Toothless David Moyes lacks the killer bite in Old Trafford’s lions’ den

Problem with the Manchester United boss is if he was ever going to stamp his authority, he probably would have started by now


There are two main schools of thought on the best way to share an enclosed space with a large group of lions.

The first approach was made famous by Daniel, a civil servant in the empire of King Darius the Mede. Daniel’s piety was matched only by his prosperity. Jealous of his success, the enemies of Daniel conspired against him, and through their chicanery the reluctant King was forced to have Daniel thrown into the lions’ den.

The next day the King came to inspect the gruesome aftermath and found Daniel standing there, tired but unharmed. It turned out that he had prayed all night and the lions, sensing his inner goodness, had simply left him alone.

‘Hath sent his angel’
“My God hath sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me, and also before thee, O King, have I done no hurt,” Daniel explained. “O King, live for ever” he added, astutely.

The King decided instead to throw Daniel’s enemies to the lions, who “brake all their bones in pieces”. The King then proclaimed that Daniel’s God was the one true God.

The other way was shown by Isaac van Amburgh, an American circus impresario who became famous in the 1820s and 1830s for the astonishing things he was able to get away with in cages full of lions and tigers.

Van Amburgh would stick his head in the jaws of the animals, order them about the cage, force them to lick his boots and so on. People around the US and Europe flocked to see these performances and van Amburgh became fabulously rich.

Closer inspection
On closer inspection, it appears that the secret of van Amburgh’s success was brutality. The animals were terrified of him. He would starve them for days to ensure that they were weak with hunger by the time he would step into the cage to thrash them with a whip or a crowbar. When people objected that such treatment of animals was cruel even by 19th century standards, van Amburgh referred them to the Bible, which says that man is granted dominion over all the animals.

The key difference between the two stories is that the van Amburgh one happened in real life, while the Daniel one is a fictional account invented for purposes of religious propaganda. Nobody has ever demonstrated that blamelessness is an effective defence against a group of lions. The only proven way to survive is to be sure that the animals believe you are stronger than they are.

The similarities between football management and lion-taming were noted by the Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann, who won two European Cups with Benfica in the 1960s: “He dominates the animals, in whose cage he performs his show, as long as he deals with them with self-confidence and without fear. But the moment he becomes unsure of his hypnotic energy, and the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost.”

Done no hurt
Guttmann would have been in the van Amburgh school of human-lion relations. Unfortunately for David Moyes, his approach at Manchester United appears to have been based on the silent beseeching prayerfulness of Daniel. Since the day he walked through the door, he has done no hurt, and he is not getting much respect from the lions.

The time-honoured way for leaders to show they mean business was articulated by Voltaire: “In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

Giovanni Trapattoni, another managerial lion-tamer, put that principle into action when he kicked Andy Reid out of the Ireland squad. It was a personal disaster for Reid, and a political success for Trapattoni. The other players saw that he would not hesitate to treat them the same way, and the sacrifice of Reid shored up Trapattoni’s authority for a couple of years.

Seize the respect
The best way for Moyes to seize the respect of the dressing room would have been to boot out a senior player or two. There was no shortage of candidates.

Rio Ferdinand welcomed Moyes by promising to try to teach him how to be a better manager. These sounded like risky words from a man who was no longer the commanding footballer he had once been. Moyes declined the invitation to make Ferdinand walk the plank. He has been rewarded with further unhelpful media comments, and performances of stunning ineffectiveness.

Wayne Rooney was about to be booted out of the club by Alex Ferguson, but instead of following through, Moyes decided that Rooney had to be appeased. Now the striker has signed a record contract that makes him far bigger than Moyes.

Moyes did try to replace Patrice Evra with Leighton Baines, but botched the Baines signing and had to keep Evra. A few weeks ago he hailed Evra as “a great man and a great leader.” For his part, Evra has remarked that “nobody likes change”.

Alex Ferguson repeated over the weekend that “he needs time”, but Ferguson knows that successful managers don’t need that much time. Ferguson finished second in his first full season. Moyes himself made an immediate positive impact at both Preston and Everton.

Given time, the argument goes, Moyes will stamp his authority on the club. The problem is that if he was ever going to stamp any kind of authority, he probably would have started by now.