Watching Sunderland beat Manchester United in the first leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final last night was a doubly painful experience for me. Not only did I miss out on “Welbeck to score first” at 6/1, but as a Newcastle fan I’m going to be in for some banter-led abuse.
On paper, it should have been a sure thing. The biggest club in the country, on the back of two straight defeats and in desperate need of a response, against Sunderland, a team that currently sits bottom of the league. Cup conditions or not, you’d have expected the Red Devils to go and do a job.
They didn't; and the campaign for Moyes’ head is growing strong.
I live in the South East so finding some United fans to talk to wasn't hard. “It’s underachievement” said one, “He just can’t motivate them,” added another and “He was the wrong choice all along,” concluded one more who would have preferred Jose Mourinho in charge.
Of course, there are some apologists as well: “He needs more time,” “Let him sign his own team,” and “Remember, it took Fergie five years,” are similarly bandied about the bar.
But Moyes’ position is much more complicated than a matter of stick or bust. There’s a twist to be considered too.
If United sack Moyes it’ll signal a catastrophic loss of face; a club that prides itself on stability won’t want to succumb to a mid-season change – I mean, they’re not Chelsea after all.
On the other hand, there has to be a limit as to how long this grace period can really last. Pointing towards the board’s patience in Sir Alex Ferguson’s early years is fast becoming cliched. United were teetering on the brink of relegation when he took over, and he needed time to build. Moyes, however, adopted reigning league champions; and it’s a very different game.
We’re watching football at a time when TV rights, advertising and most of all money mean everything in the sport. So, as far as marketing ploys go, hiring a man who hadn't been heard of outside of England (be honest), probably wasn't the right way to go. Able only to attract the likes of top six players rather than top two, Moyes resorted to Marouane Fellaini after his reputation failed to tempt more suitable marquees. The Belgian has since proven himself to be an insufficient long term replacement for the genius that was Paul Scholes.
The point about United’s midfield, though, isn't necessarily Moyes’ fault. It’s a concern that was around even when Ferguson was still the boss, and indeed questions about that man’s effect on Moyes’ reign should not be brushed aside.
We’re constantly reminded that Ferguson chose Moyes - why? There are two explanations doing the rounds. One is that it’s a simply like for like switch – two angry Scots with an antipathy towards referees; while the other is to my mind, more astute. For the reason of pure gravitas, Ferguson’s achievements cannot be surpassed, but for the younger United fans, it’ll be little more than a parroted history lesson from their Dads. The new manager will be how they know United and Ferguson’s ego perhaps wouldn't allow that. Bring in a superstar like Mourinho and Fergie is confined to little more than fond nostalgia; but if the new guy fails, even in absence he is still the man. Ask yourself, why didn't Fergie sort out that midfield when he had the chance?
Psychologically, some sympathy must be afforded to David Moyes having to work under these conditions. Old Trafford is haunted by a spectre, the ghost of Fergie’s past, and the constant comparison can’t be much help at all.
But sympathy should only be extended insofar as Moyes deserves it. An unlucky loss here or there might be excused under the cloak of transition, but 11 points and six places behind the pace in the league while crashing out of the FA Cup to Swansea, and with a further cup exit to Sunderland now a distinct possibility, something just doesn't seem to float.
I’m a great believer that a manager shouldn't necessarily be sacked for the results that have contributed to the rot, but rather when there is a loss of faith in his ability to turn it round. Sadly, this latest run of defeats is not the first for Moyes this season and questions are rightly being asked.
Ultimately, there is no easy solution. I don’t think that sacking Moyes will serve as a sudden panacea, but equally I know that letting him finish outside of the top four would be a disaster for Manchester United. They can ill afford an exodus from an already aged squad, while losing Champions League football would be a further blow to their reputation. Moyes’ appointment was a gamble and now all the board can do is see how it pans out.
His position is at best conditional. If he finishes in the top four, the board are obligated to give him another go. If he wins the Champions League, I don’t think anyone will complain about him ever again. In the event that he achieves neither, perhaps it's best United cut their losses and start again.