Moyes: struggling to control beast of United from the off

Saga over Wayne Rooney’s future an early stumbling block in Scot’s ill-fated tenure

David Moyes brought in his own backroom staff when he took over at Manchester United as he looked to create his own dynasty in the wake of Alex Ferguson’s returement. Photograph: Getty

David Moyes brought in his own backroom staff when he took over at Manchester United as he looked to create his own dynasty in the wake of Alex Ferguson’s returement. Photograph: Getty


The plane is on the runway at Manchester Airport but the captain is not on board. A club source confirms Nemanja Vidic has suspected sciatica. David Moyes is about to navigate his first tour as Manchester United manager through the testing lands of Thailand, Australia, Japan and China without his on-pitch lieutenant. But while Vidic will play no part, it is the player who is to join the central defender as a tour absentee almost as soon as United arrive in Bangkok who will exercise minds throughout.

Tour Life. No one really likes it. One senior member of the party confesses that he detests being away with the club for so long. These are to be three long weeks. A blur of time zones and hotels and football fields and sponsorship appearances and never, ever, ever straying off-message. The Holy Grail of the Manchester United footballer on tour: do not create needless headlines. They will find you anyway.

Within hours of United landing there is a major story. Wayne Rooney has a hamstring injury and is to return straight home for treatment. The conspiracy junkies are in clover. And who can blame them? There is no secret that the Liverpudlian is unhappy following a seismic falling-out with Sir Alex Ferguson towards the end of last season and is desperate to leave for Chelsea. And with Rooney having only two years left on his contract the question is who will blink first. If the club want to cash in now he will achieve his wish. If United stand firm and are happy to allow Rooney’s contract to wind down should he refuse to agree another, then this leverage becomes neutered.

The Cut Bar & Grill in downtown Sydney is a high-end restaurant for the movers and shakers who pass through the city. And for the wannabe movers and shakers who pass through the city. What the difference is, who knows … It is a quasi-kind of place. No one really has fun in here. They only think they do. All the fun is happening elsewhere. The place has soft lights and soft sounds and seems always to have been at this point now, approaching 8pm, the evening about to move from quietude to a rising murmur in anticipation of something that never arrives. It’s what this – all these – places are about.

The joint’s pièce de résistance is Wagyu beef – Japanese Black, Japanese Polled, Japanese Brown and Japanese Shorthorn – the finest of fine steaks real money can buy. The wine list teems with fine Shiraz and Malbec and Pinot Noir. Some of these come in at 1,450 Australian dollars – around £1,000 – so it’s nice Manchester United are hosting. There is probably a waiting list to dine here. And a guest list. And a VIP list. And a VVIP list.

On the evening of 18 July 2013 at around, yes, eight o’clock, the correspondents covering Manchester United for the daily newspapers have assembled for dinner with David Moyes, the tour ‘sit-down’ as it is known. Yet this nearly doesn’t happen. Today is a Thursday. Word has come that Moyes is furious with some of his fellow diners and has considered cancelling due to stories splashed on websites on Sunday evening and on the front and back pages of the newspapers the following day. The opening line of the Guardian’s account reads: “Wayne Rooney has been left in no doubt regarding his position at Manchester United with David Moyes, the manager, issuing a stark message that the striker is considered vital only if ‘we had an injury to Robin van Persie’. Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, also underlined the hard-line stance towards Rooney, claiming the club have no fear of a player’s deal running down.’

The quotes emerged when Moyes was speaking to Sunday newspaper journalists a couple of days before in Bangkok on the first leg of the tour, this group of reporters flying in and out of Thailand’s capital primarily to speak with the Scot. There is now a large dose of doubt in Moyes’s mind. He cannot believe how his words have been reported and he is about to say so. Drinks are ordered and Moyes looks at a list of names and he asks, basically, what has happened?

What has happened is the straight reporting of what he said and if he was to look at some of the Sunday newspaper reports – The People, for example – he would have read this paragraph: “Moyes insists Rooney still has an important role to play, while leaving him in no doubt that Van Persie is his main man up front. He said: ‘Overall, my thought on Wayne is that if for any reason we had an injury to Robin van Persie we are going to need him and I want as many options as possible.’” The Sunday Times similarly quotes him as saying: ‘Overall my thought on Wayne is that if for any reason we had an injury to Robin [Van Persie] we’re going to need him.’

The bigger picture here – the only picture, really – is that whatever the rights and wrongs of this, He said, We said dispute, here is another Bienvenue à Manchester for Moyes. And the new man in the hottest hot seat is struggling to compute this. It is a message he continues to struggle to understand. Moyes has still not processed it when, come December, he is ambushed by an Everton fan who claims all kinds of things on social media after they share a drink in a Manchester hotel bar. But this is later.

Now, on the first major topic asked of him, Moyes has said the wrong thing and is compounding the mistake by trying to say he has been misrepresented. The consensus is that he has dropped a major bollock. Knows it. But will not admit it. These are the noises coming from within Manchester United. Moyes surely recognises his language was, at best, clumsy. And clumsiness is not brilliant when dealing with journalists whose job it is to scrutinise everything.

There is a certain amount of disbelief at this performance near the bar of the Cut Bar & Grill. But on the credit side (and he deserves a large amount), despite being seriously cheesed off, Moyes is still here and about to sit down and enjoy a good meal and a drink and an honest, expansive chat. Who can argue with that? At the table after this start to the working relationship some feel more awkward than others. The atmosphere might not be great but that’s football journalism. The same people have to be dealt with most weeks of the year. The relationship, the world, is an odd one. There are genuine moments of warmth and there are squabbles and disputes. There are forced situations where the manager or press officer or whoever has just been argued with has to be spoken to again on some other matter, sometimes instantly and, of course, courteously.

This is a fine illustration. The atmosphere soon thaws and Moyes is as engaging and as open as he can be. The wine flows. As do the words. Someone asks what advice stands out from the barrage he received on becoming Manchester United manager. “‘You’ll do it easy’,” Moyes says. “But I’m not saying who it was. I don’t take that as a given, because I know it’s going to be really hard at Manchester United. I know that.” There is a straight answer about why he brought his own backroom team and Ferguson’s were told to leave.

“I needed it to be David Moyes’s era now, so that meant me taking some of my own people.’ He is also clear that: ‘It has to be a new era. Whatever we say, my job now is to make my history. I’m going to be following someone who has made incredible history. I think about Matt Busby’s history and then Alex Ferguson’s history – they could do a film about it. I have to make sure now that my history and my time is something which the fans and people in the future talk about.”

This sums up the monster Moyes is grappling with. And considering his former unhappiness at how his words on Rooney were reported, he is now relaxed. He talks freely of being the manager for 10 or 15 years, and building his own dynasty and emulating Busby and Ferguson. “I’d really like that, not just because of the history of Scottish managers, but I think there has been a succession of Scottish managers – Bill Shankly, Jock Stein, Sir Matt, George Graham – you could go on and on. I’ve probably missed a few out.

“If I could in some way be tagged on to the end of that list, because I’d been successful at Manchester United, then I’d be delighted. I will need to get the history books on Manchester United, because I wouldn’t be the first person to be able to turn around and tell you every cup final or every game we’ve been involved in or all the players. But I wanted to get myself as knowledgable as I can. Looking at the history of the club, it’s incredible, so I’m really looking forward to getting myself up to speed. Hopefully 25 years might give me the chance to get up to speed.”

He is joking about lasting a quarter of a century, but it shows Moyes’s focus, his determination to succeed. It also shines a light on his honesty. A good virtue to have, but there is a sense that in this job he is maybe too honest.

Moyes probably would not have been annoyed (at all) if particular information had not emerged from sources close to Rooney 24 hours before that were in direct response to the daily newspapers reporting of those words spoken to the Sunday newspapers. The future of the striker and the politicking and manoeuvring and chicanery involved here are Moyes’s initiation into the having-to-reinvent-the-Rubik’s-Cube-while-running-fast-down-the-motorway-as-one-brings-up-a-family-of-five “challenge” of being the Manchester United number one.

As well as what Moyes said in Bangkok, Ed Woodward’s own contribution to the affair did nothing to quieten the sense that Rooney is being told precisely where he stands. Also speaking in the Thai capital, at around the same time as the manager, Woodward states: “There are no contract renewals that are being discussed. I am not sitting down with any player on an extension and there is no trigger date in the diary. Would we be afraid to run a contract down? Of course not.”

The executive vice-chairman is talking in general terms about any Manchester United footballer but this is clearly a message to Rooney that the club will not be pushed about by him, and that having only two seasons left on his current terms is of no concern.

The day before seeing Moyes at the Cut Bar & Grill it emerges from sources close to Wayne Rooney that he is “confused and angry” by the manager’s assessment of him being behind Robin van Persie. He believes he is at the peak point of his career and certainly does not intend to allow his career to go ‘backwards’ by becoming a mere squad player. The sources also state that Rooney will not countenance having “anything to prove” due to a track record established over nine seasons at the club. This is dynamite and is already being reported back home and signals Moyes has a seismic battle ahead if Rooney is to be persuaded that, in fact, he is no mere back-up to Van Persie, and has a long-term future at United.

Rooney is an interesting case study. He draws criticism and ire despite all the goals and silverware. He has become an odd figure at United. The highest-paid player, yet a faded totem. The 27-year-old time-served footballer who became deeply mistrusted by Sir Alex Ferguson. In the Wild West arena of the dressing room his status has crashed. The self-styled “Big Man” is no more as his team-mates view him as a disappointment, a busted flush. Towards the end of the last campaign Rooney and Ferguson had a meeting – a showdown, in parlance – at the club after the player was either dropped for some of United’s more important games or played out of position in midfield. The most significant of these was the Champions League last-16 second leg at Old Trafford against Real Madrid when Ferguson demoted the striker to the substitutes’ bench. He did not come on until the 73rd minute as United were knocked out of Europe. Here was a sensational decision that was a screaming declaration of where the manager’s once golden boy now stood.

Rooney was also left out by Ferguson for United’s title coronation in May, the win over Swansea. He was not even a replacement that day or in the squad for Ferguson’s final match in charge (number 1,500) a week later at West Bromwich Albion. In fact, Rooney’s final appearance for Ferguson was as a 69th-minute replacement in a 1–0 loss against Chelsea at the start of May. Juan Mata played 89 minutes for Chelsea that day. Now, many United fans hope Mata will come to Old Trafford in exchange for Rooney, who is desperate to go the other way. José Mourinho, back at Stamford Bridge for a second spell, may be even more brilliant than Sir Alex Ferguson and the Rooney situation is merely strengthening the Chelsea coach’s hand.

The way this is being played out, the forward’s career at United could be finished – he is basically telling David Moyes he is “angry and confused” with David Moyes and not just the manager’s statement that he is now second fiddle to Robin van Persie. And Rooney has contacted the Scot to let him know of his unhappiness. Mourinho is playing Chelsea’s hand cleverly, saying: “If Wayne is second choice at Man United, then the national team will be affected.”

This has become ping pong. Rooney’s topspin is returned with extra purchase by the club. Manchester United’s stance is one of contentment and ease over the player’s future, and their position remains that he is not for sale. Later it emerges that Manchester United have rejected a “£20m Chelsea bid for Wayne Rooney” and the whole episode is becoming comical. A turf war is in danger of breaking out between the two clubs. Chelsea are reportedly not happy with stories that say Juan Mata and/or David Luiz have been offered as makeweights in a deal for Rooney. Information emerges that suggests Mourinho fancies neither of these players. This does not come from United. Yet for whatever reason Chelsea decide to put out a statement that points the finger at United for supposedly briefing the story.

“Chelsea Football Club can confirm that, yesterday, it made a written offer to Manchester United for the transfer of Wayne Rooney. Although the terms of that offer are confidential, for the avoidance of doubt and contrary to what is apparently being briefed to the press in Sydney, the proposed purchase does not include the transfer or loan of any players from Chelsea to Manchester United.” Hilarious.

Next up on a particularly breathless day, just as the hack pack’s thoughts are being gathered before their first formal meeting with Ed Woodward, he decides to fly out of Sydney to “attend urgent transfer business”. An attempt to try to placate Rooney must be on the executive-vice chairman’s agenda. The seventh and (thankfully) final story of Wednesday, 17 July concerns how Arsenal have apparently joined Chelsea in the “battle” for Rooney. It can be exhausting merely thinking about what may occur next:

As Rooney is injured can anything actually happen? Who puts in writing to the club who is helping with your recovery an official request to leave?;

Following from that, who bids for a crocked footballer?;

Erm … Chelsea. They have already done so, though this was a paltry £20m and United did not countenance it; brinkmanship and blink-manship: each party – Rooney, United and Chelsea – could use the 45 days between Wednesday, 17 July 2013 and 2 September as a long-running mano a mano a mano duel in the transfer window sun;

Moyes now perspires behind the scenes – along with Woodward – to convince Rooney he should stay. And while this happens, United and the Rooney camp, who will want to hear what the club is offering, will keep their mouths shut;

Rooney leaves;

Rooney stays;

It all drags on;

Everyone becomes bored with the whole saga.

The following day there is movement from United. The club are adamant Rooney is not for sale and will not be allowed to depart even if he hands in a transfer request or Chelsea return with a higher bid than the £20m rejected earlier in the week. What also emerges is that Rooney feels that despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, he still remains a key power broker at United. Rooney is concerned that as Ferguson is now a director, he will continue to have an influence over his career despite what David Moyes may tell him.

And then it goes quiet for a few days. Until Japan. By which time United are again buoyant and bullish about the man being billed as the club’s prime asset. It seems Woodward’s work, when flying out of Australia, “to attend urgent transfer business” has, indeed, been essential.

An extract from: A Season in the Red: Managing Man Utd: in the shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson by Jamie Jackson. Published by Aurum Press, £18.99 (€27).

(Guardian service)

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