Who’s to Blame for the Collapse of Manchester United?

The stadium scene.
March 28 2014 6:31 PM

United We Fall

Is David Moyes to blame for the collapse of Manchester United? Or is it all Sir Alex Ferguson’s fault?

(Continued from Page 2)

Two recent examples of Moyes-ian anti-inspiration. Before Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford, Moyes admitted: “They possibly do come here as favorites.” The Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, commented after his side’s 3–0 win that he would never say the visiting side at Anfield were favorites. When Moyes was asked for his reaction, he replied that “any average person” would have said the same thing. 

When City won 3–0 at Old Trafford, Moyes said: “It’s the sort of standard and level we need to try and aspire to get ourselves to at this moment in time.” It did not occur to him that the United supporters might not want to hear that they were now trying to aspire to be as good as City, whom Ferguson once ridiculed as a “small club with a small mentality.”

It doesn’t help Moyes that he suffers by comparison with Mourinho, who is distinguished above all by his mastery of words. The Portuguese native speaks five languages and expresses himself more stylishly than Moyes in all of them. Brendan Rodgers lacks Mourinho’s verbal flair, but he has proved adept at a kind of insidious positivity. 

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Mourinho and Rodgers are actors, and there are those in England who share the view of Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood that “there are too many actors in this game.” But maybe acting ability is an underrated skill now that managers appear on TV several times a week.

Moyes is a terrible actor. His habit of blurting out the wrong thing sometimes makes him seem like a man desperately trying not to give away a terrible secret. And the secret is that even he’s not sure whether he’s really up to the job.

* * *

140328_SNUT_Fergie
Alex Ferguson celebrating Manchester United’s Premier League championship in May 1993.

Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

The arguments in favor of retaining Moyes have dwindled to one based on club precedent. Ferguson didn’t win a trophy until his fourth year in the job. Given time, this reasoning says, Moyes, too, will get it right. 

It is complicated to draw parallels between Ferguson in the late 1980s and Moyes in 2014 because our sense of time has transformed in the intervening years. When Ferguson started out, the audience for most United games were limited to the 50,000 inside the stadium. Now tens of millions around the world watch every game live, and within half an hour of the latest bad result they have all seen the latest Moyes failure meme on Facebook. Instant communication means instant reaction and counterreaction; whole story arcs can play out in hours where previously they would have taken days or weeks. Criticism of a failing manager can build to a fervor that was not possible in the time before social media.

The increased volatility affects club decision-makers. In the 1980s, United’s chairman Martin Edwards could go home after a bad result and not hear any more about the match unless he bothered to pick up the next day’s newspaper. In 2014, it’s not just in the stadium that Ed Woodward can hear the howls of protest against the man in the dugout. Every time he looks at a screen he sees more alleged evidence of crisis blinking back at him.

Meanwhile, on the training ground, time moves at much the same speed as it did in 1986. The pressures on the manager from outside have grown but his power to mold the kind of team he wants has not accelerated in tandem. A manager today must succeed quickly or be replaced.

Since a manager now has so little time to earn the respect of his team, it’s more important that he has their respect from the moment he walks through the door. The only way to command instant respect from a group of champion footballers is to have won at least as much in the game as they have.

If status in football depends on trophies, then when Moyes called his first meeting with the Manchester United first team, the new boss was the most junior man in the room. 

Since Ferguson spent his life studying the mechanics of power, it’s surprising that he apparently believed he could bestow the necessary authority upon Moyes by decree, simply because he liked him. 

Ferguson has not remained above the rising tide of anger. A poll by the fanzine RedIssue suggested that up to 40 percent of United fans blamed him for the way things have turned out. At the City game he became the target for abuse from angry fans expressing that very opinion. He, too, may be reflecting on whether his original conviction about Moyes was correct. 

It’s tempting for successful people to flatter themselves that they are successful because they are, at heart, good. Alex Ferguson is not a sentimental man, but maybe he began to sentimentalize aspects of his own mythology. He may have started to believe that the roots of his success lay in his solid Scottish values, his honest, working-class ethics. Maybe when he looked at Moyes, his fellow Scotsman, he saw some of the qualities that he liked to see in himself.

In his autobiography, Managing My Life, Ferguson writes, “Loyalty has been the anchor of my life.” But when Roy Keane—one of several great players Ferguson ultimately drove out of the club—was asked to define the manager, the word he chose was ruthless.

Managing Manchester United is not a job for a custodian type. The United manager has to carry the hopes of hundreds of millions of supporters, to whip star players into line, to remain serene amid a ceaseless media frenzy. You don’t have to be a ruthless egomaniac with delusions of grandeur, but it helps.

When Ferguson chose Moyes over Mourinho, he may have thought he was appointing a successor in his own image. If that was Sir Alex’s intention, it’s clear that he chose the wrong man.

The question now is whether the Glazer family decides to stick with Moyes for at least the start of the coming season, or relieve him of his duties in the summer. Next week Bayern Munich visit Old Trafford for the Champions League quarterfinal. The record-breaking German champions are the best team in the world. A win for United would be something like a football miracle.

In a strange way, Bayern may have arrived at the best possible time for David Moyes. Because only a miracle can save him now.

Ken Early works for the Second Captains podcast and the Irish Times. Follow him on Twitter.

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