Allan Massie: Short-term thinking can be an own goal

The British desire for quick results makes it even harder to achieve lasting success further down the line, writes Allan Massie

David Moyes may well turn failure at United into success elsewhere. Picture: Getty

Brutal world, football. David Moyes, having proved himself a successful manager at Everton, got what was either the best job in his world or the toughest one as successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, and has now been abruptly dismissed. He had been given a six-year contract, which suggested that the club’s American owners were backing him for the long haul. Not so, however. Many of Manchester United’s fans turned against him. The owners panicked, doubtless worried about the share price. So a disappointing sequence of results has done for Mr Moyes and, judging from his demeanour in recent weeks, his dismissal is unlikely to have surprised him.

Meanwhile, the players who have let him down remain. It is likely that his successor, whoever he may be, will get the same harsh treatment because it’s unlikely that Manchester United will be competing for the title next season either; there is too much reconstruction to be done. The post-Ferguson throne may be as uncomfortable as the post-Thatcher one was for a succession of Tory leaders.

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When any organisation – business or political party – has known success, temporary failure is hard to deal with. Passions may run so high that people forget that only one club can win a league, or one party a general election. Sacking the manager or changing the leader is often a knee-jerk reaction, even when the cause of failure may be the improved performance of competitors.

The malaise goes deeper, however. Football at all levels seems to be characterised by impatience. A few bad results and even established, hitherto comparatively successful managers are shown the door. Sometimes a change of manager brings about an improvement, though this may be short-lived; more often it doesn’t. Of course, this impatience isn’t confined to football. One sees the same thing in other team sports and in business, where a modest reduction in profits or market share will result in a change of chief executive.

The easy response is always to sack the person in charge. For the individuals concerned, there are at least compensations, not only in the shape of a generous severance of contract pay-off. Their world is a merry-go-round, and when they are shown out of one door, another will usually be opened for them. It will be a surprise if David Moyes is out of a job for long; no surprise if he comes back strengthened by his experience of adversity.

Football reflects society. We live in a culture that promises, and expects, instant gratification. This is what the fans demand. Logically, most must know that success or triumph will come their way only occasionally, if at all, and that mediocrity is the norm. But this is unacceptable. Fans are dreamers. The players themselves are probably more realistic. Most accept that they are not going to reach the top, just as most actors know that they are unlikely to star at the National Theatre or on Broadway, and most novelists know they are not going to win the Booker. There isn’t that much room at the summit.

Football is also a business and, as such, it is infected by the chronic curse of business in modern Britain: short-termism dictated by the share price and the demands of City finance. The need for quick results makes the long-term investment and long-term planning that you find in German industry and business very difficult here. Only companies that resist the lure of City financial involvement can plan intelligently for the future.

One football journalist, explaining why Moyes had to go, wrote yesterday: “The effect that Moyes was straining for was authority, calm, long-term wisdom. The ability to think in terms of years, rather than weeks, was one of his strongest qualifications for the job. But the whirlwind was soon upon him.” Quite so: these words sum up, pretty accurately, the mindset of Britain today. There is a demand for jam today and never mind about tomorrow. The same attitude is evident in politics. Opinion polls that suggest that a fair number of Scots will vote for independence if the Tories look likely to win the next general election offer a perfect example of this short-term thinking; voting for a long-term irreversible change because the result of a general election may see a party you dislike in office for another five years is to have the shortest of short horizons.

It is, of course, natural for people to aspire to be the best – or at least better than we are. In this respect the optimism of football fans is commendable. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” wrote Browning. But there is a downside to this: a tendency to regard as a failure anyone who doesn’t reach the top, or who finds life there uncomfortable.

David Moyes was a successful manager at Everton, on limited resources, partly because the board stood by him and he was allowed time to mould a team. He has been adjudged a failure at Old Trafford where he was given what was really no time at all. Success and failure are usually comparative, rarely absolute.

Andy Murray has won two of the four Slam titles – at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow. He is at present suffering a dip in form. It may last. Who knows? If it does, there will be plenty of people quick to say he achieved less than he should have done, forgetting that a tennis match can have only one winner and that there can be only one champion in a tournament. Our judgments often lack a sense of reality.

Enoch Powell said that all political lives – “unless happily cut off in mid-career” – end in failure. His own certainly did. The judgment applies beyond politics, though undoubtedly true there. Think of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; even Moses failed to be allowed to lead the Children of Israel across Jordan and into the Promised Land. We would do well to remember this: most goals are never attained, which is no reason not to set them. Failure is not necessarily disgraceful. How could it be when it is our common lot? The thing, as David Moyes surely knows, is to keep going. Or, as Samuel Beckett said: “ Fail, fail again, fail better”.