Erase and rewind

  • Romance At Short Notice
  • Wednesday, 23 Apr 2014

It’s over. It’s finally over. The past 10 months have been an exercise in inevitability, the footballing equivalent of being stalked by a steamroller. This was always going to happen, and you didn’t have to be an expert or a pundit to predict it. David Moyes is a good man. He is a fine football manager. And he is fundamentally unsuited to managing Manchester United.

The official tweets confirming Moyes’ departure were eerily similar to the press conference confirming his appointment last year – everyone knew it was going to happen, but no one could quite believe it. The language used in Tuesday’s announcement was particularly telling; Moyes was thanked for his hard work, his honesty and integrity. They are excellent attributes, the type that promise stability and security and sturdiness. They are, alas, insufficient.

Sir Alex Ferguson had other attributes, the most notable of which was a cordite-flavoured stubbornness. Sure, there were hairdryers in dressing rooms and boots in faces, but Ferguson was the master of the slow burn. This coiled fury informed and inspired his time at United; he could acknowledge defeat but never accept it. He carefully hoarded injustices real and perceived, building an empire around a molten, seething core.

It’s easy to see why Moyes looked as if he was composed of the same sort of magma. Watching him at Everton, eyes bugging out on the touchline, he seemed constantly on the verge of eruption. But he lacks the sort of wily, willful niggliness that Ferguson or Mourinho or the pre-Emirates Arsene Wenger could turn into inspiration through some form of internal alchemy. Moyes is Boxer (the workhorse in George Orwell’s 1945 novel, Animal Farm) , always prepared to work harder, always convinced of the merits of graft over craft.

Gary Neville would approve of that reference, having written in Orwellian fashion last year that Manchester United “stand against the immediacy of modern life”. Neville’s point was that Moyes deserved time, that the modern fetish for results over almost anything else had no place at United. He was right and wrong. A manager with a philosophy, with a vision, would have merited patience. Under Moyes, Old Trafford was home to more crosses than the Vatican City. He was never going to change.

Then again, that isn’t really Moyes fault; he’s always been better at dogged pursuit than leading from the front. There are different managers, just as there are different players and different positions. Tony Pulis’ remarkable work with Crystal Palace this season has demonstrated that he is the perfect manager to provide a club with discipline and backbone. Pep Guardiola is probably the best manager in the world at fine-tuning an already efficient machine.

Manchester United, however, needed none of those of things. Their squad required a change in personnel more than a change in personality, and a leader stable enough to endure the ensuing turbulence. The latter was clearly a failure, as Moyes has vacillated between beaten and terrified for most of this season – but he was also let down by the organisation that hired him.

This isn’t an excuse for Moyes’ mistakes, for they have been as obvious as they have been numerous, but surely the biggest mistake was made by the man who anointed him. He is Ferguson’s final signing, doomed to eternally burnish his predecessor’s legend by comparison and diminish it by virtue of his performance. He is the last whimper of the same, legendary stubbornness that saw Ferguson stay on a little too long, until a stale team was combined with a fresh chief executive and a manager with too much to prove.

The reaction to Moyes’ dismissal has been fascinating. There’s very little anger, even in the English press, which defended Moyes with the obduracy apportioned to all British managers and have now suddenly decided he wasn’t up to snuff. There’s some sympathy, which is even less deserved, for that six-year contract will nicely line his pockets on the way out. There is hope and relief – but there’s no guarantee that further mistakes won’t be made.

Liverpool took two decades to get to Roy Hodgson; United got there in less than a year. But this is not a fresh slate, this is starting over from a worse position than they were in when Ferguson retired. Every appointment is now a risk, and patience is a scarce commodity. Manchester United is a club tarnished by this past season and haunted by the resurrection of an old rival, and it would be yet another mistake to blindly believe that the only way is up.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own
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