If David Moyes has already experienced his last match as Manchester United manager then he has endured as undistinguished a reign as anyone among the club’s enemies could have dared hoped.
The manner of this reported exit is proving horrible for Moyes personally. Indications are he will be officially sacked when the New York Stock Exchange opens later today. With the severance terms likely to be handsome in the extreme, the Scot would be the first to caution anyone against pity.
Many will also point out that Moyes knew what he was signing up for in May. Only perhaps he didn’t. After all, did he not recently concede – in one of the most alarming signs that all was not well – that the job was harder than he had expected? This admission came after a 3-0 home loss to Liverpool, one of 11 league defeats in a season that could not have gone more badly wrong (this is without even beginning to discuss domestic cup competitions).
As if to further mock Moyes, the club who Alex Ferguson succeeded in knocking from their perch are back on top again. Liverpool are also the team Moyes struggled against during an otherwise successful time as manager of Everton, which is where he saw United fall to limp defeat on Sunday in what proved an especially excruciating last stand, if last stand it is to be. What is it they say about the gods? They kill us for their sport.
This is as embarrassing for Ferguson as it is for Moyes, who, it seems, has failed to last even the first year of a six-year contract. Ferguson instructed the supporters to back the incoming manager. “Your job is to stand by our manager – that’s important,” he told them from the pitch in May. However, Ferguson’s own club, where he remains a director and ambassador, are guilty of failing to do just that.
Manchester United had every opportunity to come out yesterday to clear up the myriad reports that Moyes was to be relieved of his duties. They did not do that, denying only that the manager had already been sacked.
No-one could claim things have been progressing smoothly at United, who are racking up momentous reversal after momentous reversal. The latest piece of unwanted history was created at Everton, against whom United suffered a second league loss in a season for the first time since 1969-70.
The assignment Moyes was handed last summer was not to continue Ferguson’s legacy. But it was hoped that he might protect it.
He was charged with handling a transitional period that was always likely to prove difficult, as well as daunting. Although he was not actually there at every game, it did feel as though Ferguson was a continual presence looming over Moyes. As if to illustrate this sense of a spectre forever at his shoulder, the latest stunt from a bookmaker firm with a history of trying too hard was to hire someone to sit behind Moyes on Sunday dressed as the Grim Reaper, scythe positioned as if ready to cut him down. As more than one person commented yesterday, the optimum time to manage Manchester United was succeeding whoever was handed the unenviable task of replacing Ferguson. Moyes has occupied the position of fall guy, which is painful for those of us who believe he had – has – all the qualities to succeed at the very top.
Of course, Moyes knew he could not turn down the chance. At the press conference I attended in July, Moyes fleshed out some of the details of how the opportunity came about. Ferguson called to ask if Moyes could come round immediately for a meeting at his house. It was, Moyes recalled, “a couple of days before the Merseyside derby”. This match took place on 5 May – so the fateful visit took place a year ago next week. It was then that Moyes learned he was the Chosen One. What an albatross this has proved.
The banner at the Stretford End bearing this legend will now need to be removed with the solemnity of those folding up the clothes of the recently deceased. This is a sad tale, one of wasted talent and thwarted hopes. But did it need to turn out this way?
Moyes has received a lot of criticism for not retaining at least some connection with what had been there before in terms of coaching staff. He did indeed seem too keen to fill posts with his old crowd from Everton, those who, like him, had no experience of winning major trophies in a coaching capacity. Steve Round and Chris Woods were installed, and you wonder how they were greeted by the United players from the start.
So Moyes made some wrong early moves. While not necessarily signals of impending disaster, they were ominous signs of insecurity. When asked to consider United’s programme at the beginning of the league season, which read Swansea [away], Chelsea [home] and Liverpool [away], there were also some worrying traces of fear.
Moyes said he could not remember a club having a tougher start. It was if he was still manager of Everton, not Manchester United. I remember describing this as a flash of the master’s paranoia, meaning Ferguson. But this was perhaps too kind.
Moyes did remark that he hoped to emulate Ferguson in one respect. “Hopefully I will have the same magic touch that Sir Alex had at times, when he made remarkable decisions that got him results from nowhere,” he commented at one point in this maiden press conference.
The trouble is that it was the opponents who were more likely to get results from nowhere – such as when Fulham conjured up an injury-time equaliser at Old Trafford in February. This was the insane evening when United bombarded the Fulham defence with 81 crosses – the highest number amassed in a single game since records began (or, if you prefer, since Opta began compiling such detailed statistics in 2006). “I haven’t headed that many balls since the Conference,” said Fulham centre-half Dan Burn in a comment that contained enough impact to be heard by the Glazers across the Atlantic. Even if ‘the Conference’ reference was lost on them, the club’s owners knew this wasn’t a good thing.
Also disappointing have been Moyes’ displays in front of the cameras in post-match interviews. When once he was, at turns, passionate, frightening and always worth listening to, he has recently sunk into automaton mode. Often unimpressive, these performances reached a level where even his supporters were finding it hard to listen to remarks about possession- retention that inspired pathos as much as anything else.
It all seems so different to watching Moyes take his first competitive steps as manager in the Community Shield against Wigan at Wembley in August. With Ryan Giggs, reported to be standing by to take temporary charge, playing his part on the pitch, the new manager looked bright and assured. Moyes had the good grace to insist that the trophy they won that afternoon should be treated as Ferguson’s last piece of silverware rather than his own first triumph.
“But the next one going forward will be down to me,” he noted. Sadly, it seems there will not now be another trophy. Not under Moyes, at any rate. But then, he has barely been given the chance.