Jason Burt: 'Sense of euphoria for players after the end of Jose Mourinho's baffling reign'
A gallows humour had developed at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho, and was often evident in the canteen at the club's Carrington training ground, where the players would ask each other which one of them the manager would "dig out" in his next press conference?
By the end it became a roll call of almost the entire first-team squad, but there were several low points along the way - not least the treatment of Luke Shaw, which some felt was close to bullying, and the bizarre decision to call him out along with Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, for a "lack of maturity".
That canteen was also important for another strange decision by Mourinho, who apparently did not allow academy players access to have their lunch until the first team had finished. That meant they were often kept waiting until 3pm to eat, which baffled staff and appeared to symbolise a sense that he was simply not interested in the youth set-up.
But then so much of what Mourinho did was baffling, not least on his first day - at a job he had coveted and lobbied for more than once - when he witheringly made it clear he did not think the squad were good enough.
He also criticised the stadium, the training ground and the facilities.
It set the wrong tone and shocked those who heard it, who were left wondering whether he actually wanted to be there. But it was a tone that would remain throughout Mourinho's 31 months in charge, with United left bemused, arguing they had bent over backwards to try to provide him with everything he wanted. But it never seemed enough.
When Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea for the second time, the phrase that was used at the club was "palpable discord". The same has happened at United. Staff feel beaten down, it has all been too negative and there needed to be a change of culture; a liberation.
Yesterday there was almost a sense of euphoria among the players once they learnt Mourinho had been sacked and, while there is also an acceptance they need to take responsibility, they clearly felt relief that the reign was over.
It had to happen. The decision was taken on Monday and relayed to Mourinho in a brief face-to-face meeting with Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, around 9am yesterday. Mourinho did not leave the training ground immediately and three and a half hours later returned to the Lowry Hotel, his Manchester "home" since May 2016.
The decision to live in a hotel became symbolic of Mourinho's reign. Even if it was more of a serviced apartment at the top of the Lowry, it did not send out the message he wanted to be there.
That was also felt when Mourinho wore a hoodie under a club blazer at the memorial service to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster in February. It did not go down well with senior figures at United.
But did Mourinho ever "get" United? It was felt that he was broken during his time at Real Madrid and there is a similar weight of history at United, even if there is also a clear difference, which he misread completely. He did not face any of the club politics or dressing-room divisions that exist at the Bernabeu.
And what of the United dressing room? It was probably around March that it was lost to him, after the Champions League debacle against Sevilla - when some wanted him out - and an uninspiring 2-0 FA Cup win over Brighton, when he took Shaw off at half-time, criticised him again and attacked other players, with Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez sidelined.
And so Pogba became a huge issue.
Mourinho wanted the midfielder, signed for a then-world record fee of £89m, but singled him out time and again. Pogba has not played well, but he is a World Cup winner. Mourinho was unable to bring himself to praise him for that achievement when invited to do so in pre-season.
The recent "Pogba is a virus" story made matters worse, with Eladio Parames, a former spokesman for Mourinho and friend, claiming in a Portuguese newspaper that the player was bought for commercial reasons and was not wanted by the manager. "These stories are utter rubbish," a senior United source said with the club well aware of their origin and the harm caused.
It was hardly subtle and felt like a him-or-me approach.
The origin of the breakdown of their relationship was in September 2017, when Pogba suffered a hamstring injury. Mourinho, apparently, was furious, blaming the player for using a personal trainer, and things deteriorated from there, publicly blowing up with a touchline exchange in the defeat by Tottenham. And so it went on.
Pogba eventually wanted to leave, but was persuaded to stay by Woodward. He was given the captaincy, stripped of it and lost his place.
There was the training-ground spat - caught on camera - with Mourinho angry over a social media post by Pogba, but getting the wrong end of the stick and eventually sending a member of staff to apologise on his behalf.
That summed it up - and it was the sort of episode mirrored elsewhere, but highlighted in particular in Mourinho's relationship with United's most important player, David de Gea, and captain Antonio Valencia.
At the end-of-season awards last May, De Gea again won player of the year, but Mourinho responded by saying he should have won the "worst trainer" prize. Maybe it was a joke, but it went down badly. The fact is De Gea had appeared highly reluctant to commit himself to a new contract while Mourinho remained as manager.
Then there is Valencia, a hard-working model professional who would play through pain, as he did with a persistent ankle problem. Mourinho gave Valencia the club captaincy, claimed he had turned up out of shape for pre-season training and marginalised him to such an extent that the 33-year-old wanted out in the January window.
A number of United players have made it known they wanted to leave. The club are desperate for Martial to sign a new contract, but the forward, knowing Mourinho tried to force his sale last summer, has not agreed terms and, like others, has waited.
United thought they were hiring a manager who would take on Pep Guardiola at Manchester City in the way Mourinho had done in Spain, with Real Madrid's rivalry with Barcelona. He never got close.
All 11 signings made under Mourinho's watch were his - and United are frustrated by suggestions otherwise. They cost the club £400m. That is some outlay, especially when Mourinho has appeared to want to discard them and then sought more - not least another central defender when they had five.
The final warning was at Anfield on Sunday, when it became apparent Mourinho needed not just a result against Liverpool but a performance.
United have played poorly under him and if he does not achieve results then there is little to love about the football. The style was bad, the players felt shackled, inhibited and unhappy, as did the club, with staff not knowing what kind of mood Mourinho would be in from one day to the next - especially after Rui Faria, his long-time assistant, quit.
One word that has been used to describe Mourinho's time in charge has been "unsettling". United are set for more upheaval but, at least, it feels like the pressure has been released.
Jose's United deals
Man United spent £400million since Jose Mourinho arrived in 2016. Here, we assess the impact of those moves
Eric Bailly (Villarreal, £30m) June 2016
Ivorian centre back was Mourinho's first recruit and initially looked the part. But after struggling with injuries last season he has started only five Premier League matches this season as Mourinho continually chopped and changed.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG, free) July 16
The charismatic Swede served Mourinho well in his first season and gave United the kind of "star quality" the fans have become used to seeing at Old Trafford. Scored 28 goals in his debut campaign and helped United back into the Champions League.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Borussia Dortmund, £27m) July 16
The Armenian flattered to deceive in his only full season at United but scored in the Europa League final. Joined Arsenal midway through the following season as part of a swap with Alexis Sanchez.
Paul Pogba (Juventus, £89m) August 16
Mourinho's biggest signing has never really become a dominant force, and this season the Frenchman appears to have fallen out with Mourinho after making his views felt about United's style of play.
Mourinho accused him of losing focus this season and started him on the bench in United's last three Premier League games. Issued a cryptic social media post after news emerged of Mourinho's exit, but then quickly removed it.
Victor Lindelof (Benfica, £31m) June 2017
The Swede has slowly begun to establish himself in United's defence but has not been helped by constant shuffling. The jury is still very much out.
Romelu Lukaku (Everton, £75m) July 17
The powerhouse striker began with a bang before his form dried up. He managed 24 goals in his first campaign, but this season he has struggled to recapture that form.
Nemanja Matic (Chelsea, £40m) July 17
It was a surprise when Chelsea allowed the holding midfielder to leave to a Premier League rival but he has looked ponderous, like the team, this season.
Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal, swap deal) January 2018
Regarded with envy throughout Europe while he was at Arsenal, Sanchez has nevertheless been a huge flop at United.
Injuries and poor form have restricted the Chilean's appearances this season in which he has started only five times in the Premier League, scoring once.
Diogo Dalot (Porto, £19m) June 18
The young right-sided player has impressed since making his Premier League debut as a substitute against Southampton recently. Tipped as a successor to Antonio Valencia.
Fred (Shakhtar, £52m), June 18
So far the Brazilian has looked like an expensive misfit with Mourinho apparently unconvinced that he justifies a place in the team. Did not even merit a place on the bench in last week's defeat by Liverpool.