good impression on [manager Jose] Mourinho. The club hope to find a buyer willing to pay about £20 million for him."
Given Manchester United's purported long-term interest in Danny Rose, the Doncaster-born Tottenham Hotspur man's declaration to The Sun's Dave Kidd that he wouldn't be averse to moving back north and Shaw's long-term admiration for Pochettino, it doesn't take Duncan Castles to work out some kind of swap dealing may be in the offing.
Even withstanding a career that is starting to look suspiciously like Jack Wilshere's, Shaw's stock is presumably still healthy (if a little anaemic) enough to have a high calibre of suitors sniffing. According to the Telegraph's James Ducker, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton are all keeping tabs.
Wages of £130,000 per week could be a stumbling block, even if £20 million is relatively cheap enough to be worth a punt on a player who is still just 22. Ducker reported a loan switch to Fenerbahce in January does not appeal to the player.
Chelsea owe manager Antonio Conte a left-back after baulking at Alex Sandro's £60 million valuation at Juventus over the summer, while Arsene Wenger could be just the man to dangle the carrot after Mourinho has got precisely nowhere with the stick.
Shaw playing under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City could be quite the thing, but in the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho probably wouldn't sell him a virus. Also, the threat of being two-footed by a disgruntled Fabian Delph in training would probably put Shaw off. Everton could sign him to play up front and blindly hope he's the new Paul Warhurst.
It's a measure of how good he was that he is still on the radar at all. Into his fourth season at United, Shaw has played just 2,269 minutes of Premier League football, starting just 29 matches. In his final season at Southampton, he started 35 games and racked up 2,995 minutes of top-flight football. He made the shortlist for the PFA Young Player of the Year and was voted into the Team of the Year by his fellow professionals.
When Shaw joined Manchester United for £27 million in July 2014, it made him the costliest teenager in the game and the fourth-most expensive defender of all time. He is now United's fourth-choice left-back. This season, he has played 48 minutes of football over two matches, both as a substitute in the Carabao Cup. He was granted 270 seconds against Swansea City.
At his first press conference as Manchester United manager, Mourinho was at pains to explain how he was "a manager that likes specialists rather than multi-functional players because I am clear in my approach."
Shaw is the only specialist left-back at the club. He's fourth choice. If his position were any more terminal, he would have been read his last rites.
He is behind winger-turned-full-back Ashley Young, the right-footed Matteo Darmian and the Swiss Army knife of a player that is Daley Blind (useful for a lot of things but not great at any).
To even say Shaw is fourth choice is probably being charitable. When fit, Marcos Rojo would be picked ahead of him. It's not inconceivable Fred the Red would too if it came to it. Though if a job share were mooted, there's no way Mourinho would trust Shaw to put on those big furry feet without falling over and injuring himself.
Even withstanding Hirst's story, Shaw's relationship with Pochettino has generated its fair share of column inches of late. The player's gushing praise for his former boss for the epilogue to Guillem Balague's Brave New World: Inside Pochettino's Spurs effectively demonstrated the devil-may-care chutzpah of a condemned man who complains his last meal was ruined because the steak was a little overdone and fries lacked seasoning.
"I do hope that I can play for him again one day," Shaw writes (via Mark Critchley of The Independent). He continues:
"And I think he really wants me to play under him again. He used to call me his son. That's how good our relationship was. I've had lots of ups and downs, but when I was with Pochettino, it was only ever up, up, up.
"He made me feel that I was the best. He'd show me clips of my games and say, 'You should do this better'. Not in a horrible way. Not I could have done better, but I should have done better, because he knows I can be better."
Now he has mastered the art of writing epilogues, penning an obituary for his Manchester United career should be a breeze. Presumably, someone close to Shaw read and signed it off prior to publication. It's not technically grounds for divorce, but given his relationship with Mourinho appears in dire need of some marriage counselling, it's like handing a list of what you loved about your ex to an estranged partner.
Shaw surely cannot have been as naive as to think praising a contemporary—no, more than that, a significant rival of Mourinho's—would not rankle the Portuguese.
Mourinho says not. Still, if he offered you a drink, you would switch it with his the moment he turned his back. What he says and what he means often have different postcodes, such are the distances between them.
In fairness, Shaw's devotion to Pochettino is not dissimilar to that which Mourinho has engendered in former players over the years. Mourinho would bristle at the suggestion, but he's no stranger to the addictiveness of praise. In part because he has an ego, and an ego needs massaging just as a plant needs water, but also because to venerate him is to hint at another manager's shortfalls in comparison. It invites mischief.
Mourinho said of Shaw's comments, per Luke Edwards of the Telegraph:
"If you want to speak about his words I would be very disappointed if his words were different, I am always disappointed when a player because he has a new manager, the new manager becomes the best and the old manager becomes very bad, and football is full of examples of lack of character.
"Luke Shaw was just honest. The manager that helped him come to the first-team, the manager that helped him develop in the best moment of his career, is the manager he doesn't forget, a manager he likes a lot, a manager that maybe one day he would like to be reunited again so for me the perfect words that show Luke Shaw's character in relation to the people he was happy with."
Even if Mourinho is telling the truth, at best it might mean he likes him more as a person. It won't make him like him any better as a player.
Mourinho's relationship with Shaw is littered with comments that bring to mind the Dorothy Parker line "The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth, and then I sharpen my tongue."
Looking through the archives, more often than not attacks on Shaw are accompanied by a deluge of think pieces a few days later accusing Mourinho's behaviour of being tantamount to bullying. In an interesting piece with ESPN FC's Matt Palmer, former Manchester United physio Matt Radcliffe said "anyone who suggests his fitness is an issue at United right now are getting this completely wrong," before laying into Mourinho in a manner that suggests the pair won't be staying in touch.
There does seem a sourness to it all that seems a touch unnecessary. Better players than Shaw have failed at Old Trafford with considerably less rancour. Radamel Falcao and Bastian Schweinsteiger spring to mind most recently, while a little further back, Juan Sebastian Veron was a player United would kill for now but didn't need back then.
Perhaps Mourinho's most cutting jibe was delivered at a press conference last season when he was asked what Shaw had to do to make the bench. He replied: "Who?"
Someone get that cat a saucer of milk.
Then there was the time in April when Shaw had impressed in a 25-minute cameo against Everton. "He had a good performance," Mourinho said before picking at it with the disdain a Michelin-star chef might a fry-up in a greasy spoon. "He was in front of me, and I was making every decision for him," he suggested, per Simon Stone of BBC Sport. "It was his body with my brain."
It was a typically pithy Mourinho soundbite, the type he knows through experience will be picked up and relayed by every journalist in the room. And then when editors got hold of it, they blew it up and made Shaw the story. It was a line rolled around in his mind, cultivated for maximum impact, before being dropped like a stick of dynamite. How it might benefit a 21-year-old with fragile confidence is at best debatable.
Then Mourinho's penchant for machismo flashed itself in Shaw's direction when, after the defender limped off after 10 minutes of United's game against Swansea City, he
sneered said, per Luke Brown of The Independent: "I think Luke Shaw's must be a big injury. To leave the pitch after 10 minutes I am expecting a very big injury."
Considering the doctors treating Shaw after his injury at PSV suspected he might never play again, it seemed a little crass.
Shaw was not alone last season in being singled out for Mourinho's passive-aggressive poking at players he feels are not demonstrating the warrior-like tendencies he is so fond of.
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were similarly asked to "be brave." Mourinho was going through a bizarre period of regularly speaking about his players as if they were infants being coerced to sit in a dentist's chair. One got the feeling he would have offered a five-year deal on the spot to any player who would be willing to play on crutches or while wearing a colostomy bag.
"After a game, I would always try to avoid criticising the players," Sir Alex Ferguson said in his book Leading (h/t Samuel Luckhurst for the Mirror). "They had enough pressure without me piling it on in public. I save my criticism for the private sessions away from prying eyes."
There was a time when Mourinho used to live by a similar code. It inspired devotion in others towards him. It's been a while since a player spoke of Mourinho in the same reverential way the likes of Frank Lampard, John Terry, Marco Materazzi, Wesley Sneijder and Zlatan Ibrahimovic used to with an affection one usually reserves for loved ones or lovers.
There are those who feel Shaw was on a hiding to nothing from day one with Mourinho. When he left Southampton, the choice essentially boiled down to moving to United or a Chelsea side managed by Mourinho at the time. Shaw had grown up a Chelsea supporter, attending the club's development centre in Guildford near his home, but he was never offered an academy place.
If his heart said Chelsea, and geographically it was much simpler to move to the capital from Southampton than up north, Mourinho intimated another factor must have motivated his decision.
"If we pay to a 19-year-old boy what we were being asked for, to sign Luke Shaw, we are dead," Mourinho lamented, per the Guardian). "We would have killed our stability with financial fair play and killed the stability in our dressing room."
It was a statement Shaw could have done without.
While the left-back has unquestionably been unfortunate in terms of injuries, and arguably in terms of Mourinho, it would be a little remiss not to examine his role in a career that will require his next manager to wean him on to cow's milk before he can be considered ready to start games if it regresses any further.
Before Pochettino's Brave New World, there was Aldous Huxley's. Writing about his dystopian novel years later, Huxley would discuss "man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." Somewhat fittingly, from the outside looking in at least, the same problem appears inherent in Shaw.
If Mourinho were alone in questioning Shaw's professionalism, to take his word as gospel would be like accepting gorillas are a danger to society on the back of watching King Kong. Alas, the sample size of criticism goes significantly beyond the Portuguese.
United's first pre-season under Louis Van Gaal was barely underway when the Dutchman publicly stated Shaw was not fit enough. A special programme for the defender was devised to get him up to the required levels.
"He needs to be fit and is not very fit and fit enough to do what I want. He needs to train individually until he is fit," said Van Gaal, per the Guardian's Jamie Jackson.
On the same tour of the U.S., according to the always well-informed journalist Andy Mitten for Unibet, Shaw was the last on the team bus after one game and another player had to come and collect him. If Roy Keane were still at the club, he would have left Shaw to make his own way back—or ordered the coach driver to run him over.
It's not exactly George Best going missing on a bender from Monday to Friday, but in terms of a first impression upon joining one of the biggest clubs in the world, it still stinks of unprofessionalism.
That's the thing with Shaw. There's no suggestion he's not a nice lad or off the rails. It's rather it appears he just doesn't push himself enough and is perhaps emotionally not yet mature enough to handle life at a club of United's stature. He might only be 22, but this is his sixth season as a professional footballer. The penny should have already dropped.
Back in April, Luckhurst, the United editor for the Manchester Evening News, wrote: "Some United players have spoken with Shaw about convincing Mourinho, and one is understood to have simply said the 21-year-old 'needs to get his s--t together'. The consensus is Shaw 'doesn't help himself'."
Shaw posting on social media a video of himself training at home, directly after being told to play through pain by Mourinho, was so hopelessly juvenile it's a wonder he wasn't made to stay behind in detention. Playing for the club's reserves earlier this season against West Ham United with all the intent one might muster for a dads-versus-lads game at a school sports day probably wasn't going to go unnoticed, either.
In an age when coasting in a game of FIFA will probably be written up as though it's real life, there is no hiding place.
Back in 2014, then-England boss Roy Hodgson had enough faith in Shaw's ability to take him to the FIFA World Cup and effectively end Ashley Cole's international career in the process. It did not stop him echoing Van Gaal's sentiments about Shaw's fitness levels. He admitted he understood where the United boss was coming from and had also spoken to the player about needing to stay in the best possible shape to play at the highest level.
Even Pochettino, credited with getting the most out of Shaw by indulging him with the arm over the shoulder-style management Mourinho finds so uncomfortable, concedes in his candid new book of holding reservations about Shaw's commitment during their time together (via Sean Kearns of Metro): "I felt his head was not in the right place [at Southampton] to make the sacrifices and decisions that are necessary at that age."
That's quite the admission given Shaw was simply magnificent during his final year at Southampton. As compact and fast as a bullet train, he would bolt past opponents as if a track down that left flank had been laid just for him. Now he more resembles a steam train, coughing and spluttering to its end point.
For all the excitement over England's next generation, Shaw was as promising as any of his contemporaries. At Southampton, he found a consistency matched perhaps only by Dele Alli of the new wave. The rest still have some distance left to run.
The hope remains that Shaw does, too.
All stats worked out via WhoScored.com unless where otherwise stated