David Moyes: The new man behind Manchester United

MANCHESTER United might have offered David Moyes his six-year deal in private, but in many ways it was the most public message, a signal to the noisy neighbours and the nouveau riche that United had their man and that their man was here to stay.
Never say never is a trait David Moyes shares with the man he's replacing. Picture: GettyNever say never is a trait David Moyes shares with the man he's replacing. Picture: Getty
Never say never is a trait David Moyes shares with the man he's replacing. Picture: Getty

Six years wasn’t just a show of faith, it was about as great an act of conviction as you could possibly get in football’s cut-throat age. It was United reminding their rivals that they’re different; that, yes, their colossus is soon to depart but that another is soon to come and that he won’t be entering the building via the revolving door so prominent in other places.

It’s unlikely that he bothered with much, or any, of it, but Moyes was love-bombed online, in print, on radio and television from the moment it became clear that he was United’s chosen one, an anointing that drew more hits on some newspaper websites than the election of the last Pope, who greeted his appointment in March with words that wouldn’t have been out of place had Moyes repeated them last week. “May God forgive you for what you’ve done,” said Pope Francis to his cardinals. “May Fergie forgive me for what I’m about to do,” could have been the amended version.

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The celebration of Moyes, the declaration that United have put their faith in substance rather than some passing celebrity, is unavoidable, but it’s also a reminder of how stunningly fickle football truly is. Or some of those who watch it at any rate.

Wind the clock back to January 2011 and you find a snapshot altogether different to the one we saw last week. Moyes was in the doldrums at Everton. Four wins in 20 league games, a mere 21 goals (they ranked 16th on that score) and a trifling three points outside the relegation zone. There wasn’t open discontent at Goodison, but there were mutterings. They’d just lost to Stoke in a performance so utterly lacking that it was reminiscent of a 4-1 drubbing against West Brom earlier in the season. Only the bottom four in the Premiership had scored fewer times than Everton.

He was no longer the “Moyessiah” of the masses. He got flak for the rigidity of his tactics, for the length of time it took him to change things when games were going against him and for his conservatism. Too many men in midfield and not enough up front. Too often Everton were going down without a fight. As mad as it seems right now – and it was pretty bonkers at the time – one bookmaker installed Moyes second most likely Premiership manager to lose his job, behind Liverpool’s Roy Hodgson. He didn’t, of course. Everton rallied to finish seventh. In the final month of the season they beat both Manchester City and Chelsea.

Seventh two seasons ago, seventh last season, sixth at the moment. In his 11 years at Goodison, Everton have come home in fifth place twice, fourth once and sixth and eighth, too. He has won three manager of the year awards, not just because of where Everton ended their seasons but how precisely they got there. Moyes has kept Everton relevant to the top end of the table while spending relative buttons. As much as these things can be calculated, given that some transfer fees are undisclosed, 
Moyes has a net spend of around £28.3 million or an average net spend per season of £2.56m, give or take.

These numbers are bewildering when set alongside some others. Aston Villa have an average annual spend of £19m over the last 11 years. Stoke come in at more than £17m. Newcastle have spent an average of £18.25m in the same period. This is where the Moneyball comparison comes into play, Moneyball being the story of the Oakland A’s baseball team and their visionary general manager, Billy Beane.

For Beane read Moyes, sort of. Through his use of statistics, Beane targeted affordable players to bring to the A’s and achieved a level of success that perplexed those who looked at how little he was spending. Moyes has never won anything – and that is a criticism he will carry on his back like a dead weight at Old Trafford until he changes the narrative – but he has identified talent, moulded it and made it successful in the style of a Billy Beane.

So Moyes is no Wilf McGuinness, no rookie in awe of the man he is replacing at Old Trafford. He has shared a touchline with Alex Ferguson more than 20 times, once going toe to toe with him in anger. In their last three games as rivals, Everton have won one, United have won one and there’s been one draw, a 4-4 epic a little under a year ago that did damage to Ferguson’s bid for last season’s title. Nothing wins the great man’s attention and respect quite like a rival taking points from his team at the critical end of a season.

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when Ferguson thought Moyes was the one to replace him, but that day at Old Trafford last year must have been entered in evidence. Everton had trailed 3-1 and 4-2 before securing the draw in the 85th minute. Never say never is a trait familiar to them both. United and Everton stand first and second in the Premiership this season in gaining points from losing positions. Their teams are created in their own redoubtable image.

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“I think we all carry self-doubt,” Moyes said in The Management: Scotland’s Great Football Bosses. “But my self-doubt isn’t about ‘Can I manage?’ or ‘Can I do this or that?’. I think I can, because that’s what my life is, that’s what I’m brought into. But you always doubt if you’re doing a good enough job. If you have six defeats could you be out the window without having done too much wrong? So I think you carry that around.”

Talk to some of his players at Preston and Everton, particularly in the early years, and you get a picture of the man and his motivation. Graham Alexander, veteran pro, former Scotland international and now manager of Fleetwood Town, was a Moyes disciple at Preston. “David liked to build the team on solid foundations, so on Thursday afternoon he’d keep the back four behind for afters. All the others would be going off on their cars beeping their horns and waving at us as we were put through our paces over and over. His attention to detail was incredible.”

Moyes introduced technology to Preston. They could hardly afford to enter the Pro-zone world, but enter it they did and Moyes ate the data for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “There was no hiding place with him. He saw everything.”

Scot Gemmill was in Moyes’ first Everton side that played Fulham in March 2012. “I was lucky to play with some really top managers in my career, such as Brian Clough. But Brian never took a training session. And David Moyes did. I remember his first day at Everton. It was a Friday morning. We were in there early and he was already waiting for us on the pitch. He had everything set out: cones, balls, mannequins, the lot. Honestly, from the first day the strategy this man had, the sense of purpose, completely blew me away. He was so different to what I had experienced before.

“He never missed anything. Every run you made whether you received the ball or not, he saw it. Didn’t miss a trick. And he had these eyes…”

Steve Simonsen, now Dundee’s goalkeeper, was in Moyes’ team right at the start at Everton. “Yeah, the eyes. It was more in the stare with David. If you had those eyes focused on you, you could tell when he was really angry. I can’t ever remember him being a ranter or a raver but he had that look about him. When he looked at you, the anger was in his eyes and he didn’t really need to do the hair dryer, or whatever. The look on his face was enough. You could tell how angry he was by looking into his eyes and sometimes that could be more scary than the actual shouting.”

Not that shouting is a problem. “At Preston his message was so clear and so consistent that everybody got it,” Alexander says. “And he was a young manager then. He’s a way better manager now. I’ve seen him mad. We had confrontations. Similar people, him and me. We’re both the type to stand our ground. I remember a massive game, a play-off semi-final against Birmingham and he slagged me for something and I had a go back and it was real row and we got off the bus half an hour later and he asked me if everything was all right and that was it, gone. No grudge.

“He understands players very well. He just wants a man to be a man. I know it’s not just ability he looks for in a player but a mental strength as well. He has it and he can tell who has it and who doesn’t.”

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Moyes will enter new territory at United. For the first time he will be given a budget worthy of the name, but with it comes the expectation of supremacy. For the first time he will have a pick of proven goalscorers: Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and his old charge, Wayne Rooney, should Rooney retreat from the cliff edge where he currently resides. All the signs are that Moyes will talk him back into the fold.

One of the criticisms of Moyes is that he places more store in his defence than in his attack, and it’s true. Everton are nearly always among the Premiership’s most stingy defences (it’s been the great strength) and usually well down the order in the league’s most penetrative attacks. Since his first full season in 2002-03, an Everton striker has made it into the Premiership’s top-ten goalscorers on only two occasions in ten seasons – and that will probably be two (Yakubu in 2007-08 and Louis Saha in 2009-10) in 11 come the end of the current campaign. In three of the last five seasons Everton haven’t even had a striker in the top-20.

Now Moyes has unimagined riches in attack and a financial backing that is feast to the Everton famine. In the summer it’s not just a club he’s changing, it’s a universe.