David Moyes – how did it all go wrong for him, and can he resurrect his career?
On New Year’s Eve, Sunderland were hosted by Burnley at Turf Moor. After some hustle and bustle in the opening 10 minutes, the Black Cat’s centre-back Lamine Kone crashes into the advertising hoardings. Thus, John O’Shea, who has started in midfield, is forced to play centre-back. Shortly afterwards, upon being inexplicably tackled by own teammate Papy Djilobodji, O’Shea heads the ball into the path of Andre Gray. 1-0 to Burnley, albeit aided by a Vito Mannone error. After a few minutes of painful Route 1 tactics in windy conditions, a flash of brilliance by Januzaj, who goes past one player, and then another, and plays a quick pass to Fabio Borini who, crucially, has his shot blocked. And then Victor Anichebe, the key ingredient of Sunderland’s mini-revival earlier in the season, loses the ball, and while sprinting to retrieve it, pulls his hamstring. Half-time score: Burnley 1 – 0 Sunderland. Two injuries, two substitutions, two schoolboy errors, one inconsequential moment of brilliance and zero cohesion – a microcosm of Sunderland’s season. Final score: Burnley 4 – 1 Sunderland.
Where did it all go wrong for David Moyes, one might wonder. In 2005, he was the blue-eyed boy of English football, having led Everton to 4th place in the Premier League. The fans, press and even other managers were fawning over him, in much the same way they do over Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, today. Those who have slightly longer memories will remember that the current Leeds United manager, Gary Monk, was also a promising English manager, who led Swansea to 8th place in 2015 – but he was sacked as well. As with players, there is no guarantee that early managerial promise translates to later legendhood. In fact, due to the reluctance of English managers to move abroad, compounded with the lure of television money for foreign managers, it is unlikely that we will ever see another great British manager.
But even considering all of this, the problem with David Moyes is slightly more complex. Sir Alex Ferguson revealed much after the fact, that Moyes was the 6th choice for the post of Manchester United manager, and was nominated as the “chosen one” purely because the other five (Guardiola, Mourinho, Klopp, Ancelotti and Van Gaal) were all under contract or had promised to take up new positions the following season. In short, the unavailability of others led to Mr. 6th choice being anointed as the next United manager. We know what happened next – a scene gorier than the combined Saw movie franchise.
With the exception of Paul Scholes, who retired, the squad mostly remained the same. So, why did one Glaswegian succeed while the other failed so miserably ? Even after months of acclimatization, United had no discernible style under Moyes. Whether one likes it or not, Van Gaal had a style, and one is emerging currently under Mourinho. But if the players sense that a manager is dispensable, then he is sure to be dispensed with, notwithstanding style or lack thereof. This explains why stories of player revolts regularly do the rounds at Chelsea, where Scolari, Ancelotti, Villas Boas, Di Matteo, Benitez and Hiddink have been in and out of the revolving door, whereas no player dares question the God-like figures of Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger.
No too long ago, no one dared question Paolo Di Canio when he was at Swindon Town. Think about it: would a Troy Archibald-Henville, or some other unknown League 2 footballer desperately trying to climb up the ladder, have the gonads to challenge arguably the most talented player to have graced the Premier League? But at Sunderland, the players weren’t as kind. Later, the world’s favorite fascist gave a lengthy interview about the focal point of the players revolt – the banning of ketchup in the training ground (because it wasn’t good for a footballer’s diet), in much the same way that Moyes banned chips because he felt a few players were overweight.
Tattle-tale that he is, Rio Ferdinand has said since, that as soon as Moyes was sacked and Giggs installed as his successor, the first action that Giggs took was unbanning chips. But would players back a manager like Moyes, who infamously commented that Man City are ”the sort of level [we] are aspiring to” after a 3-0 drubbing against their local rivals? No way, Jose (pun intended). Life never treats those with a lack of self-belief kindly, and United is no exception. Always Cantona over Veron. Always Ibrahimovic over Berbatov.
But it was after his ignominious departure that Moyes found himself in a real pickle. Pride from being a former Manchester United manager meant that he could not take over the reins at a lower level Premier League/Championship club unfitting of his stature. Further, and this is key, one gets the feeling that after a monumental humiliation at United, David Moyes would have been thinking to himself: “I need to prove my critics wrong”. The minute this mindset enters one’s psyche, it is game, set and match. No longer does one enjoy the game, nor is it about money. You are haunted by that one defining failure and the need to set things right (there must be at least a dozen sports movies on this theme). What better way to show a middle finger at the naysayers than to come up trumps in another unforgiving environment? After all, if one can’t climb Everest, there’s no better way to silence one’s detractors than attempting to climb the K2 during a winter storm.
And so Moyes took the Sociedad job – it was a colossal risk, because failure would demote his stock further, and failure was likely, given that Sociedad had lost Illarramendi, Griezmann and Claudio Bravo. Mind you, he was also very unprepared – not only did he not know Spanish or the names of many of his players, but he also lived out of a hotel throughout his tenure, which was one day shy of a year (Aside: foreign managers going house-hunting endears them to the local population, compared to those who stay cooped up in hotels). What didn’t help either was that Moyes was an “old-school” hardworking manager with 20th century tactics, as opposed to the laptop and data analytics managers of the 21st century like Tuchel or Loew. While Moyes did quite well in the first season (taking over from 19th place and ended in 12th), his second season was a disaster from the first minute. Despite investing heavily for a club of Real’s modest means, a disgraceful 2-0 defeat to fellow strugglers Las Palmas meant that the pride of San Sebastian were in the relegation places after 11 rounds. After this game, Mr 6th choice stated, true to himself, that “the players have to improve, and so do I”. And that was the end. The fact that they eventually finished the season in 9th place (under the new manager Sacristán), and currently lie in 5th place doesn’t make his record look any better.
This year, when the FA said “Arise, Ser Allardyce”, Moyes decided that the best way to improve his reputation would be to manage another struggling team. After all “Can Guardiola win the league with Sunderland?” is the managerial version of “Can Messi do it on a wet Tuesday night at Stoke?” To aid Moyes was the absolute fact that Sunderland must have been a cat in its previous life, given how many times they have narrowly escaped relegation (17th, 14th, 16th and 17th in the last four seasons). But results and the quality of football have been atrocious so far, the self depreciation has started yet again, and in recent weeks, no press conference is complete without grim complaints of a lack of quality in the squad. Form had improved slightly due to Victor Anichebe (the ultimate hoofball centre-forward who now plays as winger to accommodate Jermaine Defoe), but much like Manchester United and la Real, it seems to be a case of false dawns. To make matters worse, Sunderland are heavily in debt (both due to poor signings and a penchant for sacking managers), and according to Moyes, will find it hard to afford loan fees, let alone transfer fees. The injury to promising goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has left the Black Cats in serious trouble.
It’s all a bit disheartening – in a world where billionaires become Presidents and one’s career is decided mostly by one’s connections, David Moyes has epitomized the working class ideal of climbing up the ladder by sheer hard work, honesty and determination. From a youth footballer in Iceland to playing alongside a young David Beckham at Preston, then managing them, and succeeding Walter Smith at Everton (while finishing above Liverpool in the league on multiple occasions), from the glory days of being handpicked as the successor of Sir Alex Ferguson to potentially getting relegated with Sunderland, it has been a roller-coaster ride for the Scot. Boxing Day 2016 will be remembered as “the day Mkhitaryan scored the scorpion-kick goal in the same week that Giroud scored another scorpion-kick goal”, but it was also David Moyes’ first visit to Old Trafford after his sacking. Aside from one handshake with Fred-the-Red, it was a return marked with complete indifference by the home supporters. No one cared. No one even seemed to remember.
On the one hand, if Sunderland can somehow escape this season, and Ellis Short sells to the club to a tech billionaire or a Saudi prince, perhaps it will mark the turning point that Moyes is seeking so desperately. But on the other hand, if the inevitable were to happen and Sunderland was to go down, whether he likes it or not, there is a strong chance all but two options will have been eliminated for David Moyes. The first is a move to Celtic, (because it is unlikely that they can retain Brendan Rodgers for too long, and his Celtic past rules him out of the Rangers job), which he has rejected previously. The second is as the manager of the Scotland national football team. Pride will come in the way of a role in the English Championship, as well as a journey to manage in the money-drunk Chinese Super League. Either way, I hope for his sake that he does not allow the rest of his career to be overshadowed by one nightmare at the Theatre of Dreams.