Did David Moyes know what had caused the illness that had kept Kurt Zouma out of West Ham's team for yesterday's game at Leicester? "No I don't... I'm guessing it's a stomach bug, we think," Moyes said, with a chilly half-smile. Immediately you thought of Xavi's comment about how 'stomach bug' in a club statement was always a cover for some other problem: "Gastroenteritis in football is an excuse. You take a little pill and play."
Whether or not the bug was real, Zouma's unexpected absence spared Moyes having to wrestle with more cat abuse controversy after a draining 2-2 draw at the King Power. Moyes may have privately reflected that the expedient move would have been to drop Zouma from the Watford game in midweek, when the fury sparked by his cat abuse was building towards its climax. Standing Zouma down for a couple of days might have allowed the episode to be largely forgotten about, or at least for most people to have moved on to some new scandal.
But Moyes hadn't taken the easy way out. He had picked Zouma, prompting a rebuke from, among countless others, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who declared "I am disappointed in David Moyes" and urged the police to prosecute the player.
Looking at it from Moyes’ position, you have to feel some sympathy. He had no good options. If he picked Zouma he stood accused of condoning animal cruelty; if he omitted him he was effectively letting Twitter pick his team. In the end he appears to have decided that if people wanted to believe he was condoning animal cruelty, then that was their problem.
Moyes may have reasoned that the anger on social media was, not for the first time, somewhat irrational. Who can fathom the psychological currents that cause a society whose food supply is built on the brutal mass exploitation and slaughter of animals to convulse with outrage at the sight of a single animal being mistreated?
Graeme Souness doubtless spoke for many when he said on Sky that he would not want to play on the same team as someone who could do what Zouma had done. Souness at least walks the walk: he has followed a vegan diet for the past few years because of his concern for animal welfare. Some of the others expressing their disgust remind you of words Leo Tolstoy, another passionate advocate for the plant-based diet, gives to Prince Andrei: "We play at magnanimity and all that stuff. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of a lady who faints when she sees a calf being killed: she is so kindhearted that she can't look at blood, but enjoys eating the calf served up with sauce."
By Friday, Zouma had surrendered his cats to the RSPCA, been fined £250,000 by West Ham, and lost his sponsorship deal with Adidas. Michail Antonio stopped his car on the way out of training to ask reporters: "Do you think what he's done is worse than racism?" Antonio was accused of whataboutery, but that he would stop to debate with the journalists in this way showed that at least some of the West Ham players were tired of their teammate being made a national hate figure and felt it was time someone stood up for him.
Doubtless aware of this, Moyes stuck doggedly to his defence of Zouma's right to play. We can venture that if a cat had been managing West Ham, it would have made the same decision. A cat would not care about public outrage. As John Gray writes in Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life: "Feline ethics is a kind of selfless egoism. Cats are egoists in that they care only for themselves and others they love. They are selfless in that they have no image of themselves they seek to preserve and augment. Cats live not by being selfish but by selflessly being themselves." You can't please everybody, so you might as well please yourself.
There have undoubtedly been times in Moyes' own career when he has worried too much about what other people think. Back in 2013, when he got that unexpected call from Alex Ferguson, asking him to come over so Ferguson could offer him the Man United job, Moyes later admitted his first feeling was mortification at the fact he was wearing jeans and didn't have time to change. Throughout his short time as Manchester United manager Moyes never shook off that stiltedness, the uncanny sense that he was somehow floating outside himself, as though watching himself fail in a dream.
At West Ham he seems once again to inhabit himself, as he did at Everton. Unlike many of the other principals of yesterday's match at the King Power, Moyes gives the impression he is enjoying competing at the level he's at right now, neither worrying about what might go wrong nor pining for something more. West Ham and Leicester both occupy that in-between zone between the top four and the relative mediocrity of the bottom half. As Leicester have learned this season, it is slippery territory and if you're not on the way up, you're probably on the way down.
The status anxiety is dramatised in the situations of three of the players: James Maddison, Youri Tielemans, and Declan Rice. Maddison is the cautionary tale whose story shows how quickly things can change in football. Two years ago many were arguing he was better than Jack Grealish; now Grealish is a £100 million Man City player while Maddison is not even the most exciting midfielder at Leicester. That is Tielemans, who is expected to leave the King Power this summer having indicated he is unwilling to renew his current deal, which expires in 2023.
Opposing them was Declan Rice, who gave an interview last week to Gary Neville in which he told of his burning desire to win trophies - a thinly-veiled warning to West Ham that he might soon be looking to move to a bigger club. He doesn't want to become the new James Maddison, after all. Yet if you were a big club looking for a midfielder this summer, you would surely look at Tielemans before Rice. Rice, who loves a camera, won plaudits for the quality of the interview, but Tielemans looked a class above on the pitch, scoring a penalty and helping to create the second for his team.
In part it's a function of experience: the 24-year old Tielemans has played 433 matches for clubs and country compared to the 23-year old Rice's 205 for club and countries. Maybe it's also an advantage that as a Belgian in England, Tielemans exists outside the limelight, able to concentrate on his game without worrying too much about what others think about him - which for Rice, in time, may prove a burden.