The imagination runs wild; it is often thus amid the waterfall of conjecture generated by the modern game. Yet, it is the message between the lines has become ever more intriguing this season, brief and counter brief shaping the narrative as never before. David Gill’s subtle approach to media management at Manchester United has been replaced by Ed Woodward’s seemingly incorrigible need to call in a story. But at a time of great uncertainty, Woodward’s quirk offers at least some insight into the club’s strategy, if not mode of execution.
Take the Reds’ summer transfer plans, which are spectacular if Woodward’s word is to be believed. True, supporters are now well educated to be cautious; this promise has been made more than once over the past eight years, not least in the fallout from Wayne Rooney’s previous contract negotiations in October 2010. But time will tell whether United have the funds, will and means to revolutionise David Moyes’ squad in the summer, as is Woodward’s apparent promise. It is a triumvirate that has only once come together in the months since Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson departed last May.
More intriguing still is Moyes’ future, with Woodward privately insisting that the ruling Glazer family intends to stand by the man Ferguson anointed king last spring. Yet, for all Sir Alex’ will the club would still be remiss not to plan for an altogether different outcome. Indeed, as Moyes’ odds of being sacked tumbled last week, a fresh picture has begun to emerge. One that assumes United is courting alternative options amid an increasingly fractious dressing room atmosphere.
Robin van Persie’s recent tetchy interview with a Dutch television station, for example, brought an implied criticism of his team mates, Moyes’ tactics and then a quick-fire apology. Yet, as an insight into the Dutchman’s frustration it offered much. After all, rumours that the striker is happy under Moyes’ direction have rarely sunk below the surface this season.
Neither did Michael Carrick’s non-committal interview, following defeat to Olympiacos in Athens last week, convince anybody that Moyes’ squad is lined-up to support the 50-year-old manager. “I know you’re looking for me to blame someone,” Carrick told interviewer Gabriel Clarke, before the Geordie pointedly failed to back his manager.
More speculative still, some pundits have come to believe that United’s squad is turning against the new man, with the club almost certain to finish the campaign trophyless and out of next season’s Champions League.
”I spoke to somebody who is very close to the squad after the Olympiacos game,” claimed journalist Rafael Honigstein this week.
“He said the situation is a lot worse than it has been reported. He said ‘he has completely lost the dressing room and has to go now’. If a squad doesn’t like a manager, that is one thing but if they really stop believing in him then it is a serious problem because they will find a way, collectively, to get rid of him.”
Meanwhile, a rash of stories appeared across the British press over the weekend suggesting the board will approach Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal after the World Cup – it is unlikely to be the last feverish speculation regarding Moyes’ future.
For the moment the party line remains reasonably firm – the Glazer family will support Moyes to the tune of more than £100 million in the summer transfer market. It will take little for the pressure to increase once again though, with United’s upcoming fixture list offering a potentially brutal period for Moyes’ squad.
March begins with United’s visit to West Bromwich Albion. Moyes’ side then faces Liverpool, Olympiacos, West Ham United and Manchester City in 10 days that could well decide the Scot’s fate. Heavy defeat to Liverpool and City, together with European exit, will substantially increase the pressure for change at Old Trafford.
And with just 11 Premier League fixtures to go United’s European participation next season rests on Moyes’ squad finishing above Everton come May. City’s victory over Sunderland in the Capital One Cup final adds an extra Europa League place to whomever finishes sixth. Even that may not be enough to nullify the groundswell supporter opinion in social media, which has seemingly turned sharply against Moyes in recent weeks.
Still, there are plenty surprised at United’s resilience to outside pressure; that the long-game is more than simply spin. The view that Moyes would have been dismissed at almost any other club is given credence by those within the game. “In Italy, managers are judged simply by results,” former Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli told BBC Radio 4. “David Moyes, in Italy, would have been sacked three times now.”
“I’d change the manager if Real Madrid finished sixth and failed to reach the Champions League the next season. Of course I would,” adds former Real president Ramon Calderon. “It’s a real disaster in every sense. Sponsorship deals are linked to the Champions League. There’s no difference in the contracts of Real Madrid and Manchester United. They will have to deal with losing as much as £100 million.”
But as the vultures circle Moyes retains public support within the Old Trafford boardroom, even if some have seemingly briefed the nations fourth estate to the contrary.
Ferguson, a non-executive director, has rarely offered Moyes audible support this season, but is presumably central to his protege’s future. Sir Alex’ call last May for Old Trafford regulars to “get behind the new manager” remains prescient.
“They [United] will be all right,” said Ferguson, speaking in Los Angeles where he attended Sunday’s Oscars. “It’s early days and there have been a lot of changes. He needs time. I was there for 27 years, so with a new manager, it takes time. But they’ll be okay.”
It is an assessment that remains popular among United’s core support, although one that is eroded with each new defeat. It might take a series of extraordinary results, but the thought that supporters’ will could break in March is visceral. After all, while time is a commodity proffered Moyes through a six-year contract, patience is one dissipated quickly, especially where Liverpool and City are tightly woven into the narrative. Should fans turn, United’s board might find it hard to resist.
It leaves the Scot in an increasingly difficult position. While Moyes descent from Old Trafford’s ‘chosen one’ to a man odds-on to lose his job this summer has been piecemeal, his dismissal, if it comes at all, will be abrupt. Or to bastardise that old Hemmingway line about how a man goes bankrupt: there are two ways, gradually and then suddenly.