July 28, 2001. The leap for any lower league club to the top flight is…
David Moyes hadn’t even been officially appointed West Ham manager when his new employers made a vote of confidence in the Scot. The mere suggestion that Moyes was set to take over at the London Stadium was enough to spark disgruntlement and protest from the club’s support. The Hammers’ directors felt it necessary to underline why they felt the 54-year-old to be the right man for the job. They weren’t fooling anyone.
Indeed, Moyes has done little to dispel those original concerns over his hiring, with West Ham losing three of the four games since his arrival at the start of November. In fact, all the Scot has done is further engrain the sense of malaise that threatens to overwhelm the East London club. Hammers fans can be heard chanting ‘sack the board’ with regular occurrence. One of the reasons to sack the board is over the appointment of Moyes.
So how did this happen? How did a stalwart of the Premier League era become the epitome of the division’s ills and flaws? How has the man not so long ago picked for the biggest job in managerial history become such a grey, lifeless ghost of a man? Moyes has become the Premier League’s perpetual punchline. But why and how?
He was The Chosen One, after all. The man handpicked for the biggest managerial job in football history. That’s what it was, after all. The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United boss had become one of those unimaginable scenarios. What would a world without Fergie be like? He had to retire at some point, they said, but it was difficult to imagine given how long he’d been in the job. Like the Queen dying.
Not only was it the biggest managerial job in football history, but arguably the most challenging. Ferguson was Manchester United. The Scot had been at Old Trafford for so long the club’s identity had become intertwined with his own. Furthermore, United had over time become the reflection of Ferguson. It was impossible to separate the two.
They needed someone with just as strong a character to carry on the Man Utd dynasty while having the courage to step out from the shadow of the club’s best ever manager. A number of candidates were lined up over the years, with the search for a replacement stretching all the way to just after the turn of the century, when Ferguson first announced his intention to stand down. Sven Goran Eriksson, it is believed, was the chosen one back then. Perhaps with Ferguson taking the England job in time for the 2002 World Cup. That’s what The FA had planned, anyway.
“He was entirely unsuited for what was an absolutely mammoth challenge. The world’s best managers would have struggled to manage the transition from Fergie and at no time in his career has Moyse been one of the world’s best managers.”
Of course, Ferguson was talked out of retirement by his wife Cathy, only lasting another 11 years in the job before finally hanging up his hairdryer at the end of the 2012/13 season. After two-and-a-half decades of service, the Scot was afforded the luxury of picking his own successor. Jose Mourinho must have thought he was due for a call from his old friend, considering the way he’d postured and positioned for the job in the years preceding. Pep Guardiola was also mentioned. As it turned out, Ferguson pitched up at the home of Moyes. It’s said that the chat lasted only half an hour. There wasn’t much selling to do.
It was almost as if Moyes didn’t have a choice in the matter. The Manchester United job had become this mythical calling. Who would have turned down the chance to replace Fergie? It was like being asked to be president. Yet Moyes never looked comfortable with being uprooted from his cosy surroundings at Goodison Park and thrown in front of the spotlight and flashbulbs down the M62.
He was a rabbit in the headlights and his unsuitability for the job quickly became apparent. Moyes believed the fabled ‘United Way’ amounted to getting his wingers to sling as many crosses into the box as humanly possible. He handed bumper new contracts to players who barely warranted them, including Wayne Rooney. He even admitted after a derby thumping in front of United’s own fans that the Old Trafford club should aspire to be more like Manchester City.
“The negativity. Oh my goodness,” says Paul Ansorge of the Manchester United podcast, Rantcast. “You can see that it’s hardwired into him. As ESPN columnist Musa Okwonga told me once, Moyes should have tried to grow into the job but instead he tried to shrink the job down to his size. He combined negativity and a tendency towards blaming others with an arrogance and stubbornness which meant he seemed unable to change. About half way through the season he said something like “Sir Alex might have struggled with this squad.” Sir Alex, mate, had won the league by 11 points with this squad.”
This is a common theme for Moyes over the course of the last four years or so. At Real Sociedad, he spoke of a squad ill-equipped for competing near the top end of La Liga. He prepared the San Sebastian club for a relegation, insisting he was doing the most with what he had. The season after Moyes was sacked, Real Sociedad qualified for the Champions League.
In both cases, bad decisions led to bad results. On and off the field, Moyes didn’t help himself. “He got nearly everything wrong, almost from the jump,” continues Ansorge. “The decision to ship out the backroom staff was, in the simplest possible terms, stupid. Especially given his total lack of experience at that level. Bring one or two of your trusted guys in, sure, but the Evertonisation of Manchester United was never a good idea.”
In the transfer market, too, bad decisions were made on a number of targets. The ‘Dithering Dave’ tag that followed Moyes from Everton proved justified as Man Utd suffered a catastrophe of a summer window, wasting time on unrealistic targets (like Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas) while turning down entirely feasible options (like Thiago Alcantara). The Scot’s troubles could, in essence, be traced back to a lack of decisiveness. He planned on coasting on the legacy of his predecessor, when in actual fact he arrived at a time when United needed an overhaul. He failed to recognise that.
At Sunderland, Moyes took charge of a staggering club, with the Black Cats running out of lives as a Premier League outfit. He was hired to revitalise a team desperately lacking in direction and an identity. Instead, Moyes’ arrival only accentuated the problems suffered at the Stadium of Light. He was a fatalist at a club suffering a terminal decline. It was a toxic combination.
“The lack of belief from Moyes during those early games was for me the spark that lit the flames which ravaged Sunderland almost beyond repair,” says Graeme Atkinson, Sunderland fan blogger. “Proclaiming we were in a relegation battle as early as 22nd August, Moyes hardly could be described as a motivator. But, we are a hardy bunch in this part of the world and there would have been a reluctant acceptance of relegation towards the end of his reign if there were even the slightest sense of moving in the right direction in some way shape or form. Even just a hint of a game plan or an overarching vision for the future, which supporters could get behind. Anything!”
“By the end of his tenure he would have struggled to find anyone willing to buy him a drink on Wearside, let’s put it that way.”
At Manchester United, Real Sociedad and Sunderland, Moyes made the same mistake. He learned nothing from the way things crumbled so quickly for him at Old Trafford. He took nothing away from his short time in Spain. And Sunderland turned into something of a career nadir, with both club and coach flatlining. A familiar pattern is starting to form at West Ham, too.
“It’s a bad fit,” says Sam Diss, football writer and West Ham fan. “Not so much footballing wise, although he’s styleless and teams need a style; we currently lack one anyway — but in terms of attitude. We need a kick-up-the-arse manager. Or at least someone who can attract players. I’m not sure he’s got any of that at this point. And that’s to say nothing of the awful job he did at Sunderland.”
Sitting slumped, second bottom of the Premier League after 14 games, the Hammers are in the midst of a downward spiral, the kind of which is reminiscent to the way Sunderland sunk to the English Championship last season. Sure, there are deeper issues at the London Stadium, issues that precede Moyes, but the Scot is compounding them. This has become his calling card.
“His appointment felt like a backwards step. It felt like it was admitting failure already, in November. Moyes is a fatalistic manager and I sat there in the pub, everyone texting me abuse at my team signing a man more meme than manager, and I was like… “fuck’s sake.”
In many ways, Moyes is still propping himself up with the success he enjoyed at Everton over an 11-year stint there. At Man Utd, he made Marouane Fellaini his first signing, also making Rio Ferdinand watch videos of Phil Jagielka. Because Ferdinand, as one of the best centre backs of his generation, could learn a thing or two from the Everton defender. Even in his three weeks as West Ham boss, he has harked back to his days at Everton. It’s almost as if Moyes hasn’t let go of his time at Goodison Park.
There are those who feel Moyes only ever performed above par on Merseyside. That his greatest achievement at Everton was merely his longevity there. Indeed, large sections of the club’s support openly celebrated the departure of Moyes, laughing as he was handed the reins at Old Trafford. “Stuck with Moyes,” they chanted when Man Utd first came to visit in Moyes’ first season there.
However, this is, at least in part, revisionism in action. Moyes was a successful manager at Everton, taking the club from the doldrums and establishing them as a near permanent member of the Premier League’s top six. He failed to hold down a place in the top four, only finishing in the Champions League places once, but even that, it could be argued, was an over-achievement given the gulf between the Big Four and the rest at that time. He might not have been popular, but he was successful.
Now, that spell of his career hangs heavy round Moyes’ neck. It could be said that he needs a new challenge, a new culture and country to reinvigorate his interest in the game, but he already attempted that by taking over at Real Sociedad not long after his sacking by Man Utd. It didn’t work. He found himself in the same toxic cycle very quickly, and just like at Old Trafford, he had no way to reverse it.
The fear is that Moyes is once again in that cycle at West Ham. However, this cycle, should it end badly, would surely mean the end for the Scot’s top level career, certainly in the Premier League. It’s somewhat baffling that he was already handed such a high profile job given his recent record, but who would possibly hire a manager who had suffered back-to-back relegations with two different clubs?
It’s difficult to look at Moyes and see the man Manchester United thought he was just four years ago. He was the wrong man for the job at the wrong time, and his experience at Old Trafford has acted as a watershed, a turning point, for the rest of his career. He might have been The Chosen One, but he certainly wasn’t The Right One. And he hasn’t been The Right One for any other club since then.