We liked to think our club was different. But the graceless sacking of David Moyes has shown Manchester United fans that our pride in the longevity of Old Trafford’s managers was a fond myth.
This is an impatient age in which nothing is as myopic as money. The denizens of the Theatre of Dreams have finally learned what has long been a commonplace for supporters elsewhere. We liked the idea of long tenure, of steady stewardship, of bringing on young players, of cultivating local talent. But the world has changed around us.
Sir Alex Ferguson may have been given a long time to settle in when, in the old days, he began what proved to be his glorious reign. But I do not think even Fergie would have been handed that time had he begun in the present era.
Among those with whom I have had exchanges on Twitter in the immediate post-Moyes period was Professor Paul Gilroy, the celebrated cultural studies writer. He tweeted that Moyes’s sacking showed that “economic expediency trumps aesthetic and ethical concerns”.
There was nothing aesthetic about playing badly, I replied, nor ethical about Moyes’s consistent failure to improve. For which Gilroy upbraided me. “I always thought spectator sport was about learning how to manage disappointment not a machinic right to constant triumph,” he riposted.
That is a singular view of spectator sport (unless you’re an Arsenal fan, of course). But it set me thinking about the psychology of success.
For decades United fans took winning almost for granted. Yet a full spectrum of emotions could be encompassed within that. The United fans around me in N3404 block – especially the World’s Most Boring Man who drones on endlessly behind me – used to complain even when we were winning if they felt the victory was not stylish enough. This season has been an interesting corrective to all that.
Of course, we expected some slippage after Fergie. We were braced to fall to third or fourth but no one anticipated the cascade of catastrophic firsts which Moyes achieved, one after the disastrous other, in his Miltonic tumble from Chosen One to Frozen One. The ousting of Moyes may have been graceless but it was inevitable.
Ah, but Moyes is a decent hard-working man, the apologists said. He should have had more time. In the old world he might. But decency is only a necessary rather than a sufficient condition.
Moyes lacked the charisma to carry off his reported instruction to Rio Ferdinand that the man who was, in his time, the finest defender in the country, should sit down and watch a video of Everton’s Phil Jagielka and study his moves. “What the fuck has he ever won?” was the Champions League winner’s alleged response.
Moyes’s tactical locker was bare, as the 81 fruitless crosses against Fulham in February showed. His instruction to United’s midfielders not to get ahead of the ball left our forwards isolated and the rest of the squad bemused. In 51 different games he chose 51 different teams, suggesting he didn’t have a clue what his best side was.
He lacked the swagger and the pride we needed. Liverpool came to Old Trafford as the favourites, he conceded. United should “aspire” to be like City. “I don’t know what we have to do to win,” Moyes said after the defeat at Stoke. Perhaps someone else would have a better idea, the board finally decided.
It was a judgement to which the fans had been reluctant to rush. He had, after all, been anointed by the infallible Fergie. But though there has been much criticism of the cack-handed way Moyes was dismissed, there is little but relief that the hapless manager has departed.
All the talk now has shifted to who will replace him. Only a minority of fans look beyond that to the structural problem which has really brought Manchester United to this place. For the current crisis only underscores the fact that the real problem is the disgraceful leveraged buyout by the Glazer family which saddled the club with debt. And that is where Prof Gilroy is right to talk about economic expediency.
Follow the money is the old maxim. The book Soccernomics, by Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper, has demonstrated how money buys success. There is a direct correlation between a club’s wage bill and its position in the league. A mere 10 per cent of managers, like Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, achieve more than their player’s wages would suggest.
The genius of Sir Alex Ferguson hid this truth from United fans for years. By sheer force of will and personality Fergie kept Man Utd at the top far longer than ought to have been the case once clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City had dramatically overtaken United in spending. In those clubs rich men were constantly putting their own money in. At United the Glazers only took money out.
Fergie was the greatest of that 10 per cent of over-achievers. But once he had gone the reality of the economics began to exert its gravitational pull. Moyes did not have the character, charisma, ego or sheer will to resist it. “It’s the economy, stupid,” as Bill Clinton famously observed.
The future of Manchester United is being decided by the family which loaded vast debt on the club and the banker who organised it. They are hoping that the current hoo-ha will keep the spotlight from their inadequacies.
United fans should not be surprised if things get a good deal worse before they get better.