Ian Herbert: Looking back may be out of fashion but David Moyes believes retro can work at Manchester United

Sport Matters: Just look at Clough as the prime practitioner of going back
  • @ianherbs

They say you should never go back – and some Manchester United fans may recall, from the darker recesses of those distant pre-Ferguson days, what can happen when a new Old Trafford manager hires players from his previous club, as David Moyes did late on Monday night by securing Marouane Fellaini’s services for his own onward journey.

Ron Atkinson brought in Bryan Robson, Remi Moses, Peter Barnes and Laurie Cunningham to United from his previous club, West Bromwich Albion, in the 1980s and though you might say the single hit from that quartet more than compensated for the rest, one out of four is certainly not a great success rate.

No one is expecting Fellaini to be a Captain Marvel – has there ever been a cooler reception for £27.5m of United money spent? But a window which has also seen Everton manager Roberto Martinez go back for four of his old Wigan Athletic players had given rise to some serious grumbling before the sun set so splendidly on Goodison’s own transfer business. “Everton look more like relegated Wigan than top-four hopefuls,” read one of the midsummer headlines and as Monday night approached you felt that a storm might be brewing at a club with three draws to show so far this season.

For evidence of how fans really don’t care for their new manager returning for old possessions these days, just look at Liverpool. The footballing challenge facing Joe Allen there is how he can assume the sheer physicality to command the old No 6 role which Brendan Rodgers plucked him out of Swansea for – with that £15m price tag still looking a bit steep. But he’s also had the uncomfortable task of having to live with the label of being Rodgers’s anointed one, purchased to make Liverpool play the Swansea way. It didn’t much help Allen’s cause that Liverpool people remembered Roy Hodgson going back to Fulham for Paul Konchesky – a player who improved the club about as much as the new manager did – rather more than Bill Shankly wanting to buy Denis Law from his old club, Huddersfield Town.

But is this managerial harking back quite as regressive as some supporters would have it? Well, it’s not universally unsuccessful: that much is for sure. You only have to look at Brian Clough, the prime practitioner of how to take your belongings with you. No one but Clough saw much initial value in John McGovern and his waddling gait but he was the man who twice hoisted the European Cup aloft, having been signed by Clough for Hartlepool, Derby, Leeds and Nottingham Forest. Clough managed John O’Hare in four places, too: the Sunderland youth team, Derby, Leeds and Forest. He took Archie Gemmill from Derby to Forest and only needed those 44 days at Leeds to see enough in Frank Gray to bag him for Forest. It was Peter Taylor’s decision to copy this habit of his old partner’s – going back to Forest for John Robertson when Derby manager himself – that caused the desperately deep split between the two of them.

Managers will tell you that it is not a lack of imagination that makes them return for old familiar faces. Rather, it is a need of someone who lives and breathes the football philosophy they are trying to inculcate. And above all it is a need, in the difficult, cutting, political environments which dressing rooms can be, for the new man stepping through the door to know there is someone behind it he can depend on to go to work for him and encourage the others to do the same. Those observers who criticised Mark Hughes for going back to Blackburn to sign Roque Santa Cruz for Manchester City overlooked the straight choice he had when seeking a striker in the summer of 2009: it was either Santa Cruz, who had scored 23 goals for him in 2006-07 and who, Hughes will tell you, was one of the most unbelievable players in training, or Edin Dzeko – an excellent prospect he didn’t know as an individual. It was for the same reasons that Hughes signed Ryan Nelsen – as good a pro as they come – and Andy Johnson on free transfers for Queen’s Park Rangers from his previous clubs, Blackburn and Fulham. He and Craig Bellamy had the same understanding.

“When you arrive with a philosophy of how you want the game to be played you want a player who knows it, will buy into it and will communicate it,” an individual who has frequently gone back to former clubs in recent years tells me. “A lot of people don’t appreciate that you take into account what that player brings in terms of personality and discipline. You know those players will come in and influence things around them. Managers need to be able to rely on certain players in that way, because players like that degree of self-regulation.”

Rafael Benitez, the Napoli manager and Independent columnist, has rarely gone back for former players – his Spanish armada at Liverpool included only Fabio Aurelio from his former Valencia squad – but he, too, sees the value in former players “getting” the system and becoming de facto assistant coaches. Benitez wrote about Pepe Reina, whom he has taken to Napoli, in such terms on these pages only last week.

And then there’s the more basic psychological element too, of course. The need of someone on your side, buttressing your ego, at that dreadfully fragile time when you know that those individuals in the dressing room are sizing you up, forming their rapid first impressions. Peter Davenport tells how even Sir Alex Ferguson was “like a kitten” when he read out his first teamsheet, away at Oxford United on 8 November 1986 – so nervous he managed to read out Davenport’s name as “Nigel” by mistake.

Some may question the decision to convert the Moyes-era Everton to a more technical, passing game but the club have brought in Martinez because that is his form of football. He is there to introduce it, even though a consensus within the game is that changing the philosophy so embedded over 11 years by Moyes is a formidable task. We’ll find Martinez doing so slowly, subtly – perhaps making the most pronounced alterations on the back of a couple of wins. His shopping trips to Wigan have been decent, incidentally: especially James McCarthy for £12m and goalkeeper Joel Robles for what looks like a steal at less than £1m.

So we won’t find many inside the game denigrating those who go back – with other practitioners including Howard Kendall (who moved Peter Reid, Paul Power, Adrian Heath, Alan Harper, Wayne Clarke and Mark Ward between Everton and Manchester City), Harry Redknapp (Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch, Scott Parker, Niko Kranjcar and a vast supporting cast) and Neil Warnock (Michael Brown, Michael Tonge, Paddy Kenny). Plus Peter Taylor (the current England Under-20 coach, not Clough’s former sidekick), who liked Junior Lewis so much he signed him six times.

Yet there are some who can run a club for years and not once cast a glance to the fields they have foregone. Ferguson is not, strictly speaking, in that number, having returned to Aberdeen for Jim Leighton in 1988. But there is no greater sense of that Glaswegian steel than the stories of how he ventured forth into the transfer market during his first Old Trafford summer, in 1987, confronting a sudden explosion in transfer fees and with relatively little money to spend.

He bought Brian McClair, Viv Anderson and Steve Bruce for a mere £2m all in, missed out on John Barnes because of a scout whom he never forgave and raged when Newcastle rejected his offer for Peter Beardsley, who went to Liverpool instead. From the first day to the last, Ferguson only ever looked ahead.