Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, the serpent blames nature. But rarely does life bestow a predicament in which absolutely everyone is absolutely culpable, and as such, we should be grateful to Manchester United. Well done all concerned! Most significant is the contribution of the Glazer family. Since 2005, roughly £680m has left the club on their account, compared to £0 put in – a sum that will rise to over £1bn. Or, put another way, enough to let every supporter in free to every game without compromising the ability to purchase players now beyond the reach of a club that has broken the British transfer record five times. But, after United signed Dimitar Berbatov in the summer of 2008, the board were clear that he was the last of his ilk: never again would one of the world’s richest, most commercially successful sporting endeavours, purchase a proven player at his peak. The same is not remotely so of any competitor.
At the root of this ruse is the amazing Alex Ferguson, a man more contradictory than a coalition. First voicing opposition to the takeover then ushering it in, he continued to propagate a socialist narrative as he became richer and United fans poorer, propping up the regime with his genius to assuage anger with joy.
Now, even in retirement his influence is palpable, the team he left a haphazardly constructed contraption workable only by its mad old inventor. Though this is partly a consequence of the aforementioned circumstance, the most literal midfield of all-time, containing little more than the middle of a field, is the fault of only one man, apparently bent on proving his pre-eminence by succeeding despite a self-imposed handicap.
And equally important was his role in the appointment of David Moyes, a process he was permitted to sequester as though devoid of self-interest; mitigating usurpation, say, or guaranteeing a keen and indebted ear. No, no conceivable angle whatsoever.
That same keen indebtedness also worked in Moyes’ favour with the board, its new chief executive daunted by José Mourinho – key considerations when picking the manager of a football team. And all this, along with an expiring contract, made Moyes the ideal candidate, cheap and available like all the finest things.
Ah, Mourinho. It’s often been said that replacing Alex Ferguson is the hardest job in football, a nonsense of course; United are champions, not bottom of League 2. But though replicating Alex Ferguson’s success is not hardest, rather impossible, it’s hard to dispute who’d have given it the most spirited go.
And wouldn’t everyone have known it. Mourinho at United was the competition’s most fearful scenario.
Conversely, no one has ever been scared of Moyes in anything but square go or stare-off; under him, Everton might have beaten the better teams here and there, but come the biggest occasions, they failed.
In recent seasons, both Portsmouth and Wigan have won the FA Cup, seasons in which Everton were embarrassed at home by Oldham and Wigan respectively. Mourinho, on the other hand, when happening upon a weak Champions League in 2004, made damn sure to win the thing, just as Fergie exploited an ailing Real Madrid in 1983.
Still, there were many who felt that Mourinho was not right for United, his style as man and manager not in keeping with the philosophy of the club. And though Fergie was not as committed to entertain as he’d like it believed, nor all that dignified plenty of the time, these were legitimate reservations. But what Mourinho would undoubtedly have brought is brilliance, and this ought to have been the job’s sole specific requirement, whether as coach, tactician, motivator or talent-spotter; the ability to make the crucial difference. Moyes, though, has proved himself only as decent to very good, respected rather than revered, and by virtue of the diligence that should be a given, rather revered for the inspiration that identifies the best.
And, despite its representation, the succession need not have been bipartite. Manchester City picked Manuel Pellegrini, Barcelona Tata Martino, neither obvious choices, both doing rather well. With them came a mystique and excitement that infused their clubs and confused opponents, an immediate impact that Moyes could not replicate. Even at their best, Everton were predictable, such that it was no surprise when United sought the transfer of Leighton Baines and Maroune Fellaini prior to pursuing a more centre-centric method. Almost immediately, the thrill of change was doused with the wholly known.
Nor has Moyes’ demeanour encouraged, prowling the touchline like Skeletor with a habit, public pronouncements betraying suspect judgement and conviction. Before playing Newcastle, traditionally one of Old Trafford’s politest visitors, he proclaimed the meek desire to “make things difficult for them”, and has also insulted and excused under cover of hearsay. Unnamed others cited United as fortunate champions, reminded of how long it took Fergie to win his first title, and advised that Kagawa and Rafael can play a bit – an odd thing of which to claim ignorance, as both manager and prolific spectator.
And even Moyes’ biggest success, the promotion of Adnan Januzaj, is something of a misnomer, excluding him sectionable in the circumstances. Nonetheless, the extent to which the team is reliant on him speaks badly of them all; thus far this season, they have shrunk and shirked. Naturally, they are affected by their environment and were surprised by Moyes’ appointment, their regard for him contingent upon position and recommendation, rather than accomplishment and magnetism. Trepidation was then compounded by the replacement of trusted coaches with unproven old friends and a lack of suitable summer signings, such that when things went wrong, the players had far more cause to attribute fault to the newcomers than trust their powers of resolution.
But none of this excuses their indolent, invertebrate efforts; the energy and urgency added by the return of Darren Fletcher ought to be deeply offensive. In particular, the absence of general frenzy has been inexcusable, the old indignant entitlement not returning until the final throes of the Swansea and Sunderland cup games, four months into the season.
Which leaves only the fans — least guilty but not blameless, after eschewing the boycott that would have aborted the takeover. But their support this season has been exceptional, and it is they who best appreciate the need for perspective; many endured the full 26 years without a league title and remember watching United in Division 2. And perhaps more than anything, none will ever forget the most intense and prolonged ecstasy in the history of English football, one unlikely ever to be repeated.
Quite simply, the designated mess is barely a mess at all — at worst a messlet, let alone the declared decline — and though the backing for Moyes is necessarily stimulated more by principle than reason, fear is quickly recovered. Victory over Chelsea, and Mourinho, would be a good start.
- Daniel Harris is a writer, in shorter-form and about sport, mainly for The Guardian. His new book, The Promised Land — on Manchester United’s treble season — is out now.