When he left, United hemmed, hawed, and defied all expectations by looking in a southerly direction and plucking someone from a middling club to fill his rather large shoes.
That was the tale, of course, of one Mark Bosnich. And it’s a little bit of history repeating.
When Peter Schmeichel departed Manchester United in 1999, cartwheeling into history at the end of that night in Barcelona, the Treble had been secured and Alex Ferguson was about to receive a royally bestowed prefix. The international hunt for a new goalkeeper was underway, and eyebrows if not hopes were raised when it ended in exotic Birmingham.
Bosnich was good for Aston Villa, no doubt; solid if unspectacular, capable of excellent saves and largely incapable of booting the ball past the halfway line. He performed adequately for one season in Manchester, the 1999-2000 campaign that saw United canter to the title by an 18-point margin.
Then he fell out of favour and irritated his manager by moving to Chelsea on a free, where he would develop an appetite for pharmaceuticals that got him sacked. He can now be found on Australia’s Fox Sports, providing capable analyses of English football and nimbly dodging questions about whether or not he wears a hairpiece.
Meanwhile, at United, the revolving doors had begun to whir. Fabien Barthez impressed for a while, before it was discovered that his agility was surpassed only by his buffoonery. Massimo Taibi, Andy Goram, Roy Carroll, Ricardo, and Tim Howard all flayed a nerve or three before Edwin van der Sar was signed and everybody calmed down. There have been departures since; Cristiano Ronaldo was mourned, but football had become a squad game, and there are ways to cope with grief. And then Sir Alex retired.
Ferguson’s final act as manager was to handpick David Moyes in a gesture somewhere between appointment and anointment. Moyes is the perfect man for the job, because of course the only requirements for Manchester United managers are being Scottish and looking really fierce.
At Everton, Moyes was exceptional in the latter department – he would rise to his feet in the dugout, resplendent in the sort of bug-eyed incandescence that sends referees and schoolchildren scurrying for fallout shelters. Here was a straight shooter utterly lacking in nonsense or frills, someone for whom the word “suit” only appeared at the end of the word “track”.
In moving north, however, Moyes appears to have traded some of that craggy lustre for copious bluster. He comes across as trying to be affable, and it’s a strange fit – he needs the press on his side because he can’t wave a fat CV in their face and ban the BBC, as his predecessor famously did.
He seems diminished at Old Trafford, having somehow adopted the marginally comical aspect of a spotty teen heading to a dance wearing a jacket two sizes too big. You can envision said teen’s father fondly ruffling his hair before he leaves; Sir Alex probably doesn’t do the same to Moyes before a match. Probably.
This is a good time to state that there is nothing terribly wrong with Moyes, just like there was nothing wrong with Bosnich.
His Everton successfully blended craft, graft, and Tim Cahill, who would likely attempt to head the ball even if it was played three inches off the ground. He is an eminently capable manager who made sure his team punched well above their weight for many years. Unfortunately, you could say the same thing about such luminaries as Tony Pulis or Steve McClaren, and they got as much consideration for the United gig as I did.
There is perhaps the nub of it – this creeping feeling that he hasn’t really done very much. Before arriving at Old Trafford, Ferguson had already won a European trophy. Before his first Champions League game, Moyes said he had “watched plenty” of games in Europe. This could later be revealed as part of a cunning plan to lure everyone into a false sense of security. Or it could result in the sort of shambles we saw on transfer deadline day, and again at Eastlands this past weekend.
The only way for him to remove the stubborn scent of inadequacy is to shower in success, and the only thing for that to happen is time, but Moyes is a sprightly 50 years of age. That’s not a dig, it’s an acknowledgement of the unlikeliness of reinvention. No one realistically wants him to suddenly unveil the sort of asymmetrical 3-1-2-3-1 formation with inside forwards that would make Marcelo Bielsa swoon, but someone capable of a little more tactical innovation than sticking Marouane Fellaini up top and yelling at the wingers to aim for the afro would have been lovely.
Once again, with all the world to choose from, there’s a sense of opportunity majorly missed. This is not a cry for someone so unshakeable in his self-belief that he scoffs at tectonic plates, for down that path gibbers Jose Mourinho; to quote a savvy green dwarf, there is another. For a club that prides itself on avoiding short-termism and would presumably allow someone to grow into the position, it’s a wonder that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t considered. Not only is he used to succeeding at Old Trafford – as player and coach – he’s also gone overseas and won Molde its first two titles in several decades.
Look, maybe Moyes will come good, but you could say that for just about anyone. Maybe he’s there to warm the seat for someone like Solskjaer, or maybe he’ll notch his own Treble by winning the Premier League, the Ashes and Eurovision in the same year. Despite the tone of the preceding 900 or so words, it would be quite marvelous for him to succeed, put four fingers up to his critics and celebrate by re-signing Kevin Kilbane. But never mind catching up to Sir Alex – if there is success to be equaled, it first must be that of Mark Bosnich.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own