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David Moyes, Manchester United, and the nightmare dream job

Of all the managers who have been sacked this season in the premier league, David Moyes can have perhaps the fewest complaints.

David Moyes during a League Cup match with Sunderland. Photo: Getty
David Moyes during a League Cup match with Sunderland. Photo: Getty

David Moyes will not be remembered fondly in the history of Manchester United Football Club but it is easy to sympathise with an honest and humble man who found himself in a high profile job only to have it blow up in his face. The number and scale of the calamities that beset Moyes at United have been such that you have to wonder if he owed his appointment to a wish from a monkey’s paw rather than a word from Sir Alex Ferguson.

The mantra for fans when a new manager is in a bad spell at a club is “he needs time”. You say it to yourself over and over as you watch your beloved team get made to look like idiots week in, week out. United fans consoled themselves by thinking of the lean times at the start of Ferguson’s tenure at the club, or more recently Liverpool’s success under the initially troubled Brendan Rodgers. Over the season this mantra wore out. The talk of two years minimum became “wait for the end of the season”, the talk of waiting for the end of the season then faded too as people came to understand that this was a situation that was never going to improve. When Ferguson started at United the club began to progress, when Rodgers took over at Liverpool he was unsuccessful but he was clearly trying to work towards a plan and a style of play which is now paying off. With Moyes, however, it was never easy to see what he was trying to do with the side; indeed it was difficult to believe that he even had a plan.

For me the killer was the match at home against Fulham. United enjoyed total control of the match at times, yet the plan was always the same: cross the ball into the box. Eighty-one times United crossed the ball into the Fulham box. It was like watching a broken AI in a video game, trapped in a loop of getting the ball, crossing the ball, getting the ball, crossing the ball. The result was galling but more telling was the performance. This United side could take complete control of a game, but having done so they had absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Fans criticised the players for a lack of effort and even a lack of pride in the shirt, but it is hard to commit effort into a football match without direction. It doesn’t matter how fast and how far a group of headless chickens run they are still not going to get a result against an organised premier league football team.

Manchester United stumbled through the season in the manner of a partially concussed prize fighter, able to rely only on the most rudimentary survival skills. Commentators would mention that United enjoyed the best away record in the league, but it was more telling that against teams in the top half of the table United were often beaten and often badly. There was even relief at the comedic collapse in the penalty shootout against Sunderland in the League Cup, because at the backs of our minds most United fans were dreading what Manchester City might do to our quavering heroes in a Wembley cup final.

It is fitting that the coup de grace was delivered by Everton. Nothing spells out that a manager is not fit for purpose more eloquently than his old club trouncing his new club. Moyes spent eleven years at Everton yet had no idea how to beat them and at Goodison he looked like a decorator who has wallpapered over the door.

For all this, it is hard to dislike Moyes. Even though he must bear the ultimate responsibility for the extent of the failure it doesn’t reflect as badly upon him as a person than it might have done. This calamitous season is his fault but nobody can doubt his good intentions and his effort. He upset some of the players, he did not make the best use of them, but he never hid behind them. He clearly put everything he had into the job and by the end watching the press conferences and miserable post-match interviews was painful. Ultimately Moyes had the curious and convenient distinction of being so poorly suited for his job that the sacking was the least controversial part of his reign. Of all the managers who have been sacked this season in the premier league, and there have been many of them, he can have perhaps the fewest complaints.

The sacking of David Moyes actually leaves Manchester United in a somewhat happier position when it comes to finding a new manager than they were in after Sir Alex retired. The new manager will now be seen as a saviour, as the man who will rescue the club from the chaos and misery of a terrible year, rather than being seen as the man attempting to replace a legend.