ON their website, the security firm employed by Manchester United explain how they can draw on their “extensive wealth of police, military and education experience”.
This they use to provide “realistic, practical and achievable solutions”. At Old Trafford on Tuesday night, however, it’s a safe bet that the stadium commander dispensed with the head-office jargon as he rounded up six of the most redoubtable Lancashire backsides dressed in orange. “Sit on that bloody banner,” he might well have told his men, “and don’t let anyone tear it down.”
The photograph of those six beam-ends battening down the giant message “The Chosen One” will become one of the defining images of the David Moyes era, whether it produces great glories or ends in tears. If the former is the outcome, we will look back and say: “The club held their nerve and are indeed the classy bunch they’ve always claimed to be.” If the latter is the outcome we will look back and say: “That was the moment it started to unravel for Moyes.”
Even if the banner, on the night, stayed in place. That bloody banner – what on earth is it doing there, anyway? Easy to say that, of course, after just the latest humbling defeat for the English champions by an utterly ruthless Manchester City. Maybe if City fans had managed to nick it they’d have slapped it on eBay with an ironic price tag. If United fans had got their hands on it – the more sympathetic ones – then perhaps they’d have stored it away until Moyes had grown into the job, which is probably what the man himself would have preferred.
But, seriously, what is it doing there? Fanfaring your new manager, proclaiming him from the highest tier, is presumptuous. It’s like the Scotland rugby team staging what look suspiciously like post-match win celebrations before the Murrayfield kick-off. Don’t boast, don’t count your chickens, not even if you’re the great Man U. Moyes, a humble Scot and a decent man, would not himself be so bold.
It will have been hoisted up there with the best of intentions: to make him feel good, to make him feel big. Sir Alex Ferguson, who did the choosing, urged Old Trafford to stick with his successor in that valedictory speech from the pitch last May. The fans will argue they’ve kept their side of the bargain, from that opening-day win at Swansea when they first sang “Come on David Moyes, play like Fergie’s boys” – and ever since on the road, which is where you find the hardcore, they’ve been loyal. But Moyes, some are saying now, isn’t acting big – big enough for their club.
At least one was snapped shouting his displeasure in Moyes’ direction during City’s third successive win over United, making it three in a row at Old Trafford and completing a thumping league double for the so-called noisy neighbours. Meanwhile, the local evening paper is publishing what it calls the Random Moyes Excuse Generator, tallying up the explanations for setbacks and defeats which are beginning to exasperate.
Moyes’ United aren’t big, or rather expansive, his critics argue. They don’t play with wingers enough, or attack enough, for a club traditionally urged on by the chant “Attack! Attack! Attack!” Even though many teams play on the break now, the Old Trafford faithful don’t see why they should. And they certainly don’t see why their favourites should suddenly appear so cautious, so fearful, given they’re supposed to be the champions. Nor is Moyes talking big. He’s saying things like Man U are “aspiring to be like City”. You know what he means but it isn’t coming out right. Yes, City are super-rich but United are hardly poverty-stricken. They’re the world’s third-richest club. In any case, United can’t sneer at their neighbours for vulgarian excess, as if they’ve just erected the world’s biggest Christmas lights display on the front of the house. City have bought big but they’ve bought well. United have bought big and badly.
When journalists dared to suggest Fergie had bought big and not very well (Juan Sebastian Veron) he roared at them: “Yooz are all f****n’ idiots!” There have been enough questions about Marouane Fellaini, nicknamed “The Lampshade” by the Stretford Enders but not because he lights up the play. There have even been some already about Juan Mata. Maybe Moyes should do a Fergie and show who’s boss with an industrial west-of-Scotland broadside or would that make make him seem a mini-me? He’s damned if he does and he’s damned if he doesn’t.
It doesn’t help that Fergie is still on the premises, that the TV director waits for the great man to be at his most puce and puffy-cheeked to shout “Camera 2 – the posh seats!”, even though Fergie is only there to show support. It doesn’t help that this team of champions have slackened off the way hard-drilled schoolkids do when a nervy-looking young supply teacher suddenly takes over. It doesn’t help that we’re wondering how they ever managed to win the title in a canter, which only ends up buffing the Fergie legend some more. And it doesn’t help that Moyes’ old club Everton have been playing with flair ever since he left.
Old Trafford could have worn transition if it had continued to come with flair, believing as they do that their club wrote the book on the subject – but it hasn’t. Now, in the wake of the latest damning defeat, that most staid of papers, the Daily Telegraph, feels compelled to publish “31 reasons why David Moyes must leave Manchester United”. In such situations, football folk talk of a momentum and how it becomes unstoppable. The once-mighty Man U have become all too stoppable, all too lampshade-static, out on the field of dreams where a great man once called for the new boy to be accorded patience and understanding. That seems a long time ago now, and the era when managers were treated thus is almost prehistoric.