July 1, 2013. A man with greying auburn hair walks into an oversized office in South West Manchester. He’s dressed smartly. The one thing everybody notes about him is the courtesy with which he greets people. He surveys the scene: a large clock, a panoramic window looking out onto a dozen green fields, intersected by goalposts and white lines, scattered with scores of teenage footballers.
The man turns his attention towards his desk. It’s fairly ordinary. Just what he expected. He places the new laptop on the mahogany desk and waits for its reassuring whir. He switches off the spotlights that adorn the room’s ceiling. The weather is bright and sunny.
He takes off his navy suit jacket because it’s very warm. The man sits at his desk for another hour preparing for his first meeting with his new workmates. He is a football fanatic so he spends the next 58 minutes googling stats and matches of yesteryear.
“David,” a voice calls from the extraordinarily wide corridor outside the office.
The voice comes from Jimmy Lumsden and the man is David Moyes. He’s about to have his first meeting with his Manchester United’s players and – unbeknownst to him – he’s about to change the face of British football. But not for the better.
The talks Moyes held with Ed Woodward two weeks previously had been, in David’s opinion, productive. Money was available for him to spend, Ed said. But spend it wisely, Ed said. Actually the squad is pretty good already, Ed said. We’ve just won the Premier League, Ed said. David knew that last one.
And David already had a good idea of where he wanted to go with the squad. Some of them – Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick – would form the fulcrum of his team. They were experienced guys, but by no means over the hill.
Others – Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones – were among the most exciting young talents in England. They would play a significant role in Moyes’ United. Given time, of course. David accepted he may need time.
David De Gea, Nani and Antonio Valencia were talented foreigners approaching their peak and David penned them in for regular starting roles too.
The only discourse David hadn’t mapped out in his mind was where to take the club’s star player and most iconic name, Wayne Rooney. The 27-year-old was talented, but had fallen out with the previous manager amid a contract dispute. Would Rooney play a part in the Moyes’ era? David knew Wayne from years back and he desperately wanted to keep the former Everton striker in his team. A month later Rooney would stay after accepting a lucrative new deal.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]It sounds bizarre, but United might be in a better place now had Moyes been afforded that time to overhaul his squad and build for the next five years. Whose to say they wouldn’t achieve similar results? It wouldn’t exactly be difficult[/blockquote]
David wanted a few other players to supplement his squad. When he’d accepted the job in May, he had earmarked key positions – left back, central midfield – that would need bolstering. He knew Everton’s Leighton Baines very well and the talents of Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas were not lost on him. Their signatures would be important messages to United’s rivals, but youth was equally vital in David’s long-term project.
“We can win the league again, I’m certain of it.”
It sounded like the perfect opening salvo when David repeated it en route to the training ground at Carrington.
It had been a nervy taxi ride two hours earlier, but already David was now more nervous. Would he nail this first team talk? He was looking at some of the most decorated players in British football history. Ryan Giggs – THE RYAN GIGGS – was among them. Phil Neville stood beside him, a fellow member of Moyes’ coaching team, a vital lieutenant.
Two months later, with the Rooney quandary resolved and Marouane Fellaini – another player Moyes knew well – acquired to boost midfield, Moyes was well set. His team won the Community Shield in its first game and beat Swansea City 4-1 in the second. Lift off.
Six months later, with Juan Mata signed in furious desperation, van Persie disgruntled and Vidic and Ferdinand despondent, David no longer knew where this team was going.
He accepted that he’d gotten it badly wrong when he first arrived. Status quo. Why did he desperately want to preserve the status quo of a creaking regime? His mind, sat back in that Carrington office overlooking rain-soaked pitches under black skies, did cartwheels.
Trust was where he made his first mistake. Trust in the previous regime and trust in the experienced campaigners he’d stood before on that hot July afternoon. Trust that he needed a little bit of money and a little bit of help from elsewhere.
Cleverley had done okay, he thought. But the United fans didn’t like the boy. Welbeck was making superb strides, but David had to drop him occasionally because Rooney and van Persie were, well, they were there. He wanted to drop the unhappy Ferdinand and Vidic, but Smalling and Jones weren’t good enough.
Another kid, Adnan Januzaj, had featured and featured prominently. But when it began to unravel in January, Moyes looked to Ed for money to solve the crisis and they bought one of English football’s greatest current talents in Mata.
It didn’t help. Just as it didn’t help his successor Louis van Gaal who, just like the Scotsman, wanted youth to shine and preferred to trust familiar faces like van Persie and the impressive Dutch utility man Daley Blind.
But, just like David, it quickly went wrong because
Rooney was just there
Jones was still terrible and
Ed saw how the team were toiling and offered Louis some money to solve the problem.
The money didn’t solve anything.
Of course, Moyes and van Gaal would never turn down the chance to sign Mata, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falco. They had to revive a fading force, shorn of its Ferdinand-Vidic-Evra-Giggs spine. And of course, why would they jettison Rooney, the last remaining relic of that successful core?
Moyes’ meeting with his players that day was not what changed United for the worse, but the earlier meetings he’d had with Woodward certainly were. Ed lied that Moyes would be given time. He lied to van Gaal that he’d be allowed to blood youngsters. Ed wanted instant success to gratify the millions of fans who expected just that. And he had the money to do it – in his mind at least – quickly.
It sounds bizarre to say, given recent events at Sunderland, but United might be in a better place now had Moyes been afforded that time to overhaul his squad and build for the next five years. The club might be in a better place if it had never signed Di Maria, Falcao, Memphis Depay, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, let alone the now outcast Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Could Januzaj, Smalling, Welbeck and De Gea have formed the nucleus of a burgeoning young team, assisted by Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah? That’s not to mention others: Nick Powell, Michael Keane and James Wilson, each of whom were never allowed to prosper in the first place. And more: Axel Tuanzebe and Callum Gribbin, whose potential still suggests a big future at Old Trafford.
The Reds would undoubtedly take to the field without the burden currently infecting the expensively assembled side of 2016. And whose to say they wouldn’t achieve similar results? After finishing seventh, fourth and fifth since that fabled summer, and with heavy defeats to Liverpool, Manchester City (several times) and Chelsea in recent years, it wouldn’t exactly be difficult.