Bloody hell . . . David Moyes should be given reasonable time to fail at Manchester United
Watching the Old Trafford side’s deterioration and the subsequent pressure on the manager has become the blood sport of this football season
David Moyes after the 3-0 victory over Olympiakos at Old Trafford last Wednesday.
A few days before Manchester United played Nottingham Forest in the third round of the 1990 FA Cup, a troubled Alex Ferguson called into the office of the club chairman, Martin Edwards. The meeting is, of course, ancient history given that English football has travelled at the speed of light since that time and one can imagine the decorative brandy decanter, heavy carpeting and the solid ring of a rotary dial telephone sounding from down the corridor.
Football moved at a different pace then and business was conducted on a regional rather than global scale but the pressure on Ferguson to make United relevant again had become acute. Edwards said something to the Scotsman that was designed to reassure: “Even if you lose, it won’t cost you your job.”
One wonders if fragments of that meeting flashed across Ferguson’s mind on Sunday last when he sat in Old Trafford, his face set in a rage that would do any of the Greek gods proud as the worst scenario possible unfolded before his eyes.
Past met present for United over a long, grim afternoon. That it was Liverpool, of all teams, who should inflict such a grievous 3-0 defeat to United – and in such eye-catching style – was enough to convince the critics that David Moyes does not have the sand to lead Manchester United into the next era. Watching United’s deterioration and the subsequent pressure on Moyes has become the blood sport of this football season.
During his years at Everton, Moyes embodied the kind of control and flinty Scotch temperament and ceaseless drive that made him seem, as Ferguson decreed, a smart if unglamorous choice to lead United. For the public and media alike, there has been a cruel fascination involved in watching on as the sheer scale and expectation associated with Manchester United seems to have shaken his resolve and physically shrunken him.
The predominant theme is that Moyes – solid manager, decent man, all that – is simply not ‘big’ enough in ego or imagination or tactical knowledge to prosper as United manager.
Last Wednesday night’s improbable 3-0 win over Olympiakos and their stuttering progression to the last eight of the Champions League has done little to quieten the chorus line of doubters. The latest to pitch in was the dimly remembered poster-boy during United’s first flush of success, Lee ‘Sharpie’ Sharpe.
“I fancied someone a bit more creative. Someone who would bring something a little different to the club, like Arsene Wenger at Arsenal or Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. Moyes is very similar to Fergie,” Sharpe is quoted as saying.
If Moyes proves to be even remotely similar to Ferguson, then United fans around the world will not complain. Right now, the main similarity lies in the turbulent opening chapters of their respective reigns. But the rush to judgement on Moyes is a heightened example of how an impatience for success has come to define the atmosphere decision-making around big-time sport.
If the Glazers and Manchester United board elects to cancel Moyes’ contract at season’s end, will they be acting on their convictions or bowing to public and media opinion? And if Moyes – hand chosen by Ferguson – is cast aside so hastily, how secure can his successor feel?
In the original autobiography Ferguson wrote with Hugh McIlvanney, the former manager recalls the sense of hopelessness he sometimes felt in his opening four years at Old Trafford, when his teams finished 11th, 2nd, 11th and 13th in the league.
When Ferguson had assumed control at Old Trafford, he made Edwards’ eyes water by announcing that he needed to buy eight new players. He goes into terrific detail of the trials and tribulations of disassembling United’s old brigade and attracting new stars – including Paul Gascoigne, who decided to renege on a promise to sign for Ferguson because Tottenham Hotspur bought a house for his folks.
One of the standout lines in the entire book recalls the first time that Ferguson saw Ryan Giggs (then Wilson) taking part in a trial game at the Cliff, aged 14 in 1987: “I shall always remember my first sight of him, floating over the pitch at the Cliff so effortlessly that you would have sworn his feet weren’t touching the ground. He carried his head high and he looked as relaxed and natural on the park as a dog chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.”
Giggs, still as lean as a greyhound but greying now, is the one constant between the Manchester United of Then and Now. His input was critical to the brief ray of hope Moyes and United felt on Wednesday night.
Ferguson survived that 1990 cup tie against Forest thanks to a single goal by Mark Robins. His team went on to lift the cup and the direction of English football changed irrevocably. It took time for Ferguson to acquire the aura of invincibility and to become the omnipotent Fergie. Beating Olympiakos was the first break of the ball that Moyes has received since he took over at Old Trafford.
Yesterday’s quarter final draw, pitting them against Champions League favourites and holders Bayern Munich, could not be more bittersweet. It inevitably conjures up comparisons between United’s perfect season in 1999 and their dramatic two-goal coup to deny Bayern in the dying seconds of that year’s final and where they stand now. Victory seems improbable and a humiliating exit is a possibility. Moyes’ claim that United can win the Champions League may seem far-fetched but at least it is defiant and ambitious.
Moyes has been under ferocious and extraordinary scrutiny from the very beginning. There are two views on what Ferguson left him to play with: the defending league champions in one of the biggest football clubs in the world or an aged team in a franchise that revolved around Ferguson’s force of personality and that no longer has the spending power of its rivals.
Moyes has spent 14 years building his reputation, a prolonged period through which he regarded as a model of reliability and shrewdness. Now, all that counts for nothing as he is being presented as a hapless figure, badly out of his depth. There is something animalistic and wrong about the way that reputation has been besmirched in recent weeks. He may not succeed at Manchester United but he should at least be given a reasonable chance to fail. Ferguson, above everyone, understands how wickedly the game can toy with and torture even the best. What is it he said after United’s shining night against Bayern?
“Football . . . bloody hell.”