West Ham United: Here Comes The Moyes
Not that anybody who’s perusing this afternoon’s news headlines will likely care too much, but there is an alternative narrative to the recent career of David Moyes. Received wisdom has it that, over the course of the last four years or so, Moyes has become one of football’s familiar bywords for failure who somehow keeps finding himself in work. He failed at Manchester United. He failed at Real Sociedad. He failed at Sunderland. Why on earth, received wisdom asks us, should that recent run end at West Ham United, where an expensively assembled squad is still, in November, playing as though only introduced to each other in the tunnel before matches? David Moyes, received wisdom tells us, is damaged goods, psychologically shot through by the triple-whammy of Manchester United at the outset of an existential crisis that somehow nobody at the club saw in the slipstream of Alex Ferguson’s retirement, a short and unhappy period abroad spent living out of a suitcase in Spain, and a season at Sunderland, a club at which rows of faded red plastic seats have become a comfortable metaphor for the dour expectation of failure and disappointment in recent years.
That alternative narrative, however, is at least worthy of a quick review. All three of the managerial choices that David Moyes has made since leaving Everton at the end of 2012/13 season have been bad choices in their own ways, but it could at least be argued that each of these were due to circumstances partially beyond the manager’s control. All manner of reasons – from the malign to the borderline psychotic – have been offered as to why Alex Ferguson was so keen that Moyes be the man to replace him at Manchester United, but the results of the near-entirety of the immediate post-Ferguson era at Old Trafford hinted at a club that was nowhere near as well-prepared for any other manager than the previous incumbent until the tried and tested solution of throwing money at the problem started to reap benefits. Moyes’ only (almost) full season there ended in a seventh place finish in the Premier League and this was a lowest final league position since 1990, but it’s also worth remembering that both Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho both struggled to tame the beast that is Manchester United in this post-Ferguson era. As for Real Sociedad, well, he took over at a club in fifteenth place in La Liga, took them to twelfth place by the end of the 2014/15 season, and left in November 2015 with the team in sixteenth place in the table. Not a sparkling three hundred and sixty-four days in charge of the club, but not strictly the absolute cataclysm of a year that it has been reported as having been, either.
Then, of course, there was Sunderland last season. Appointed barely a couple of weeks before the start of the season after Sam Allardyce jumped ship for his (what turned out to be somewhat brief) spell as the coach of the national team, Moyes arrived at a club whose last remaining breaths of confidence had been knocked out of them by the sudden departure of the manager whose fire-fighting had kept them in the Premier League at the end of the season before. There was wasted money – there’s always wasted money at Sunderland – and there were negative tactics and a generally grumpy demeanour from a manager who never really seemed to want to be at the Stadium of Light in the first place, but the events of the first three months of this season have, if anything, only reinforced the idea that Moyes was at worst a symptom of the club’s recent decline rather than a cause of it, in any significant way. As soon as Allardyce left Sunderland in July 2016, Sunderland became a shoo-in for relegation the following season, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that no-one could have prevented that particular ship from listing.
All of which brings us somewhat untidily onto the subject of West Ham United. It’s been eighteen months since West Ham departed the Boleyn Ground with a side-serving of schmaltz and an almost indecent amount of haste, and it barely need repeating that this is not a move that has worked out as its protagonists expected it would. With crowd trouble marring some of the opening games at the London Stadium, a faltering team, and the ongoing criticism that, even after conversion, this is not a venue appropriate for Premier League football continues to hang around its neck like an albatross. Loftier ambitions of seriously challenging for a place in the Champions League have given way to the altogether more attritional issue of hanging onto a place in the Premier League at all, and some of the visual cues that became so familiar at Sunderland last season – empty seats long before the end of matches, accusations that the players aren’t trying, a toxic combination of apathy and anger – are starting to manifest themselves at their new home.
It’s worth pausing to remind ourselves that responsibility comes in all directions when a manager takes over the running of a new club. What will greet David Moyes, presuming that he assumes the managerial position in the next few days? Will he arrive at a club at which everybody concerned is prepared to roll their sleeves up and scrap their way out of the relegation places? Our football culture has been very convincing in persuading us that the manager is the conduit through which all of a club’s fortunes flow, but top level football clubs are vast institutions nowadays, and Moyes will not be able to drag West Ham clear of the relegation places without the enthusiastic support of a large number of other people. The owners of the club will almost certainly – despite having thrown £140m at new players during the summer – have to put their hands back into their pockets once the January transfer window opens for business. The players will have to be in the right frame of mind to work for their new manager in a way that they apparently weren’t too willing to do for his predecessor, for the last few weeks at least. And the supporters, the background noise of any football club, will have to feel enthused that this manager is one worth cheering for.
Some work is going to have to be done to achieve at least the last of these three factors. A quick look at this West Ham United forum, for example, shows a broad and florid range of expressions for despair of varying types over this imminent appointment, and this is coming from a fan base that the club’s owners might have hoped would be optimistic at the idea of a new manager coming in and trying to breathe some life into their moribund team. David Gold and David Sullivan may well be of the opinion that West Ham supporters should be good little punters, that they should keep on turning up at the London Stadium, handing over fistfuls of banknotes, and airily cheering on the team regardless of any other considerations. Anger at the decisions made by the owners of the club, however, certainly seems to be on the rise and talk of a protest before the team’s home match against Leicester City on the twenty-fourth of November may add an extra layer of white noise to a club that felt in danger of nose-diving before the sacking of Slaven Bilic and feels no more stable as a result of his departure.
There is, of course, time for the club’s owners to change their mind over all of this, and West Ham supporters may well be forgiven for keeping their fingers crossed that Carlo Ancelotti or Roberto Mancini will be persuaded to pitch up in London after Gold and Sullivan come to understand the level of supporter unhappiness over this appointment. With current betting putting Moyes at thirty-three to one on to get the job, however, this seems highly unlikely, to say the least. And with confirmation of this decision will come the start of the story of the rest of West Ham United’s season. Both David Moyes and West Ham United are going to have to change their tune significantly if a poor start isn’t going to fester into becoming something altogether more intractable. Moyes’ time at Everton proves that he is capable of achieving that alternative narrative, but there seem to be few other Premier League clubs who are in a worse institutional condition to be taking on the spectre of a struggle against relegation than West Ham United are at the moment.