Nothing safe about easy option blame game for under-fire Moyes
A transfer masterstroke could do a lot for the Manchester United manager
Manchester United manager David Moyes during his side’s match against Swansea City at Old Trafford on Saturday. Photograph: EPA/Peter Powell
For a manager who disliked speaking to the media, Steve Staunton could be very quotable.
On one occasion, irritated by some criticism or other, he reminded everyone: “I wouldn’t have been here if the past had been better.” Staunton had put his finger on a near-universal truth of football management. Most managers are there because their predecessor made such a mess of things that he got sacked.
Football managers and governments alike usually deflect criticism by blaming problems on the previous regime. Alex Ferguson blamed the drinking culture he inherited from Ron Atkinson for the fact that it took him nearly seven years to win the title with Manchester United. Jose Mourinho continually ridiculed the work of predecessors like Claudio Ranieri and Manuel Pellegrini.
Blaming the last guy is unavailable to the luckless David Moyes. Instead, he’s in the bizarre position where the last thing his predecessor did was win the league. And now that guy is effectively his boss.
Last week, Alex Ferguson’s presence at Manchester United’s matches was the most talked about issue in the English football press. Maybe Ferguson picked up on it, because he was absent from his usual seat as United beat Swansea on Saturday night.
Arsene Wenger questioned the relevance of the Ferguson debate, noting that “it is not the presence of somebody in the stand that loses you the games . . . when he appears in the stand, it is not a problem . . . The problem now is whenever Manchester United do not win a game the cameras go on Ferguson: he is the man who is missing. But I think that is the wrong problem.”
Wenger was being diplomatic. The reason Ferguson’s presence is a live issue is that everyone knows Moyes got the job on his recommendation. Not all the decision makers at Manchester United were convinced, but in the end they submitted to the weight of Ferguson’s authority.
If Ferguson’s support got Moyes the job, then it’s easy to see the implications for the former Everton boss if that support were to waver. That’s why cameras linger on Ferguson’s expression, scanning for annoyance or exasperation. The story is made for television; how can TV directors be expected to ignore it?
Ferguson must resent the controversy over his attendance at games, but by choosing his successor he has made himself a player in the drama.
Maybe it was a mistake for the club to allow Ferguson that privilege, though it’s easier to say so with hindsight than it would have been at the time. Who, after all, was better qualified to pick the best candidate than Ferguson? Who knew more about management and managers than he did? Not David Gill, not Edward Woodward, and certainly not the Glazer family.
In his recent book, Ferguson dodged the question of why he chose Moyes ahead of Mourinho, who was much better-qualified for the job. It looks like he picked Moyes because he felt Moyes was the candidate who most resembled himself.
One wonders, though, when Ferguson looks in the mirror, whether he sees what everyone else notices. He’s often said that his core value is loyalty, but when ITV asked Roy Keane to sum Ferguson up in a single word, he chose “ruthless”.
Keane also told ITV that he believes Ferguson continues to strive for power and control at Manchester United. The former United boss would no doubt dispute that but whether or not he actively strives for control, evidence of his continued influence can be heard at every match.
He told the fans in his farewell speech: “Your job now is to stand by your new manager.” In hindsight, it was a curious thing to say. It suggested that Ferguson sees a football club essentially as a vehicle for a manager. Surely the job of the fans is not to stand by the manager, but to stand by the team?
The fans have obeyed and Moyes must be the most vocally-supported manager in the league. Songs in support of him are belted out at every game, especially when United play away from home. It’s unlikely this support is much comfort to Moyes, because he knows he has done nothing to earn it. In a strange way, these chants are just another of the ways in which Ferguson looms over him.
Moyes probably draws more comfort from the fact that, having told the fans to stand by their man, Ferguson surely cannot be the first to break rank.
Maybe Ferguson can do for him what Johan Cruyff once did for Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona. Rijkaard had been appointed by the new Barca president Joan Laporta in the summer of 2003 and endured a Moyes-like first six months in the job.
Laporta probably would have succumbed to pressure from the fans and press to fire Rijkaard mid-way through that season if Cruyff had not urged him to keep the faith.
That first season ultimately turned out well for Rijkaard, as Barcelona signed Edgar Davids in the winter break and won most of the rest of their games. A team that everybody had written off as a disaster turned out to be one player short of championship material. A Davids-type transfer masterstroke could do a lot for Moyes. Then the fans might sing his name for real and not because Ferguson told them to.