By the time that the announcement had been made, it was starting to feel as if the appointment of David Moyes as the successor to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United was old news already. There had been an outside chance that the Glazers might held a sudden press conference at which they suddenly and unexpectedly announce that, contrary to all reporting over the previous couple of days, Dean Saunders was exactly the man that they had been looking for and that they were relieved that Wolves relieved him from his duties when they did, but the truth generally acknowledged became fact this afternoon with the confirmation that Moyes is the new manager of the club, on a six year contract. The right platitudes were given, tributes were all present and correct, and now a newish era can begin at Old Trafford.
Continuity is probably the key behind this decision. After all, Moyes is Scottish, has been in one job for a considerable amount of time, and is, you rather get the impression, not the sort of person that you would want to make angry. Times, however, are a-changing at Old Trafford and the fact remains that stepping into Alex Ferguson’s shoes is not going to be an easy task. Ferguson lasted as long as he did in the job because he was the best. He kept winning, relentlessly, and this meant that all other considerations were, broadly speaking, irrelevant, or at least that they were after about 1991 or so, when trophies started to pour into the club.
These rules may not apply to Moyes, though, of course – at least not until he starts winning trophies. And the less than ecstatic reaction to this appointment, which was an inevitability when we consider that the mourning period for Ferguson’s era won’t end until the end of this season at the very, very earliest, means that he will start with pressure and expectations about as high as they could be, with every single decision made at the club over the course of the summer being examined under an electron microscope and every result from the start of next season being pored over with the (more than likely not even hidden) subtext of “What would Ferguson have done?” raising its head every time anything less than perfection rears its head.
There can be little question that this scrutiny adds a layer of pressure to the job that is all the more accentuated for the fact that there is a generation of Manchester United supporters who have known nothing other than Alex Ferguson and more or less unbroken success. We can’t say with any degree of certainty how supporters of the club might react to a ‘transitional season’, primarily because any Manchester United supporter under the age of thirty-five has not had to put up with such a concept since they were at junior school. Supporting Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United over the last two decades has been, if we set to one side that whole leveraged takeover business and the willful disregard of the principle of television companies towards kicking off football matches at three o’clock in the afternoon, one of the easiest jobs in football – turn up at Old Trafford, watch the team win and, each May, lift a trophy, or two, or three. There is also the consideration that the club’s position as a financial powerhouse will be undiminished by this change of manager and that it is entirely possible that nothing will change at all. The likelihood is, and a balance of probabilities consideration of the realities of modern football certainly points this way, that the steamroller will just keep trundling along, flattening anything that gets in its path.
Should there be hiccups, though, there will be plenty on hand to point them out in full blown technicolor, and sympathy will be likely to be in short supply from the supporters of other clubs. Manchester United supporters have had slightly more than two decades of success, more than any club’s support has ever had in England without interruption and, it might be suggested, more than any football supporter has anything like an automatic ‘right’ to. Some might even argue that a spell of mediocrity, however unlikely that might be, would be character building. Those who work to the assumption that this will happen because of the end of Ferguson’s time at the club are, however, likely to end up disappointed.
In modern football, money rules more than anything else, and Manchester United, for all the debt that the club continues to be straddled with, have sounder finances than anybody else in the Premier League. If does David Moyes contrive to find a way to fail at Old Trafford, he will be replaced by someone else who will be given their chance, whilst players will be doubtlessly be poached from other clubs to make it so. That’s the reality of modern professional football and, while there has been am element of that throughout the game since the introduction of professionalism in the nineteenth century, but the concentration of money at the very top end of the game now acts as both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, expectation levels have reached the point of being a culture of entitlement. On the other, though, the means are there to satiate that culture.
So, will David Moyes and Manchester United work out, then? Wing-nuts on Twitter (and, it’s reasonable to assume, mischievous supporters of other clubs) have already succeeded in getting the ‘moyesout’ hash-tag trending, but while they may be difficult to ignore they are easy to dismiss, if for no other reason than that the loudness of their shouting obscures how representative of the club’s support they are. The precedents for the situation that has unfolded this week, meanwhile, are thin on the ground, and non-existent in recent years. Two opposing previous experiences do spring to mind, though. When Bill Nicholson quit Spurs in 1974, the club went into a sharp decline which resulted in relegation just three years later. On the other hand, when Bill Shankly retired from Liverpool in the same year, the appointment of Bob Paisley led to the club dominating both domestic and European football for the next decade.
Anyone could infer anything they like from these lessons from the history of the game, but they both occurred almost four decades ago and it is probably more likely that neither have much relevance in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Perhaps the example from the history of the game that Manchester United can learn the most from comes from their own backyard. The game has changed a lot in forty years, but the club’s failure to satisfactorily embrace the post-Busby years was one of an eternal human fraility, refusing to let go of the past. Ferguson himself, who has been a constant moderniser for more than two decades, has been recorded as having noted the importance of heeding this warning from history.
For all the canonisation of Ferguson that we have seen, are seeing and will continue to see, he wasn’t perfect and a record of two Champions League wins in twenty years gives Moyes a chance of building his own legacy at the club. The question is, however, will he be given the chance to do so? There’s been little to suggest anything other than that the press hold him in the highest regard, so talk of media ‘witch hunts’ will likely be baseless. Many Manchester United supporters, however, have spent the last couple of years chortling to themselves at the supporters of other clubs – Chelsea and Liverpool, for example – who have been less than patient with new managerial appointments that didn’t fit what they apparently perceived to be within the range of their profile, or some such. This was easy to do while Ferguson was in his imperial phase as their club’s manager, but times have changed and they have changed very suddenly. These are uncertain times at Old Trafford, and to say that isn’t to suggest that David Moyes is to fail. All we know for certain right now is that nobody knows for certain how this most crucial of managerial appointments will pan out and this, if nothing else, will lend a degree of frisson to what was otherwise looking like being a very quiet summer indeed.
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