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David Moyes: The wrong man, the wrong job

As David Moyes departs Manchester United, it seems clear that while not all the blame is his, he still fell well short of the demands of the job.

Julian Finney

That, then, is that. David Moyes becomes the twentieth ex-manager of Manchester United. Any manager taking the job does so in the hope of earning a place in history alongside Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, two of the finest managers that the club and sport have ever seen. Instead, sadly, he takes his place alongside Frank O'Farrell and Wilf McGuinness, in the ranks of those of those defeated by the job, capable and decent men that wilted in the shadow of their predecessors.

The immediate reasons are obvious: bad results plus promiseless performances is not a combination that any manager can hope to survive. That he did for as long as he did can be taken either as evidence that some within the United hierarchy have a genuine belief in the power of patience, or that — as a few of the papers are suggesting — while the decision was taken earlier, perhaps following the 2-0 loss away at Olympiacos, there is some contractual aspect that was only fulfilled by defeat at Everton. Once Champions League qualification became mathematically impossible, the axe became financially viable.

United's squad is, we're being told, on the cusp of a multi-million pound overhaul, and it seems that the Glazers have no confidence that Moyes is the right man to oversee that process. There is, perhaps, a small irony there; considered analysis of Moyes's managerial capabilities didn't seem too important when his appointment was waved through, a man of admirable character but starkly modest achievement being trusted to reinvent himself completely, purely because the outgoing man liked him.

Already the anecdotes are emerging; one newspaper spoke of the bemusement and horror that swept the dressing room when they realised that his comments to the press regarding the Everton game weren't just a smokescreen to hide the bollocking. That he genuinely thought United had played well. The Telegraph's Mark Ogden recounts a farcical episode from United's pre-season tour, when Moyes's unawareness of the realities of managing Manchester United ended with the squad besieged in a nightclub, while the Mirror's David O'Donnell is reheating the stories of "senior defenders" being offended by the suggestion that they should model their game on Phil Jagielka. (We'll leave aside the point that Jagielka, this season, has played significantly better than at least one senior defender of note.)


This is how football sackings work these days: Moyes, now confirmed and dismissed as a failure, will be presented as a fool. It's a shabby and unedifying business, but it's a logical one; Moyes is the scapegoat, tottering into the desert with the sins of the entire organisation laden on his back. Yet his is not the only reputation to have taken a battering over the season. Appropriately enough for an Easter sacking, almost everybody involved has some portion of egg smeared over their faces. And a fair chunk of blame must be apportioned to a fair chunk of the playing squad. Indeed, perhaps the only argument against Moyes's dismissal is that getting rid of him, without also addressing the risible behaviour of some of his charges, could set a dreadful precedent.

A few recent columns have referred back to an anecdote from Eamon Dunphy's A Strange Kind of Glory. Following McGuinness's sacking, Brian Kidd apparently turned to the older pros: "You lousy bastards, you've let him down". It seems clear that a number of senior players never bought in to Moyes as a manager, a lack of belief that has manifested itself throughout the season in limp performances, in snide interviews, in suspiciously well-sourced smear stories. Whether players have an absolute responsibility to follow the every direction of an inadequate manager is perhaps debatable — plenty of footballers are both proud and not-stupid when it comes to their own work — but they have an absolute duty to try their damnedest. Maybe it could be argued that a bad manager brings such upon himself, but the commitment and performance of many if not most of United's squad have, at one point or another, tacked close to risible.

(As an aside, it is hard to recall a United squad list quite so personally unappealing. Who is there to love? To admire? To look at and think 'this person, this Manchester United footballer, gets what it means to be a Manchester United footballer'? De Gea, Rafael and Welbeck definitely; Fletcher probably; Januzaj and Mata potentially; and finally Evra, though he's been run into the ground.)


The shambles below Moyes has been mirrored by that above him. From the astoundingly negligent decision to simply nod through the appointment, through the shambles of the summer transfer window, on into yesterday's utterly humiliating (for everybody) day of refusal-to-comment that preceded today's announcement, Edward Woodward and his gaggle of suits have seemed less like the careful stewards and bright minds of "one of the most popular and successful sports teams in the world," as United describe themselves to the New York Stock Exchange, and more like a fistful of buffoons whose every move should be soundtracked by swanee whistle, trombone and canned laughter. Except that when it comes to United this season, there's no need to dub on the chortles.

Then there's the outgoing legend, the man with the statue and the name on the stand and the most ludicrous collection of silverware. Moyes, it was made very clear, was Alex Ferguson's man; that Chosen One banner might have been ridiculous, but it was at least accurate. The failure of his handpicked successor is a profound embarrassment that, while it does nothing to impeach his managerial reputation and achievements, leaves a permanent mark on his wider legacy.

Then, finally, the Glazers, whose grand act of ongoing larceny underpins everything else. In essence, their ownership so far has consisted of two major decisions, both of which reek of financial prudence. The first was a calculation that Alex Ferguson's managerial genius would enable them to suck money out of the club while keeping the trophies coming and the majority of fans quiescent. In this they were sadly correct. Their second was that Alex Ferguson's genius extended to identifying the man who could carry things on. In this they were sadly incorrect. The third major decision is to be made in the coming weeks, and it's anybody's guess how they're going to approach this one. Asking the bloke who knows about the football is no longer such a trustworthy method.

That's football, though. Players slack off; the manager gets fired. Suits cock up; the manager gets fired. And managers, when they get it wrong, get fired. While the wider issues go both above and below him, there is no avoiding the fact that he never once, at any point, even threatened to begin to start to promise to suggest that he might be the right man for the job.


From the persistent promises to "try", which became almost a verbal tic, to the constant flip-flopping on the quality of the squad; from the facile complaints about the fixture list to the witless, lifeless, imagination-free football; from the clumsy (if perhaps well-intentioned) mumblings about the need to emulate Manchester City, to the staggering welcoming of LiverpoolLiverpool! — to Old Trafford as favourites ... the litany of inadequacies is longer than is reasonably bearable. There is a confidence trick at the very heart of football management (and, indeed, people management). Sounding like you can do the job doesn't mean you can, of course, but sounding like you can't has an utterly toxic effect.

The gig always looked like something of a hospital pass: a talented but unbalanced squad; a totally callow transfer team; the longest, deepest, darkest shadow in the history of football. Gary Neville's assertion that he would get time because United stood "against the immediacy of modern life" was always preposterous — this is a club with an official noodles partner — but the patience was there to be had, because this was a difficult, perhaps impossible task. Perhaps he was always going to get it wrong. But he didn't have to get it wrong quite so badly.

Picking apart the various poor decisions of Moyes's reign would take a while, but one in particular stands above all the others: Wayne Rooney. Ferguson's parting gift to Moyes wasn't just the office, the big chair and the mousemat. It was the neat, delicate, utterly ruthless kippering of the self-proclaimed White Pele. Whatever the truth of that rumoured second transfer request, Moyes inherited a Rooney who was humbled, who was reduced in status. He responded by rewarding him with the largest contract in United's history and elevating him to a position of undroppable and absolute centrality, a conservative and cowardly policy that stank of deference to star power and reputation. While it had a short-term upward effect on Rooney's form, it led to the striker being indulged at the expense of a number of other squad players, players in better form with more to offer, a process that reached its farcical and inevitable conclusion in the second leg against Bayern Munich. Moyes's deference to his main man led to him fielding a footballer that couldn't kick.


Context has also done him no favours. A struggling Manchester United manager dreads nothing more than a rampant Liverpool, and while the brand of football that has taken Rodgers's team to the brink of an unlikely title has made plenty of sides looks silly, it's made United's predictable, tired attacking look utterly obsolete. Back at Goodison Park, meanwhile, Roberto Martinez has made the notion of a transitional season look faintly ridiculous, and has obtained more from the players that were left behind than anybody thought plausible. Last season, Moyes questioned whether Kevin Mirallas had the right temperament for the Premier League; on Sunday, he scored his eighth goal of the season to confirm Moyes's departure.

Can a man who doesn't last a season leave a legacy? In terms of the specific state of things, the two major additions to the squad were never part of his plan. Juan Mata was an act of opportunism, albeit a wonderful one, while Marouane Fellaini looks more and more like the desperate signing he seemed to be. The reintegration of Darren Fletcher was pleasing for sentimental reasons; the apparent unsettling of Danny Welbeck deeply troubling. Perhaps the only unalloyed positive was the emergence of (and new contract for) Adnan Januzaj. And the shiny new whiteboards.

Perhaps the most damaging long-term impact will be the comprehensive trashing that Manchester United's aura has undergone. Ferguson used to complain that opposing teams managed to find extra levels of commitment when playing United, but the implication there is one of respect, even fear. This season, with the exception of a couple of European sides and an Arsenal side struggling with their own inferiority complexes, nobody has been scared of United. Nobody has been scared of Old Trafford. Weaker teams have been comfortable; stronger teams have been rampant.

Yet therein lies the rub: the next man along now has a much, much easier job. Following Ferguson might have defeated anyone, but following Moyes could, for the right man, be a position of great promise. Perhaps the lowered pressure will help Diego van Klopp rediscover a touch of swagger; perhaps the structural weaknesses and debt riven through the club will be too toxic for anybody. But If the next man succeeds, then Moyes's legacy will be sealed: the patsy, the fall guy. As the man who took the post-Ferguson hit.

Fifty odd games he lasted, fewer than both O'Farrell and McGuinness. Failure is never a dignified business, and at various times throughout the season Moyes has looked ridiculous and inadequate; he leaves his post with his reputation diminished and damaged. That he does so with a fair degree of empathy from many fans, and in the knowledge that a just and righteous cull would take in many more names, will likely be no comfort whatsoever. He'll know, better than anyone, that he was the wrong man in the wrong job.