Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho survived a wild weekend at Old Trafford to escape what he described as a “manhunt” after a terrible start to the season.
But a thrilling comeback from 2-0 down to beat lowly Newcastle 3-2 could prove to be little more than a stay of execution for Mourinho, with a run of tougher fixtures looming.
He said he had received a text message from a senior board member, believed to be the club’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, before kick-off on Saturday telling him to ignore reports that the axe was set to fall regardless of the result against Newcastle.
“There is a lot of wickedness and a clear manhunt,” said the 55-year-old Portuguese boss in a post-match rage despite the late turnaround.
“I think life is made of experiences and some are new and some are deja vu. This is new but I think it makes me a better manager and a better person.”
The concern for United is that this is not new for Mourinho.
His third seasons in his second spell at Chelsea and Real Madrid also ended in acrimonious departures after poor results and falling out with key players.
In saving Mourinho’s job, at least for now, a rousing second-half display at Old Trafford was in some ways an indictment of his time in charge.
So often criticised for preaching a cautious approach, it was only when Mourinho’s men threw caution to the wind when 2-0 down that they began to look like the United of old.
It was almost a replica of arguably the standout result of the Mourinho era, when United roared back from 2-0 down at half-time to Manchester City to win 3-2 at the Etihad in April to delay Pep Guardiola’s title party.
Just like that day, when Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez showed why United have invested heavily in bringing them to the club, it was some of those most harshly criticised or shunned by Mourinho who pulled United out of the mire against Newcastle.
Substitute Juan Mata, who has had to content himself with a bit-part role under Mourinho recently, got United’s comeback under way with a sumptuous free-kick.
Anthony Martial, at odds with the Portuguese this season, scored the equaliser and Sanchez, left out of the squad against West Ham last week, headed a 90th-minute winner.
Whatever their differences, these were not players happy to lie down and watch their manager take the bullet.
“We couldn’t afford another defeat, we couldn’t afford another disappointment, especially for the fans,” Mata told MUTV.
“I think they saw today we tried everything, and we came back and from the mental point of view it’s a very important three points.”
But is the victory short-term balm or a turning point in United’s season?
Former United midfielder Paul Ince says it is too early for United to believe they have turned the corner.
“We all know one swallow doesn’t make a summer,” he told the BBC. “So are we papering over the cracks because they came back? To some extent, yeah, we are but it was an important result because they had to win after all the reports of Mourinho leaving.”
Presuming he is still in charge, Mourinho returns to Chelsea after the international break, where he has lost in all three visits as United manager, with no goals scored.
Two Champions League clashes with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus and meetings with high-flying Bournemouth and Everton follow before United travel to City for the Manchester derby on November 11.
This time City could deliver the final nail in the coffin. Not for the title, but Mourinho’s tenure at Old Trafford.
© Agence France-Presse