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A Tragedy at the Theatre of Dreams, starring David Moyes

22 April 2014

And so the axe fell and the crowd cheered for they loved nothing more than a good beheading. They had been waiting for this execution for some time and would have grown restless if they had been denied their head very much longer. Now the deed is done and they are booting David Moyes’s napper up and down the Stretford Road.

We all knew it was coming and Moyes, being an intelligent man, must have known it too. His ten month reign at Manchester United has been perhaps the greatest – and also grimmest – drama since Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44 days in charge of Leeds United. Hello David Peace, you have your subject now.

Paradoxically, one of the few souls to emerge from this Tragedy in the Theatre of Dreams with their dignity intact is Moyes himself. He has clung to his beliefs even as the evidence supporting his faith collapsed around him. But what else could he do? He has been victim and protagonist, saddled with unreasonable expectation and unable to meet it or his own ambition. If Moyes has not always put Manchester United in the best position to win this season Manchester United did not put their manager in the best position to succeed either.

Only a year ago the old king was saluted as the Great Wizard of the North. His final coup a championship with an army universally reckoned to be inferior to those deployed by at least two of his rivals. This was a final act of alchemy that concealed the weakness of House Old Trafford. Its foundations were less secure than they seemed as Fergie’s infantry went over the top for one last charge to glory. Win one more for the gaffer.

They did and everyone agreed no-one else could have done it. Now Moyes is pilloried for a slump that has seen Old Trafford looted by houses that would once never have dared to dream points could be plundered from Fergie’s fortress: Newcastle, Stoke, Swansea. To lose to one of these might be unfortunate, to lose to all three looks worse than careless.

But all statistically improbable streaks come to an end eventually. Newcastle and Everton would win in Manchester eventually. That these setbacks did not occur on Fergie’s watch does not mean they could not have done. Moyes has made mistakes  – perhaps many of them – but he has also been saddled with misfortune. Give me a lucky general, Napoleon said, and Moyes has not been a lucky commander this year.

There was, it is true, some reason to doubt his ability before he was elevated to the Old Trafford throne. A lack of european experience, a lack of trophies won, a lack, most of all, of victories against the so-called “Big Four” clubs.

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Most of all, however, Moyes’s problem is that he is not Alex Ferguson. A failing made more piquant by the fact Ferguson selected Moyes to succeed him because the Everton manager reminded Fergie of his own younger self. Moyes, the chosen one, was the closest thing to a son Fergie could find in the eligible managerial ranks. A bastard son, as it turned out, and a Red Wedding that ended in disaster.

All of which adds an extra layer of pathos to Moyes’s tragedy. Fergie’s ghost would have haunted any successor but the weight of expectation hung more heavily upon a son unaccustomed to life at Manchester United’s altitude. No wonder Moyes has often seemed breathless and confused.

A dramatist might even hint that there’s a tiny sliver of satisfaction somewhere in Fergie’s dark heart. Sorrow, too, of course, but also the comforting realisation that the Great Man really was irreplaceable. The embarrassment at seeing his chosen successor fail is tempered, at least a little, by this demonstration that Fergie really was unique. If Moyes had succeeded better it would, in some small way, diminished Ferguson’s last championship. Made it less unlikely, less special. It is not enough to succeed yourself, your friends must fail.

Moyes was expected to make changes while keeping the essence of the club the same. Perhaps he should have kept more of United’s backroom staff. He could have made better use of their institutional knowledge, their experience of the Manchester United way of doing things. Perhaps he could have moved on more of Fergie’s old guard. Ferdinand, Vidic, Giggs – all a year older, a year slower and, importantly, less motivated to win for the new man in charge. Belief cannot be summoned at will but the greatest sides are saturated with the stuff. Though not this Manchester United outfit.

Moyes enjoyed the respect of his peers but they did not fear him. Perhaps – for these things are essentially unknowable to outsiders – his players did not fear him either. And by season’s end they no longer respected him either.

It can be a cruel business. Consider Marouane Fellaini, the new prince’s favourite for whom too much was paid and from whom almost nothing received. He became Old Trafford’s fool, pilloried for every hopelessly clumsy touch of the ball. A lead-footed symbol of all that had gone wrong. Teased and taunted and mocked to distraction, stumbling proof that Moyes was not up to the job.

And how delicious it was for other houses to see the fall of the House of Ferguson. What a pyschodrama! What entertainment! A joy given extra depth by Everton’s success this year. Why, it was almost as if they did not miss David Moyes at all. Indeed, Everton’s winning run played an important, often overlooked, role in Moyes’s demise. It mocked his abilities just as surely as his struggles in Manchester suggested a man hopelessly over-matched. It made him seem just another guy, not very different to any of the other guys on the managerial merry-go-round. The Chosen One? Really? I mean, Sam Allardyce could probably have taken Manchester United to seventh place too.

Even the greatest clubs, however, suffer seasons of unremitting grimness and unrewarded toil. Look at Milan, seventh in Serie A this year. Or Internazionale, fifth and more than 30 points adrift of Juventus. Even Barcelona and Real Madrid have, in living memory, endured seasons of significant disappointment. In America, the New York Yankees failed to make the play-offs last year. It happens.

Perhaps Manchester United will recover. You would expect them to do so. The club is too rich – despite being looted by its owners – to fail forever even if they will, by virtue of their ownership structure, struggle to match Chelsea or City in the transfer market. Succession planning is never easy. The corporate world tells us that. So does politics. It took the Tories three leaders to get over Margaret Thatcher; Labour still have not come to terms with the legacy of Blair.

Moyes, however, was supposed to bring change within continuity. Alas, half a revolution destroys much that was good in the past without the compensating progress of a new beginning. Moyes, in the end, was neither quite one thing nor the other and so became the fall guy. A fall to which, of course, he contributed but for which he was by no means solely responsible.

Which is why this has been such an engrossing season. Pitiful and in some sense terrible too and thus a proper sporting tragedy. Gruesome but compelling and unmissable.

Football, bloody hell, eh?

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Show comments
  • CheshireRed

    Bloody fine piece, this.
    Glad you didn’t spare the thieves who pass as our current owners the rod, either.
    On another note, Jose looks rather bored considering it’s a Champions league semi final. Just sayin’…

  • John Lea

    The players seem to be getting rather an easy ride through all this – why is no one pointing the finger at their collective ineptitude?

    • Mark Dowling

      Roy Keane has taken care of that for you

  • Ronnie Strachan

    David Moyes has been shown all season to be out of his depth. The appointment and its method were staggeringly inept and arrogant – a complacent move by the owners who allowed ferguson to do what he wished. Once ferguson had said he was finished that should have been that.

    Nobody is bigger than the Club and they have paid heavily for this decision. Moyes has looked like a man who knew he was not qualified for this job and his presence on the touchline betrayed the insecurity he was feeling. He has turned this team into a pedestrian and uninspired side, playing a prosaic and dull brand of sideways and backwards football with no penetration or pace.

    The biggest single factor I believe is that Everton with almost the same players have been taken off the leash by Maritinez and are playing with pace and swagger like United did under Ferguson. Manchester United under Moyes have regressed into exactly the same long ball side that Everton were under him.

    Better to do it now and get a new man in place when the season ends – whether it be Giggs after a successful tenure until then, or another well qualified candidate. Just as with Hodgson at Liverpool, Moyes was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time

  • Cooper1992

    The fact of the matter is if Alex Ferguson had begun managing Manchester United in 2013 he never would have won anything with them either, because the board would have sacked him before he’d had the chance to.

    Nine months Moyes was give, nine stinking months after being given a 6 year contract.

    And yes there were some bad results, many bad results, but Manchester United look as though they will still finish seventh – which any non-glory hunting fan would be generally content with.

    People were saying that it was the start of an era for Manchester United in July 2013. Well it is the start of another era for the club now in April 2014:

    The Carousel Era

    Yes welcome Manchester United to the tricks of the industry that every other club in English football now employ. Well done to finally stepping into the new century, you will get to see:

    * The manager being sacked at your club once every 12 months
    * The same old journeyman faces returning to the carousel
    * Players being treated like demi-Gods and receiving no criticism whatsoever

    * An empty bare trophy cabinet because there is no stability nor continuity at your club

    * A chairman that will start acting like Domitian

    Enjoy Manchester United fans!

  • Fraziel

    I think the Man U fans and the board have behaved in a quite pathetic manner. They didnt get anywhere near enough quality signings in the summer to try and stem the tide of a team clearly in decline. If Sir Alex was still there they would be sitting no better than fifth just now so why Moyes has to go when they are 7th is bizarre. Who ever comes in will do no better with the current squad but i suspect he will get loads of cash to spend and the players he wants at the right time, unlike Moyes. Barca and Real fans recognise and accept that they will go through periods of rebuilding occasionally and will have poorer results during those periods, why cant Man U fans? The whole saga is yet another reason to hate Man United.

  • Fencesitter

    Ooh, ahh, Cantona!

  • Jez

    “Perhaps Manchester United will recover. You would expect them to do so. The club is too rich – despite being looted by its owners – to fail forever.”

    Two words; Leeds United

    It’s a floated company. The exec’s will be poo’ing in their pants right now. Every loss, draw or poor performance means someone not buying a shirt, paying extortionate viewing rights on or dropping a advertisement campaign.

    How much money is being hemorrhaged on admittedly excellent players- but recently non performing players?

    Barton hit the nail squarely on the head, when describing the situation with Rooney.

    Leeds found that throwing money at a problem if there is a core fault, ultimately fails….. and this is a far heavier risk for everyone involved than it was for Leeds when they went into free-fall.

    Once the shareholders want their return, then the money men start smashing up things they have no concept of and the football is the last thing on their agendas.

    Welcome to free market capitalism Manchester.

    This is ace! :)

  • City Blue

    Loving this at City…

    • Jez

      It’s pretty lush over here in Leeds too!

  • Ricky Strong

    The manner and conduct in which David Moyes lost hist job is indicative of how the Glazer family go about their business. In any walk of life and throughout history it is evident to see that greed eventually takes its toll. Manchester United – aka the Glazer business – could not ‘afford’ to be out the title race and the various competitions. This has nothing to do with football and everything to do with money.

    • Ricky Strong

      … United shares rise 6% on the NYSE just hours after opening.

  • asalord

    Alan Cochrane for Man United manager!

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