The dying embers of a recently roaring fire
In 8 months David Moyes has dismantled the mentality, will to win and fighting spirit that Sir Alex Ferguson spent 27 years building at Manchester United. He was employed, without interview or recruitment process, on the basis that he would provide continuity, a continuation of the values that have made the club great: work ethic, motivation, earned arrogance, progressive, attacking football, technical excellence. That is all gone. A great club is now being dragged though the mud, a national and international laughing stock. The performance against a desperately average Olympiacos side is the lowest point I can remember in over twenty years, the most abject 90 minutes in a season of hundreds, maybe thousands of abject minutes. It’s not the bad result itself that is so telling. There have been plenty of those over the years. But what we saw in Athens was a side utterly devoid of simple footballing competence, confidence and, most appallingly, spine. What is left is a husk. The shirts are the same, but the eleven bodies wearing them are ghosts, imposters, their appearance all that remains from a team which cruised to the Premier League title last season, their record twentieth. It is February and the season is close to being over. We sit through each painful game, waiting for the ‘real’ Manchester United to appear, but it isn’t there. The players checked out of Hotel Moyes weeks ago.
It is a car crash we’ve watched in slow motion. The nagging feeling that something was seriously amiss first appeared in pre-season, the performances on tour displaying a worryingly soft underbelly and that concern turned to alarm as Moyes and Ed Woodward bumbled their way through a shockingly inept summer. When the Premier League finally kicked off the comprehensive victory at Swansea helped to ease some of the feelings of foreboding, but that blessed relief was short lived as a team of strutting champions slowly dissolved into a nervous, timid, joyless, turgid muddle. The expected drop off after the retirement of Sir Alex started as a moderate incline but, as 2014 has been ushered in, has now become a cliff. Multiple title winners are now in relegation form, a team so utterly abysmal that opposition goals feel entirely fair, thoroughly deserved.
And yet, despite the shambles that the 2013/14 season has become, the records broken by teams long used to being put firmly in their place by United, the evaporation of fear experienced by those opponents when facing us, the loss of simple footballing competence, dreadful tactics and, most appallingly, the fear in our own players’ eyes, the architects of the most spectacular fall from grace in Premier League history remain firmly in place. Whilst the loathed Glazer family allowed a depreciation of quality within the squad through chronic underinvestment whilst suckling on the golden teat that is Manchester United, this is a title winning side, boosted by £70m worth of signings and the emergence of one of the most exciting talents in world football. On the playing side of the club continuity was achieved by the retention of Wayne Rooney. The only significant changes were the coaching staff. Make all the excuses you like, but the buck stops firmly at the manager’s door. He and his trusted lieutenants, despite best intentions and hard work, have provided everything but continuity on the pitch. Any defence of them no longer holds water. All that keeps them in employment is the power of a man almost as big as the club itself and a superiority complex which is based on the misguided and pretentious belief within the corridors of power that United are bigger, better, more loyal, patient and trusting than mortal football institutions. It is, supposedly, an ‘ethos’, a soundbite marking us out as special and different. So special that we can’t see the wood for the trees, the dying embers of a recently roaring fire. A fire on to which the manager has unwittingly poured water. Soon all that will be left will be dust. So desperate are the club not to be seen as short-termist, like the extremely successful modern day Chelsea, that their team is now closer to resembling Sunderland. If Moyes survives this defeat then the extent of the delusion and self-aggrandisement at United warrants an immediate sectioning.
The Olympiacos game was the culmination of the loss of everything that Manchester United football teams should be. The team’s brightest young talent was left at home, rested despite there being no other games for a week and a half. Against a mediocre opponent the team sat deep, petrified of their meek opponents, players actively hid from the ball, backed off and tripped over their own feet. This side is terrified of its own shadow. In some there was a simple lack of effort and application, a situation that would have been intolerable for Sir Alex. His most recent sides were not his greatest, his most talented, but their application, work ethic and drive could never be questioned. Ferguson appeared willing to sacrifice his star player and modern day talisman Wayne Rooney for, in his eyes, breaching that code of on-field conduct. The efforts of some in Athens epitomised their recent contributions: Chris Smalling lumbering about, a stopper but hapless on the ball and prone to dropping clangers; Tom Cleverley, the sort of midfielder apparently cherished in Spain, hiding from the ball, terrified to inject any positivity in to proceedings and desperately short of the technical excellence which should be required of a regular starter at United; Antonio Valencia, one footed, an Exocet crosser without a target finder, a now permanent embodiment of the yips; Rio Ferdinand, over the hill and far away; Robin Van Persie, desperately isolated, disaffected, completing less passes in the 90 minutes than David De Gea; Ashley Young, brief glimpses of ability amongst a sea of poor decision making and one footed, telegraphed crossing. And yet, despite these impediments, this is a top four squad, not one who should be terrified of and humiliated by the most mundane of opponents. As a United fan it is hard not to hold out some hope that we don’t overturn the two goal deficit. A tie against Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid would most likely bring about a defeat so humiliating that it would remain a scar on the history of the club for all time. This is a team of champions in relegation form, rapidly declining in front of our eyes.
The return of Rooney and Van Persie was meant to halt the slide, but has instead amplified it. There are no more excuses to offer. ‘Luck’, a concept with a tenuous basis for existence (talent tends to bring good ‘luck’), injuries, a contrived fixture list and the manager’s new favourite implication that the Premier League set out to scupper his club and his managerial tenure are not, in these circumstances, excuses of the sane. The elite clubs in Europe and football fans stand side by side, boggle eyed that such incompetence continues to be tolerated. Even Liverpool, a club permanently draped in a cloak of superiority, their own version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, realised that Roy Hodgson was not only not providing results but was also undermining their footballing ethics. Elsewhere Moyes would not have made it past New Year. A text message from a friend, a fan of a nondescript League One club with no particular axe to grind against United, arrived at 10.02. It read, “That really has to be curtains for Moyes. I don’t see how he can see out the season from here”. This is United’s AVB moment, his Chelsea side’s meek capitulation in Napoli signalling that he had lost his team and the plot. It is the same manager’s Spurs endgame five goal defeat at home to Liverpool, Rafa Benitez’s December at Inter, the moments when a desperate desire for the success of your club’s manager is no longer enough, that the cancer is now end stage and that there is no hope of a cure.
So that is where Manchester United are. Not even the magical power of time can heal these wounds under this manager, a man unable to understand what is required of him at one of the world’s biggest clubs. That figure has to be a great orator, a motivator, an inspiration, a preacher of positive, progressive football, a man willing and able to learn from his mistakes, adapt and wring the very last ounces of spirit and quality from his squad. David Moyes is none of those things. That has been clear for some time now, although many understandably wanted to believe that there would be a happy ending. There can be few who now retain that view. This isn’t about a manager needing his ‘own players’ and making do and mending with a limited squad. This is all he knows and all he will ever know. At Everton and Southampton we have seen how quickly a new manager can implement change with far more limited players. Tottenham have already sacked a manager for performing better than Moyes and another, Alan Pardew, is under constant pressure at a basket case of a club just below United in the Premier League table. These are clubs where expectations and demands are nowhere near the rightly lofty ambitions at Old Trafford, demands and expectations ingrained within the club by Sir Alex Ferguson over 27 trophy drenched seasons, demands and expectations which the current manager attempts to lower at every opportunity. He is not raising his own standards to meet those required at United, but bringing the club down to his. There is no outcome now possible this season which will be anything but painful, with or without Moyes, but allowing the rot to spread any further will likely have consequences which permeate in to next season and possibly beyond. Money can buy you many things, but it cannot guarantee elite level competitive European football or reputation and perception amongst the footballing fraternity worldwide, most importantly in the minds of the world’s best footballers. Who, with options, would choose to jump aboard this ship? ‘But what about our history?’ I hear you cry. History is the land where the ghosts of Anfield reside, a place revered by Liverpool fans clinging on to the memory of what was once the world’s finest football team, much to our collective mirth. It is a place we may soon become well acquainted with ourselves if this high farce is allowed to continue. Moyes is the wrong man and all that time will serve to do is increase the damage done. Enough.