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

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.