David Moyes & The Cult Of The Football Manager
The axe, which had been glistening in the background at post-match press conferences for much of this season, finally made contact with David Moyes’ neck this morning. Moyes’ departure from Old Trafford was a most modern managerial sacking. Trailed on social media, the lead item on the lunchtime news this afternoon, and with considerable excitement – in some quarters, at least – over the effect that the decision had upon Manchester United’s value on the New York Stock Exchange, the removal of the club’s manager couldn’t really have happened at any point in the past. David Moyes – appointed in the summer of 2013, became a laughing stock throughout the course of the previous nine months, has been sacked before the final whistle has even blown on this season.
To blame the manager, however, can sometimes feel like a reflex reaction, football’s emotional equivalent to the involuntary jerking of the knee upon it being tapped by a medical professional. Football managers have become larger than life in a near-literal sense, charged with the job of defending their players way past the point of anything like rationality whilst devising sophisticated tactical plans the likes of which Machiavelli would be proud. In an era during which personality has become everything, the modern Premier League football manager has become something far greater than the sum of his parts and Moyes found himself in the position of having to step into – and fill – the shoes of Goliath.
It feels possible – likely, even – that last season’s canter to the Premier League title was accompanied by the gasping sound of an engine running on fumes. With their rivals at the top of the table contriving to discover strange an interesting new ways to implode before our very eyes, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team won the Premier League title with room to spare and without having often given the impresssion of having had to work hard for it. At the end of the season, however, came the bombshell. Ferguson was retiring and moving upstairs, and the crumb of comfort for Manchester United supporters under the age of thirty-five or so – for whom Ferguson had been the manager of the club had been a mainstay for most, if not all, of their lives as supporters of the club. And the good news – or so it seemed at the time – was that Ferguson himself was choosing the successor. The Chosen One, indeed.
Then, of course, everything started to turn sour. This season’s Manchester United team has managed, somehow, to retain all of the less appealing characteristics of Ferguson’s Last Stand – the midfield stodginess, the creaking, mildly rusty defence – whilst adding a new layer of grinding predictability to its modus operandum this time around. The marquee signings, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, failed to add the spark that one might expect for a combined transfer fee of £64.6m, and a series of lifeless performances in the league were matched by early exits from both the FA Cup and the League Cup, with only the Champions League providing a little respite from the drudgery of the mediocrity on display elsewhere. Elimination from this competition and a mathematical failure to be able to qualify for it for next season are understood to be the chief motivating factors behind the timing of this decision.
To blame the decline of Manchester United this season on just one person, however, feels simplistic, and perhaps more importantly than that it lets a whole cast of others off the hook. It excuses Ferguson, who, for everything that he has done for Manchester United over the years, picked the wrong man for the job. It excuses club vice chairman Edward Woodward, whose last promotion has coincided with a largely unforeseen slump in the team’s fortunes, and the Glazer family, whose leveraged buyout of the club always left something of a question mark over whether the club could maintain its startling success of the last two decades in perpetuity.
David Moyes, meanwhile, surely walked into this position with his eyes wide open. The phenomenon of the modern football manager as tactical genius, shaman and centre of gravity for the attention of the media will hardly have been news to him, when we consider his previous eleven year spell at Everton, after all. He will find work again – unless Football, as an entity, reaches the conclusion that he somehow forgot everything he’d previously learnt throughout the entirety of his career the minute he stepped into the manager’s office at Old Trafford – and he will leave the club with a handsome financial reward for his short period in charge of the club. The cult of the football manager as being greater than the sum of parts that almost any human being could aspire to become, however, may lead some to the viewpoint that this was a position that he could never succeed in. It’s a rarefied atmosphere at the altitude that Manchester United have become accustomed to breathing at.
Perhaps, though, sometimes these things just don’t work out and whilst hindsight might well have twenty-twenty vision over the decision to appoint David Moyes into this role in the first place, such navel-gazing doesn’t answer the question of who what happens next for one of English football’s most storied institutions. What sort of replacement will a club shorn of the prospect of a place at the top table of European football for next season be able to muster? Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, the two most obvious names to toss into the ring in any such discussion, have already distanced themselves from the position. How much money will need to be spent on rebuilding the team under new management, and will the Glazers be prepared to pay what might well be an eye-watering amount of money for the required reconstructive surgery to a grey and listless looking first team squad? So many questions and, at the time of writing, so few answers. All we know for certain today is that the shadow of Goliath proved to be too big for David Moyes to escape from. The axe may have been bloodied, but Manchester United will go on, no matter how much the supporters of other clubs may wish that this wasn’t the case.
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