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Ferguson’s last signing

April 27, 2014


A David has been slain in Manchester. Sometime in 2013, before the Premier League season was over, David Moyes was summoned by Sir Alex Ferguson to his residence.

“It was a strange situation. I had no idea whatsoever until Sir Alex gave me a call and asked me to come to his house. I was expecting him to say, ‘I’m going to take one of your players’ or something else. I went in and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m retiring’. I said, ‘When?’ because he was never retiring, and he said, ‘Next week!’ His next words were, ‘you’re the next Manchester United manager’. I didn’t get the chance to say yes or no.”

The ‘Chosen One’ — as he was anointed later — “didn’t get a chance” to say yes or no. Papa Ferguson had decided, things happened, and he accepted the six-year-long contract as a meek sheep being led to paradise.

In truth, the Manchester United manager’s job is not meant for sheep; it is designed for a man who has a particular footballing philosophy and style, makes his own decisions sans the need to apologise, and treats a game of football as an act of war.

Manchester United enjoyed such singular focus for about 27 years — the club’s ascent to a global footballing behemoth has been premised and predicated on the manager routinely out-thinking and out-planning almost every other manager in the Premier League era.

Ferguson’s Manchester United was a personification of the traits and values that the manager held dear: ferocious, uncompromising, and deadly. No other club — barring Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal — retains the personality and traits of their manager (or former manager) in the club’s fabric as much as Manchester United.

The owners, the New York-based Glazer family, recognise the fabric of the club as constructed by Ferguson. For all the debt laden on the club by the Glazers, there is also a sense of the financial implications of Manchester United’s absence next season from Europe’s elite competition, the Champions League. Manchester United’s revenue in 2013, according to Deloitte Money League, dwarfed the others at £363 million, but for 2014-2015, the owners will be assuming liability for sums lost due to their absence from that tournament. There are structural issues to debate at the club, but with an estimated £150 million set to be pumped in for a squad overhaul, a mismatch in club fabric and manager temperament meant that Moyes’ position had indeed become untenable.

That Moyes could not shake off the legacy of Ferguson is part testament to how ingrained the old fox is at Manchester United, and part a damning indictment of Moyes’ management ability. Defeat was virtually unthinkable under Ferguson, and throwing the towel unfathomable. But under Moyes, the Red Devils were reacquainted with the idea of defeat — not as a one-off, but as a recurring occurrence.

In nine months at the helm, Moyes showed few signs of building something. Unlike Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool or Roberto Martinez at Everton, there was neither a plan or a style, nor a hint of a plan or style that was to be instituted at the club. Tactics were often toothless, and selections were meek. As Moyes played a half-fit Robin van Persie against Newcastle for the entire match, his post-match justification in defeat was damning: “I think if I'd brought him off [against Newcastle] some people would say 'What are you doing? You are 1-0 down and you're taking off your top goalscorer.” Ferguson would never have cared for “people”; he would have taken charge of the situation.

But David Moyes played a big part in David Moyes’ demise too: His biggest mistake was perhaps ignoring Ferguson’s advice of keeping the old coaching guard intact, of whom the master had said: “they’ll guide you through.” Ignoring Ferguson’s advice meant that Moyes was confident of his methods, enough to resist the temptation of being a mere cosmetic change to Ferguson’s foundations. This is going to be a revolution, was the message from Moyes — a complete departure from what Ferguson was doing, but equally supreme in application, performances and results.

But neither did Moyes manage to institute a revolution, nor were his methods worthy of an elite club. It was all distinctly mid-table, and as the saying goes, “the table doesn’t lie.”

The resulting confusion inevitably created a team that was far from competitive, more engrossed in searching for its identity as much as for the ball. From seasoned snipers under Ferguson, Moyes reduced Manchester United to a team whose distinctive style of playing was to move the ball wide and cross for the two strikers to score, or to lump it forward, in the hopes of finding a player in space. Such timidity is the very antithesis of what Ferguson built. Not only had Moyes abandoned Ferguson’s way, he failed miserably with his way too.

Perhaps Moyes had gotten used to the tight purses at Everton, and could not believe his luck at the riches now on offer to him.

Having relied on good old-fashioned coaching to construct a limited but effective side at Goodison Park, Moyes’ reliance on big money to fix his problems became a key issue. “Isn’t it great that the club says, ‘There’s no budget here, you go get who you want to get, just go and do it’. We are looking at the best players,” Moyes had said of his plans in the summer of 2013.

After signing Juan Mata, Moyes shunted the playmaker out wide, reluctant to emloy the No 10 in his preferred position in the hole behind the striker(s). There was little of the kind of invention, or subtle tinkering that Rodgers and Martinez have displayed all season eke out the best from their teams. There was only one rule: to keep the strikers happy, even if it created imbalance in the team from time to time.

Moyes’ blindness towards young talent was brutally exposed as well. Beyond the initial euphoria of Adnan Januzaj’s precocious talents beginning to surface, Moyes chose to ignore young, promising talent at the club (see: Wilfried Zaha). Perhaps, he just doesn’t have the eye for nurturing and developing young talent, as Ross Barkley and John Stones at Everton would testify. In fact, Kevin Sheedy, current under-18 coach at Everton and Moyes’ colleague for seven years, recently took to Twitter to allege that his former boss was “never interested in our youth team or players.” Distrust in youth meant that supporters did not see him as a manager to build a project either.

As betting begins on Moyes’ next destination, it is striking how he is considered well-suited to mid-table mediocrity. At 9/2, Moyes is favourite to take over Tottenham from Tim Sherwood, but with Tottenham considering Loius van Gaal, it is evident that they have set their sights higher than a man who was ruthlessly exposed against Liverpool, City, and Everton. At 5/1, however, Alan Pardew’s position at Newcastle United looks dicey, while Celtic (6/1) or even West Ham (8/1) could eventually become realistic options. But none of these clubs have a managerial icon whose shoes need to be filled and none of these clubs have legitimate ambitions to break into the top-four in England.

But David Moyes was very much the ‘Chosen One’ — hired and ultimately tolerated because of Sir Alex Ferguson. The end, despite not being orchestrated by Ferguson, was remarkably reminiscent of an Alex Ferguson axe. It was swift, as it was for David Beckham, Roy Keane, and Ruud van Nistelrooy. It was brutal, as it was for Jaap Stam and Diego Forlan. It was no-nonsense: a reported £10 million paid in severance, and off went Moyes. The original sin was washed clean.

And with that, Ferguson’s last signing, David, became Goliath — a domestic giant slain by the sling of expectations. Goodbye David, thanks for the memories.

Twitter: @ASYusuf