We are privileged to be witnessing one of most absorbing football dramas of modern times, wondering if one man can take the place that another made his own for 27 years.
Only those eaten by the bitterest tribalism would not want David Moyes to succeed – so affirming the quality of a British manager who believes in British players. But the contemporary desire for tidy, instantaneous answers about whether he has what it takes will not be satisfied for months yet. If your bottle’s half full you’ll say Manchester United haven’t lost in five games. If it’s half empty you’ll say that for most of Saturday afternoon they played like a team who will be relegated.
“Storms expected on Monday” the signs on the Old Trafford approach roads declared at lunchtime. Darkness had set in before United’s players determined that they would not allow one to rage 48 hours too soon.
We all reach for simple precedents in our relentless attempts to organise ideas about how this unprecedented situation will play out. Both Moyes and the Stoke City manager Mark Hughes, who once had cause to dream of being Sir Alex Ferguson’s chosen one, were asked whether the two goals in two minutes which earned United’s 3-2 win, might be the “Mark Robins moment” from which Ferguson moved on to greatness in January 1990, following four dark years of struggle. “No,” replied Hughes, who laid on Robins’s goal at Nottingham Forest that day. “Come on! What’s he had? Eight games? That’s ridiculous …”
Hughes’s own recollections of United’s desperate 1989-90 season amplified just how over-simplistic the notion actually is. He recalled United going to Millwall a full month after the “Robins moment” and falling 1-0 behind, when defeat would have left Ferguson marooned in the relegation zone. They emerged with a 2-1 win but it was another wretched day. Ferguson tried everything to find the winning touch that season. It was around the time the clocks went back that he took the players to Dunblane for some golf and relaxation. The net effect: a friendly fixture to inaugurate St Johnstone’s new stadium which was “a monstrous embarrassment, a really stinking performance by us” as he later described it, leaving him more morose and desolate than ever.
The stakes are higher for Moyes. Failure to make a top four finish – which Hughes observed late on Saturday will be “difficult” for him – would see United stand to lose around £15m in revenue, by the club’s estimate, but more significantly be plunged into the struggle to sign elite stars that Liverpool have come to know. Will they turn this corner?
The continuing effervescence of Adnan Januzaj – “of all the young players I’ve seen over the years he is right up there in the top one or two,” Robin van Persie said on Saturday evening – is at the top of the list of reasons to believe so. The negativists’ ammunition includes the visible physical pain Van Persie is displaying, which threatens United’s single world-class partnership. The striker is taking injections in both of his small toes and there is an associated groin problem. “I’ve felt better,” he said. “The last couple of weeks it’s been quite tough for me. I’ve been sore in a couple of places and I want to play through that.”
Saturday’s central defensive muddle, with Nemanja Vidic’s calf problem prolonging his injury troubles, served only to underline Ferguson’s recent observation that “if Vida stays fit we have a fantastic chance, you know that”. Vida currently isn’t staying fit.
Other aspects of the malaise reached right back into the Ferguson era. Hughes first targeted Patrice Evra’s aerial weakness at Ewood Park, five years ago, when, as Blackburn manager, he billeted Roque Santa Cruz against him. This time Peter Crouch was selected for the same purpose, to the same effect. To see Chris Smalling so overwhelmed by Marko Arnautovic – Stoke’s stand-out player – was less expected.
These are all small details against the broader picture of how – as the football world keeps saying – the “aura” has gone the same way as Ferguson. Yes, Moyes will probably never ask his players to “run up that hill, then come back and cut down that tree” and hear them reply “Right boss, where’s the chainsaw?” as Ferguson memorably defines Phil Neville’s work ethic in his new autobiography. But is the absence of “aura” a permanent, immutable state of affairs? Can Moyes only succeed by being what his predecessor was? No and no.
Moyes is hard, analytical, scrupulous, tireless. His side are eighth. He shows no sign of being damaged by the firestorm around him. He has a fighting chance.
Shawcross and Van Persie have a bit of afters
Manchester United’s Robin van Persie and Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross were involved in a tunnel altercation after the teams clashed on Saturday.
Van Persie seemed to mutter something under his breath to the Stoke defender, who was giving an interview. Shawcross, who was booked by referee Lee Mason in the dressing room at half-time after clashing with Van Persie as they left the field, turned and responded.
Van Persie, who has scored in his last seven games against Stoke, was part of the Arsenal team who have had an issue in the past with the Potters’ physicality. He was sent off for following through on goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen after coming on as a substitute at the Britannia Stadium in 2008. Sorenson later admitted helping to wind up the striker.