The ceremonial red robes have been tailored to perfection, his coronation a mere formality. In little more than a week David Moyes will ascend to the gilded throne of Old Trafford, the chosen-one advocated with a trademark authority by no less a figure than the departing Emperor himself, Sir Alex Ferguson.
But what are the challenges facing the incoming manager? After all, he is not just a routine replacement for an outgoing boss. He has been entrusted with the unenviable task of producing the mouth-watering sequel to the Sir Alex Ferguson era! Sir Alex, the most successful club manager in English football history, the heart and soul of the grandest sporting institution in England and one of the biggest in the World of sport! Sir Alex, the glue that has united the Red Devils for more than a quarter of a century since his appointment way back in November 1986! November 1986?!? To put that into context, Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated, European countries still held their dignity and identity with their own currencies, Frankie was relaxing with cassette tapes and vinyls the only choice for the music aficionado, Molly Ringwald had assured herself a seemingly permanent place as Hollywood’s sweetheart, Liverpool were still winning league titles and Scotland qualified for FIFA World Cups! And as anyone who tolerated Terminator 3 will testify, not all sequels hit the spot….
And it’s fair to say Sir Alex didn’t fare too badly on the field of play either. Man Utd had been alerted to his potential through his accomplishments at unfancied Aberdeen in Scotland; Sir Alex achieving what many thought impossible by smashing the iron-grip monopoly of the Old Firm – Celtic and Rangers – and winning no fewer than three Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups and outwitting Real Madrid to win the European Super Cup! Again, for the purpose of context, nobody has broken the Celtic/Rangers stranglehold on the Scottish League since Sir Alex’s Aberdeen back in 1985 and only Celtic have reached a European Final since Aberdeen’s remarkable victory?!? As a Liverpool fan myself I’m choking back the bile as I reflect on his achievements down the East Lancs Road but, for the very last time on this blog, it is worth just reminding ourselves and trying to comprehend the sheer level of unparalleled and virtually continuous success inspired and demanded by Sir Alex…
13 English Premier League titles! 5 FA Cups! 4 League Cups! 2 European Champions Leagues! 1 European Super Cup! 1 World Club Championship! 1 European Cup Winners Cup and a gazillion English Charity/Community Shields!
So it’s fair to say David Moyes has something of a job on his hands…and it will be interesting to see how he goes about stamping his own identity, his own personality and his own authority on Man Utd.
1. Rejuvenate the playing squad….
Despite Sir Alex’s rose-tinted protestations to the contrary there is little doubt that this incarnation of Man Utd is probably among the weakest of their recent title-winning sides. Yes they did secure a record 20th league title, but the general quality and competition within the EPL is arguably at its lowest since its all-singing and all-dancing inception back in 1992. The traditional EPL signatures of a high work-rate, a ferocious tempo and the increasing inconsistencies of the top clubs harbouring a false sense of competitiveness throughout the league are all present and correct….but it has fallen short when it comes to genuine quality. The woeful performances of the English clubs in the European Champions League – including the EPL Champions being deposed in the Group Stage for the second successive season – provide conclusive, if unpalatable evidence to support that view.
That is not to say Man Utd are diabolical, nor that they need to instantly recruit eleven players this summer. But there are obvious positions of weakness within their starting-XI, notably at left-back and in central midfield, and Moyes needs to act quickly and decisively to remedy that. One of the myths surrounding Sir Alex is that he relied on youth development rather than excessive transfer fees – a myth largely spawned from the ludicrously talented FA Youth Cup-winning side featuring David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes – but he would be the first to admit that Utd backed him heavily in the transfer market. Again, to try to bring some context to the comparison, the summer of 1989 saw Sir Alex enjoy perhaps the most extraordinary spending blitz in British football history….recruiting several top players for a combined fee ranging from £10M-£15M. A paltry figure by today’s standards but, when you then consider the then-transfer record fee between English clubs (foreign players were something of a rarity back then) was the £2M paid by Spurs for Paul Gascoigne, it is quite some outlay! In fact Sir Alex smashed the record during that spree by signing centre-back Gary Pallister for a staggering £2.3M….with the current record standing at the £50M paid by Chelsea for Fernando Torres, Sir Alex’s £10M-£15M splurge – five-times plus the then-record fee – was a rather substantial war-chest to say the least.
With the rise of Chelsea and Man City in England and the lavish budgets of PSG and AS Monaco – not to mention Real Madrid and the supposed £250M available to Pep Guardiola at FC Bayern – that level of transfer dominance will simply not be available to David Moyes. But, as Robin van Persie demonstrated last summer, money isn’t necessarily the only consideration for a player and the prestige, the ambition and the stability associated with Man Utd will become a valuable bargaining tool for Moyes in his recruitment quest. Noble sentiment though it is, the sight of Ryan Giggs and, to a lesser extent, Paul Scholes still featuring prominently for Utd suggests to me that the relative dearth of quality within the Man Utd youth ranks shows no sign of abating – recent graduates Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck are pale imitations of their illustrious predecessors – so Moyes’ first venture into the transfer market will be a key factor in determining his initial impact!
I would expect Moyes to invite offers for a stagnant Nani, a desperately poor Anderson and an irreversibly declining Patrice Evra – the best left-back in England 3yrs ago – to fund a probable raid on his former club for the outstanding Leighton Baines and perhaps Marouane Fellaini. The key decision though centres around Wayne Rooney. Rooney has been out-of-sorts this season, with Sir Alex publicly questioning his fitness, his lifestyle, his desire and his application. Can Moyes’ arrival reinvigorate Rooney – despite Moyes’ successfully suing Rooney for libel shortly after the teenage prodigy’s protracted departure for Old Trafford – or will he conclude, as many observers suggest, that his peak has already passed and it is better to cleanse the club of his sulky, petulant and selfish attitude? My view; if Moyes wants to make a statement of intent then he will try to sell Rooney. The Old Trafford fans have grown tired of his antics – audibly booing Rooney when he collected his EPL medal last weekend – but the problem may well be finding a buyer for his £20M fee and absurd £200,000+ per week salary demands. In my opinion Rooney has neither the personal qualities and aptitude nor the professional skills and discipline to perform overseas….so can Moyes persuade the only viable exit routes – Man City or Chelsea – to sanction a heavy outlay on such a risky deal? One of Sir Alex’s greatest qualities in his search for perfection was his ruthless attitude towards under-performing players and those with poor attitudes that could prove detrimental towards the team. Paul McGrath, Paul Ince, David Beckham and Roy Keane can all give lucid testaments of their speedy demise at the hands of Sir Alex, despite some still having much to offer on the field of play. David Moyes needs to adopt that same level of brutal and decisive action!
Don’t be surprised to see Man Utd announce Moyes’ arrival with a blockbuster signing, certainly if they succeed in getting rid of Rooney. Spurs’ likely failure to qualify for the European Champions League could see Utd try to tempt Gareth Bale to Old Trafford, whilst I think they could do worse than save Cesc Fabregas from his Barcelona nightmare. Both would be stellar additions to the squad and would significantly strengthen the central midfield area!
2. Assume the Sir Alex off-field mantle….
It is generally accepted that Sir Alex’s touchline presence is worth 10pts-15pts per season for Man Utd. From the berating and intimidation of match officials to the infamous ‘Fergie-time’ when Utd need a crucial goal, Sir Alex was an imposing figure for all concerned on match-days. His media briefings sent a cold shudder down the spine of many journalists, the trembling voice of a nervous post-match TV interviewer as much a part of the match experience as the game itself while his legendary mind-games famously saw then-Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan implode on national TV, descending into a near-gibbering wreck in one of the EPL’s most enduring memories. Though cut from the same Glaswegian granite as Sir Alex, David Moyes does not yet possess that sheer level of fear and intimidation. Without the spectre of Sir Alex hovering with intent on the touchline, might a match official be more relaxed in judging a foul, a penalty or the dreaded injury-time? I’m not saying these professional officials would necessarily seek some form of revenge or pay-back for the numerous diatribes unleashed by Sir Alex, but I await the first contentious incident at Old Trafford next season with anticipation.
But it would be churlish to suggest that Sir Alex’s success was based entirely on his intimidation of match officials or other off-field factors. Every other team in the EPL can point to moments where they have benefited from dubious officiating, every other team have been afforded the luxury of an extended period of injury-time, but not every other team have the mentality and desire to take advantage of such situations. His tactical acumen and motivational genius needs no further elaboration, but Sir Alex specifically cultivated a burning will-to-win, a never-say-die attitude among his players and staff, a collective team ethic, a winning mentality and an unshakable self-belief that inspired Man Utd to stage so many of their famous last-minute comebacks, perhaps most famously in the European Champions League daylight robbery of their treble-season in 1999.
Sir Alex’s continued presence at Old Trafford will surely provide Moyes with a wealth of invaluable information regarding all aspects of life at Old Trafford. His unrivalled knowledge of the club will help Moyes as he settles into his new role, but there also needs to be clearly defined parameters to avoid the instability following Sir Matt Busby’s retirement and subsequent move ‘upstairs’ within the club. It is customary for an incoming manager to bring with him a trusted backroom team of coaches and support staff and I see no reason why Moyes would not follow suit. But, at the same time, Man Utd clearly have a recipe for success and I think it would be foolish of Moyes to casually dismiss the merits of the existing staff at Old Trafford. While I cannot see what Mike Phelan brings to the table, Rene Meulensteen has a well-deserved reputation as an outstanding coach and Eric Steele boasts an impressive record as a goalkeeping coach. Crucially though, both have a long-standing relationship with Man Utd and could ease Moyes’ transition period. A shrewd appointment, perhaps outgoing Everton captain and former Utd player Phil Neville may also be worth consideration.
3. Moyes’ own character….
Moyes’ longevity at Everton over 11yrs is a remarkable testament to both manager and club; only Arsene Wenger’s 16yr reign at Arsenal trumps Moyes’ Goodison tenure and, for perspective, the next longest managerial spell in the EPL is Tony Pulis’ 7yr stint at Stoke City! Moyes has consistently over-achieved at Everton on a shoestring budget, consistently challenging for European qualification in the EPL and, although he has yet to secure a trophy, he has performed remarkable feats for the Blues. But Manchester United is a different proposition altogether! Success isn’t negotiable at Old Trafford, it is expected! A generation of Man Utd fans have never known a period of transition at their club, they’ve never known life without Sir Alex. Thirteen EPL trophies in just 22yrs speaks volumes for the consistent high level of performance enjoyed by the Old Trafford faithful! Second-place is just about acceptable – as a one-off – but anything below that would be considered an absolute catastrophe for the spoilt Man Utd fans! Whereas nobly tickling the underbelly of European qualification was almost worthy of an open-top bus parade at Everton, a similar scenario at Old Trafford would provoke unprecedented scenes of mass-mourning! Moyes has revelled in his role as the plucky underdog – certainly in usurping his city rivals Liverpool over recent seasons – but now he is the biggest fish in the pond! His record in away fixtures against Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool reads, played 46, won 0; that inferiority complex would be absolutely unacceptable at Old Trafford. It is no longer acceptable to settle for a draw – even less so to set up a team tactically and mentally to “not lose” rather than “to win” – and, while he unquestionably has greater resources and a better playing squad to work with, it will be interesting to see how he adjusts his own mentality to satisfy the colossal demands of managing Man Utd!
As a footnote, I doubt David Moyes would’ve scripted his move to Man Utd any differently to how it seems to be developing. Formidable task though it undoubtedly is, he could not have wished for a more generous honeymoon gift than to see the traditional rivals to Man Utd’s crown wilfully scuttle their ships and duly shatter any shred of stability within their own clubs. Man City have already parted company with the elegantly coiffured Roberto Mancini for the heinous crime of finishing as runner-up in both the EPL and the FA Cup, Chelsea will jettison Rafael Benitez for his criminal underachievement of European Champions League qualification and a Europa League Final appearance and Everton of course face the challenging task of replacing Moyes. While there is no open speculation surrounding either Arsenal or Spurs there have been tentative rumours suggesting an interest from PSG in Arsene Wenger and a possible switch to the Bernabeu for Andre Villas Boas. So, while perhaps unlikely, it is conceivable that David Moyes could begin his Old Trafford career with all five of his fellow top-six clubs also starting afresh?!?
I’m a big fan of David Moyes and I wish him well…..but not THAT well of course….