Moyes, Everton and unhappy returns

Michael Regan

David Moyes takes his Manchester United side to Everton this weekend, knowing that a defeat could be not just inconvenient but deeply embarrassing.

David Moyes doesn't come across as a man prone to daydreams. But if he spent any time at all last summer idly wondering how his return to Goodison Park might go — a respectful round of applause from the whole stadium, perhaps, acknowledged with a wave of the hand and a nod to the director's box; maybe even a small bow; perhaps the hint of a tear; then into the dugout to watch his title-chasing United side romp home in the sunlight — then, one suspects, he could be in for a bit of a shock.

Not just with the reception, though he could be in for a hostile one. Nor necessarily the result: while United have been generally rancid against anybody even half-decent, taking only six points from their eleven games against the current top six, Everton are an unfinished, inconsistent side at the moment, capable of embarrassing Arsenal one week and collapsing against Crystal Palace the next. (That or Crystal Palace are better than Arsenal, which is certainly possible.)

No, what has the potential to be most galling for Moyes is that the club he returns to is not merely a happier place (with what looks like a better team) in his absence. It is that Martinez's impact makes something of a mockery of so many of the excuses wheeled out to explain United's poor season, by him and by his supporters. Most strikingly, it goes against all received discipline regarding the effect that transition has on a football club.

It is easy to overstate the stylistic differences between Moyes's Everton and Martinez's Everton; for all the retrofitting of history, Moyes's side were not a talentless bunch of Pulis-ian cloggers, and at times they played aggressive, high tempo, genuinely impressive football. Indeed, one of the last goals they scored for their outgoing manager was one of the stand-out team goals of last season. But at the same time, this season's Everton team don't just have more points than last season's (66 after 34 games, compared to 56). They have amassed those points with more style, with more wit, with more pleasing football. 'The School of Science re-opened' proclaims the banner at Goodison; the progression can be overstated, but it can't be ignored.

Martinez's players have spent much of the season talking admiringly about the reshaped training sessions, the innovative preparations, the extra ball-work. While it's true that footballers will speak admiringly of anything while they're winning, and that things have come unstuck in spectacular fashion a few times, Martinez has shown that it's possible to step into a club that has been run for years by the same man and change things without breaking them. Change things and make them better. To take the talented squad that he had been left, and free it.

There are differences, of course; significant and stark differences. Moyes was taking over the champions, so making results better wasn't really an option. Expectations at United are higher by many orders of magnitude, and the endless succession of fixtures — weekend to mid-week to weekend again — means that injuries increase as actual coaching time diminishes. And in some ways the transfer market is a more flexible place when managing Everton: they may not have had the money, but they did have Chelsea, Manchester City and Barcelona happy to lend them players they couldn't afford to buy. And yet, it's arguably the non-loan players that have impressed the most. Steven Naismith didn't play like this for David Moyes, and nor did Seamus Coleman.

Perhaps taking over from Alex Ferguson is nothing like taking over from David Moyes (which does rather invite an obvious follow-up question, one which the internet probably isn't big enough to answer). But it's hard not to look at the way in which Martinez's players have responded to their change in management and wonder if the prevailing notion surrounding transition isn't just a little too easy. To wonder if transition is less a necessary trauma, and more an excuse. Or, more precisely, that the problem of transition is less an inevitable consequence of any change, and more an avoidable consequence of the wrong change.

This is the threat that hangs over David Moyes this weekend, above and beyond the recent reports that the Glazer family would quite like to qualify for the Europa League. That Everton play well, in a free-wheeling ultra-modern Martinez-style, and United look tired, and old, and utterly Moyes-ish. That the foundations of the pleas for time and for patience will start to look even more shaky than they already do. That he ends up leaving Goodison with the crestfallen expression of a a tired divorcé whose kids have started calling somebody else 'Daddy'. That the daydreams are swept away, and that room is found in his nightmare season for one more reputation-bruising indignity.

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