David Moyes’ death stare won’t freeze out the critics now
The smallest incidents at Old Trafford will be magnified and dramatised
As David Moyes takes over at Manchester Unted, he faces a whole different world at Old Trafford from that he faced at Goodison Park. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images
Today is David Moyes’s first day at work as the manager of Manchester United. You imagine he must be feeling a childish thrill of anticipation at what the future has in store. He could be cast in bronze or have a stand named after him. He could be sacked by Christmas. Everything is possible.
The most probable outcome is Moyes’s performance will be somewhere between the poles of glory and disgrace - but that’s not necessarily how his tale will be told.
Of all the headlines you could imagine written about Manchester United next season, “Moyes does competent job of steering mega-superclub through mildly choppy waters” might be the most unlikely.
Things were different in his old job. I remember being in the press room at Goodison Park one dreary December evening after Everton had lost 1-0 to Stoke. Everton’s inept efforts had irritated their supporters, it was an occasion to deflate anyone’s spirits.
Moyes sat down and coldly regarded the small group of journalists, his forbidding bearing only slightly undercut by the fact he was seated at a tiny table that looked like it belonged in a primary school classroom.
The defeat had been Everton’s seventh in 10 matches. I waited to see what kind of inquest would unfold. To my surprise, nobody asked why Everton had played so badly. When one journalist ventured a slightly awkward question, Moyes gave him a two-second death stare and replied “I think those who come here regularly would know the answer to that.”
The whole thing was over in a couple of minutes.
At the time, Moyes was being criticised on Everton fan sites, but the disgruntlement had not been reflected in media coverage. Watching Moyes’s interaction with the press that evening helped to explain why.
It wasn’t that the Everton manager was friendly with every member of the regular Goodison press corps, neither was it he was terrifying them into silence. It was plain, however, he knew who they were and understood the dynamics of their group.
Mere recognition might not seem like a big deal, but it is a form of respect which some people are naturally reluctant to repay with criticism.
Then there is the simple fact few beat reporters want to fall out with the people they have to cover as part of their job, especially when the group of reporters they are part of is relatively small. On the messageboards you could find plenty of fans complaining bitterly about Moyes, but they didn’t then have to sit in the same room as him the following week.
Having to deal directly with Moyes meant the reporters thought more carefully about what they wrote about him.
Some would call it empathy, others cowardice: however you choose to interpret the psychology, it’s generally true journalists who have something like a personal relationship with their subject are more likely to see things from the subject’s point of view.
So when things went badly for Everton and the fans raged about negativity and defeatism, the media coverage was always comparatively mild, usually emphasising Moyes was doing a good job considering the limited resources he had to work with. The tendency was to resist amplifying runs of poor form into crises.
Moyes will find the coverage of Manchester United tends to do the exact opposite.
The press corps covering the club is so large it was beyond even Alex Ferguson’s ability to control, and this was a man who in his latter years had become a kind of world attraction like the Mona Lisa.
Moyes won’t be able to disarm his critics by fixing them with a reproachful stare.
The smallest incidents will be magnified and dramatised. He will only have to draw a game to find large sections of the media questioning his suitability for the job, talking about something called a “decisive power shift”, heralding the collapse of the empire, etc . . .
He could have done without having to make a major decision over Wayne Rooney’s future in his first week in the job. Does he want to keep a player with whom Ferguson had lost patience, or cash in and risk seeing Rooney rediscover his best form at a rival club?
The decision would be difficult even without the complications created by commercial considerations.
Despite his recent underperformance, Rooney remains the biggest English football star. Sponsorship is now United’s most important revenue stream, and their kit deal with Nike is soon up for renegotiation. If they sell Rooney now, are they a less attractive proposition to commercial partners?
Another problem is Rooney’s contract is up in two years, so if United want him to stay, they have to give him a new one. There has been talk that United don’t intend to increase Rooney’s wages and may even offer reduced terms, but why would Rooney accept such a deal when the club’s income is growing by €20 to €30 million a year?
The only thing Moyes can take for granted is whatever he decides to do, he’ll have half the world telling him he’s wrong.