“Welcome to the first new manager press conference that Manchester United have held for over 26 years”.
These introductory words at David Moyes’ first public assignment as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, uttered by a press spokesman, cut straight to the heart of the matter late yesterday afternoon. This was history.
Moyes effortlessly passed his first test, wrapping up in time for Andy Murray to take centre stage, as Sir Alex would surely have done. He also conjured up a phrase that might make it easier for him to access the hearts of the United supporters, just as he did, either by design or inspiration, when, after his arrival at Everton in 2002, he described it as “the people’s club”.
Referring to United this time, he struck the right note again: “I have come to a club where the word success is tattooed right across its badge.” Since November 1986, the last time reporters were invited to attend a new manager’s unveiling at Old Trafford, 38 trophies have come United’s way – and this includes the three-year period of famine at the start of his tenure when Ferguson’s own future was called into question.
Even though he has signed a six-year contract, Moyes, who turned 50 this year, knows he will not be blessed with the luxury of time – or at least not quite so much as Ferguson was given. As he noted on several occasions yesterday, Moyes is taking over the champions of England, rather than a club seeking to re-assert itself after a long period in the wilderness, which was the assignment a 45-year-old Ferguson was handed after being lured south from Aberdeen.
“I am inexperienced in a lot of those things,” said Moyes, agreeing with a reporter, who addressed the question of his limited exposure to European football, and the salient fact that he has not won a single major honour as a manager.
It was notable that the room in which we were sitting was the Europa suite, one decorated with photographs of United’s European Cup and Champions League successes.
Moyes has tasted only a Champions League play-off round with Everton, when he lost out to Villarreal, then managed by Manuel Pellegrini, who is now his adversary across town at Manchester City.
“There were some brilliant managers who could have got this role,” Moyes acknowledged. However, he stressed that he has belief in his own ability. Trumping all other factors when it comes to being reassured that he is equipped to follow in such distinguished footsteps is the knowledge that he was Ferguson’s own choice to succeed him.
The details of how Moyes was informed – he wasn’t asked, it seems – that he would be taking over at Manchester United are genuinely fascinating. The new manager wasted little time in fleshing out the details yesterday. Reporters sat in rapt attention, while the English FA might also have some interest in what Moyes had to say – it turns out Ferguson phoned him two days before the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton on 5 May, and invited his compatriot over.
“A lot of people thought I knew something about the job,” said Moyes. “I knew nothing at all about it until Sir Alex gave me a call asking me to come to his house.
“I was expecting him to say: ‘I am going to take one of your players’. And the first thing he said to me is that he was retiring. I said: ‘yes, that’s right, when?’ Because he was never retiring was he? He said: ‘next week’. His next words were: ‘you are the next Manchester United manager’.
“As you can imagine the blood drained from my face,” continued Moyes. “I was really shocked. I was most shocked that Sir Alex had chosen to retire, but inside I was incredibly thrilled that I was going to be given the chance to be manager of Manchester United.”
“At that time I was sworn to secrecy because Sir Alex was keeping his retirement private until the right moment,” he added. “I only knew a couple of days before we played Liverpool. He said a lot of things to me - about the club, how great it was, the people who worked here, and how he felt I could take it on. He told me things that could be improved on as well. He was very honest in his assessment.”
Moyes asked first-team coach Rene Meulensteen if he wanted to remain on the staff, but the Dutchman decided to move on, and the new manager has since brought in several members of his coaching team at Everton. However, he is conscious of maintaining a link with the old United, and, after Paul Scholes declined an opportunity to move into coaching for the time being, Moyes turned to Ryan Giggs, who has accepted a player-coach role, while Phil Neville has also been recruited as coach.
There is, though, be one burning issue: can Moyes work in Ferguson’s shadow? The former manager is now an ambassador at the club.
Moyes casually revealed that he had already called Ferguson on “two or three occasions” for advice – and he only officially started in the job on Monday.
Rather than pretend he isn’t there, Moyes has decided to take advantage of the walking coaching manual that is on hand. Some things cannot be taught, however.
“I actually hope he is sitting in the directors’ box, he has been so good,” said Moyes, when asked if it will be awkward to know Ferguson is sitting in the stand, judging him. “He is there for advice, not to pressurise.”
He continued: “Hopefully I will have the same magic touch that Sir Alex had at times, when he made remarkable decisions that got results from nowhere.”
Ferguson has already instructed the supporters to back Moyes, even in the hard times. “Your job is to stand by the new manager,” he reminded them at the end of his last home match as manager, against Swansea. Moyes acknowledged just how significant yesterday’s press conference was in terms of the club’s history. He was an uncelebrated centre-half at Bristol City when Manchester United last introduced a new manager. There were some present who were not even born then.
“I don’t know how many managers people in this room have seen at Manchester United, never mind the supporters,” he said. “But certainly not that many. I will be new to a lot of supporters.
“But this is a new era now. Sir Alex will never go away. You can see his stand, his statue – he will always be here.
“But hopefully the supporters will realise it was his time to finish and someone new has to come in.’
Will we ever see another Ferguson, he was asked? “Impossible,” replied Moyes. “To manage at this level for 25 years and have his success? Impossible. I don’t think there will be any other manager does 25 years at a club like Manchester United, not at this level.”
Eminently quotable and never less than interesting, Moyes has already more than suggested that he is up to the task of replacing Ferguson – off the field at least.
He even displayed a flash of the master’s paranoia when asked to consider United’s programme at the beginning of the league season, which reads: Swansea [away], Chelsea [home] and Liverpool [away].
“I am not convinced that is the way the balls have come out of the hat when that was getting done,” remarked Moyes.
“Nevertheless, you have to play everyone twice. But I looked back at the last five years and I’ve never seen Manchester United get a tougher start in any Premier League season.”
There was reason to wonder whether these historic events have yet to sink in with the players, whom Moyes praised for being so responsive to him in training this week. Club skipper Nemanja Vidic sat to Moyes’ left, and referred to the manager as “David” rather than “gaffer” on the few occasions he was asked to contribute. Moyes let this impertinence go – for now.