WHATEVER mistakes and weaknesses David Moyes may have brought to the task of succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, they will have been nothing like as scandalous as the indifferent and apathetic endeavours of the players in his charge.
Moyes’s experiences during a short-lived flirtation with the world of the A-Listers was nothing less than a prime, and ultimately depressing, example of the modern, multi-millionaire footballer’s sense of self-importance and the need he feels to play for a manager of impeccable credentials and towering reputation in order to produce optimum work.
Evidence of this phenomenon abounds, but it was most recently and most tellingly seen this week, with the onset of the Champions League semi-finals. Of the four contestants, three are unquestionably long-term inhabitants of the highest echelon of the game (the relative novices are Atletico Madrid) and it is no coincidence that the managers of these giants – Carlo Ancelotti of Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola of Bayern Munich and Jose Mourinho of Chelsea – boast six Champions League triumphs between them.
There is, however, an equally compelling example much closer to home, at Old Trafford itself. The long-held notion that top players through the years have signed as much for Alex Ferguson as for Manchester United has been vindicated by behaviour under Moyes of the players with whom Ferguson last year won the Premier League by 11 points.
Those players are no better or worse now than they were then, but what has changed is their attitude, application and commitment. They are a collective demonstration of the present-day highly-paid top player’s need to come under the influence of a manager he either fears or respects, or both.
This is not, of course, the fear of a super-fit twenty-something about to enter a physical set-to with a septuagenarian, but the dread that his performances in training and on the field of play, and his general behaviour, will drop to a level which warrants his being invited to leave.
Under Ferguson, enough of the biggest names in the club’s modern history – David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Ince, Roy Keane and many others – have gone before to make the threat very real. In other words, Ferguson, in common with the other high achievers, has always exhibited the fearlessness and decisiveness he believes to be at the very core of the exceptional manager.
Contrast Ferguson’s uncompromising actions against the foregoing big names with the embarrassing capitulation of his one-time city rival, Roberto Mancini of Manchester City, in the notorious Carlos Tevez affair. As a result of the Argentine striker’s unacceptable behaviour, Mancini declared that he would never play for City again as long as he was manager.
In fact, it took only a short time for the Italian to betray his own lack of resolve by re-instating Tevez and making him a regular selection. From that moment, Mancini was doomed. It was an act of appeasement in which Ferguson might have indulged – but not before slitting his wrists.
David Moyes might have been endowed with similar immovability and may have developed the authority to match. But anyone who watched the near-total indolence of his players in that final, damning 2-0 defeat by Everton last week would have realised that he would never enjoy the chance to prove it.
Offside gaffe haunts Hibs despite ‘apology’
If and when Hibernian fall through the floor along with Hearts – perhaps relegated for the want of a single point – what will be the value then of Ally Brewer’s pathetic apology? Brewer, it will be recalled, is the referee’s assistant whose breathtakingly bad judgment denied the Easter Road side a perfectly legitimate equalising goal late in the match against Hearts at Tynecastle last month.
The linesman’s raised flag against the scorer, Jordon Forster, not only denied the latter a moment of supreme joy, but, even as the shocking blunder was made, it was already possible to speculate that it could have farther-reaching repercussions than the mere loss of a hard-earned point.
As Hibs have been sucked further into the frantic scramble to avoid the Premiership play-off to determine in which division they will play next season, nothing has occurred to relieve that initial sense of impending ignominy.
In a match in which Hearts had enjoyed superiority throughout the first half and merited their one-goal lead at the interval, Hibs reversed the roles in the second and were utterly deserving of their equaliser.
Brewer’s later apology to Terry Butcher amounted to a mockery of that well-known and frequently-voiced defence employed by match officials who are the object of criticism: “We’re not alone in being prone to human error. Players and managers also make mistakes”.
It has always been a nonsensical pitch because it blithely ignores the fundamental, defining, difference between the consequences of the actions of the two groups, namely that, when a player and/or manager makes an error of judgment, he and his team pay the penalty. When a referee or a linesman perpetrate the kind of monumental injudiciousness of which Brewer was guilty, it is someone else – never the offending official – who suffers. If Jordon Forster had missed the target with a poor header that day at Tynecastle, he would have endured a crushing sense of mortification and, possibly, the derision of his own supporters and the criticism of the media. Instead, he placed a perfectly-flighted header into the far corner of the net and was still forced to experience one of his worst moments due to somebody else’s incompetence. As for the valueless apology by Brewer – issued insultingly too late to be meaningful – it recalls the words of the famous Scottish psychologist, RD Laing: “You don’t cease to be guilty just because you plead guilty”.