“Every single one of us will stand by David Moyes,” sang Manchester United’s outstanding away support at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night. It was a rare moment of levity in an otherwise dark night for the Scot. Another United defeat to go alongside those against Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City already this month; another potential route to silverware hanging on the precipice. Few thought Moyes’ transition into Sir Alex Ferguson’s job would be easy. But this difficult, and this traumatic, that United should cave with so little conviction to the Premier League’s worst side?
But if the story of the night was United’s abject performance against Sunderland in the Capital One Cup, then the real narrative surrounds Moyes and his ongoing position with the club. A little over six months into the job and the former Everton manager looks weaker, less in charge by the day. Whisper it, do it quietly, but at almost any other major club the depths to which the side has fallen in such a brief period might have seen Moyes on the scrapheap of managerial failures. Sacked, defenestrated, and forgotten already.
That Moyes retains his job, and should do bar further catastrophic results until at least summer 2015, says much about the United hierarchy’s attempt to produce an environment of stability, albeit one in which Moyes was allowed to create significant volatility in the back-room.
Yet, there will be a role for United’s fan-base in Moyes’ eventual fate, or at least some control over the atmosphere in which the Scot works. If Tuesday is any evidence then Moyes can sleep easy, for now at least. More than 3,000 United fans out-sung five times the number in the home contingent during United’s the semi-final first leg – and did so proudly.
‘Twas ever so, with the nervousness that envelopes Old Trafford in recent times dissipating on the road, where United boasts a decent record this season – and where some of the Reds’ more attractive performances have come. Indeed, moral support for Moyes has rarely been in doubt despite many supporters’ uneasy feelings on the 50-year-old’s appointment last July.
And in that there is an essential truth in Moyes’ time at Old Trafford. While United supporters want every success for the club, and by default the new manager, many lack a deep belief that the Scot will eventually deliver it. Classic cognitive dissonance; an urge to support Moyes in everything he does at United, a deeper understanding that he may not have earned it. Or as the nobel prize winning author William Faulker might put it, the mind is happy at that which the conscience refuses to assimilate.
Rant’s straw poll, conducted on social media this week, brought an overwhelmingly positive response from fans asked if they continued to “support” Moyes in the United job. By contrast, the rejoinder was luke-warm when fans were polled on whether they believe Moyes is the “right man” to bring long-term success at Old Trafford. Unscientific of course, but then neither is the terrace truly holistic evidence either.
Much of the doubt in Moyes dates back to his appointment. Here is a man without a trophy secured in more than a decade as a top-flight manager, anointed to a job at one of the world’s leading clubs, seemingly ahead of better candidates. Two-time Champions League winner José Mourinho was available, while 16-times trophy winner Pep Guardiola moved on, and the ever popular Jurgen Klopp continues to win friends. Moyes may out-perform them all in time, but his CV lacks for the comparison.
Then, of course, there is Moyes’ performance in the job, which has brought little but critique – from the obliteration of United’s tried-and-trusted back-room, to an over-emphasis on a functional style that has won few admirers at Old Trafford or beyond. That says little for United’s results, which have brought five defeats at Old Trafford in all competitions and eight over-all. Whatever else is said of the Scot this season, the downturn in United’s results has been stark.
Moreover, the destruction in the club’s tradition of attacking, fluid football, although already well on route under Sir Alex Ferguson, has accelerated with Moyes’ appointment to the job. The Scot’s simplification of United’s tactics, which are now predicated almost solely on over-loading the flanks, and delivering the ball from wide areas, has been rapid and complete. It is little wonder that United’s new man has obsessively pursued Leighton Baines, the Premier League’s leading crosser by some distance last season.
Yet, the Reds’ approach has also been increasingly predictable, both to supporters now hungry for more than the turgid fare served up this season, and more pointedly to the opposition. Run Antonia Valencia into the channel and United’s principle attacking strategy is laregely neutered.
Still, support is a complex, if ephemeral concept. Whatever Moyes’ ample mistakes this season; however dumbstruck the manager now appears in the juggernaut’s headlights; whatever his qualities, or lack thereof, as a manager, he will enjoy ‘support’. It is a faith that plays out in myriad forms – from voices on the terraces, to railing against the dying light in social media.
And yet there is that straw poll again, the more than two thirds of United supporters who are yet to be convinced that Moyes will bring long-term success to the club, as Sir Alex managed so conspicuously over more than two decades in charge. It is a hint at what may have become an underlying truth; an increasing number of United fans strongly suspect that Ferguson chose the wrong man last summer.
It is a paradox played out in microcosm too, where United fans will cheer on the Reds to the fullest in the second leg against Sunderland in a little under two week’s time, but face the very real prospect of a chastening experience against in-form Manchester City at Wembley.
Yet, there is another, more essential truth. Moyes’ success or failure is the club’s achievement or decline; the fans’ joy or a moratorium on a quarter century of almost unqualified gloating. Whatever the secret doubts held about the new manager’s qualities, and in whatever form they are articulated, nobody wishes them true. It is a process of rationalisation if ever there was.