When David Moyes walks into the hall at Old Billingsgate in the City of London a week today, at the League Managers’ Association awards dinner, his status among his peers, the vast majority of them British and working in the Football League, will already have been transformed.
Not just that he is the new manager of Manchester United but something more than that. A manager who has been given what every one of his fellow managers craves as they consider the hierarchy above them – which is to say a chance, an opportunity, a shot at the big time.
There is no denying Moyes’ talent and his sheer bloody determination to pull Everton up, an incremental improvement year after year. They defied their modest net spend on transfers and, in doing so, they defied the brutal financial logic of modern English football and much of that they owed to Moyes’ endeavour.
But even the great managers need an opportunity. Sir Alex Ferguson needed one when he was appointed by Aberdeen in 1978, having previously been sacked by St Mirren. Arsène Wenger needed one when he was relegated with Nancy from the French championship in 1987. Rafa Benitez needed one after he won promotion from Spain’s second division in 1998 with Extremadura and then went straight back down.
In English football, we have become so accustomed to writing off British managers or fretting over their perceived lack of big club experience that the elite game has largely talked itself out of promoting them. It was for that reason that United’s appointment of Moyes last week was such a welcome parting of the clouds over the native coaching fraternity.
It has got to the stage now where the careers of British managers have, on the whole, hit a glass ceiling, that Manchester City will have argued that there was no British option as they prepared to sack Roberto Mancini. With foreign owners and now, at City, foreign executives, they have little chance. Too many are not given the second and third chances that their European peers are routinely handed.
Since Moyes took Everton to that fourth-place finish in 2005, a feat unequalled by any manager working to a similar budget, Chelsea, for example, have appointed six managers, including Avram Grant, and not once do they appear to have considered Moyes. The assumption is that, for the big jobs, the overseas manager is simply a better option.
Yet in countries like Spain, France and Portugal, opportunity for young managers abounds. They give their brightest young coaches good jobs, and when they fail they give them another. After Wenger was relegated with Nancy he was immediately appointed by Monaco in the top flight. Within 12 years of his first day in the Nancy manager’s office, he was moving into Highbury.
For Moyes, it has been 15 years since he took charge of Preston North End in what is now League One and yet, incredibly, there are still those who wonder whether the job has come too soon. He might never have won a trophy at Everton – these days, very few do – but then he has never been relegated or sacked.
Benitez was sacked twice in his early managerial days. In his first job at Valladolid, he was sacked to make way for a coach who eventually saved them from relegation. At Osasuna he was sacked after seven games. In the authorised biography written by a friend of his, Benitez is said to have feared a third sacking “could doom him to obscurity”.
Instead, he got his break. A promotion with Extremadura and then, after they were relegated, another with Tenerife earned him the job at Valencia. And it was not as if Benitez, just out the Segunda Division, was being handed any old club. The previous season, Valencia had finished fifth, missing out on Champions League qualification on goal difference.
Of course, when it comes to giving young managers a break, there is nowhere quite like Portugal. As a virtually unknown translator and then assistant coach, Jose Mourinho gained his first managerial job in charge of Benfica, the club with the most league titles in Portuguese history. Andre Villas-Boas had managed for just seven months at Academica Coimbra when he was given the Porto job.
To put the scale of that opportunity in perspective, when Villas-Boas was given the Porto job they had been champions of Portugal in six of the previous eight seasons. His entire managerial experience comprised of steering a club that was bottom in October 2009 to 11th the following May. It would be the rough equivalent of United appointing Mauricio Pochettino this summer, although Pochettino is much more experienced as a manager than Villas-Boas was in 2010.
Aidy Boothroyd, for example, was just 35 when his Watford team were promoted to the Premier League. Like Benitez, 38 when he took Extremadura up to Spain’s Primera Liga, Boothroyd’s Watford lasted only one season in the top flight. Yet when he was finally sacked by the club in November 2008, Boothroyd’s next job was a step down at Colchester United in League One.
Seven years on from Watford’s play-off final victory, Boothroyd is back at Wembley on Saturday. Having dragged Northampton Town up from the foot of League Two, he takes them into the play-off final against Bradford City for a place in League One.
Boothroyd is a capable, talented coach. But seven years after he was promoted to the Premier League, then its youngest-ever manager, he is obliged to fight his way up from three divisions down. A glance at the CVs of many of the foreign managers at our elite clubs will tell you that their ride to the top of the game was smoother.
What United have done with the appointment of Moyes is look beyond the currency of trophies and seen the wider picture of a manager’s career: the upward trajectory, the innate qualities and, yes, the promise. While, as ever, there are no certainties of success, the rationale is sound.
For an ambitious manager operating to the maximum of his abilities, the opportunity afforded to Moyes is something to be prized. The reason it feels like a surprise – a surprise that we are not preparing for the coronation of Mourinho, or Jürgen Klopp – is because top English clubs had previously given up on British managers for far too long.
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