When Manchester United players escaped into the Athens night on Tuesday, heads down, lights down on the team bus and without giving a single interview in the mixed zone — even to the club’s own television channel — they sent out a message that was not difficult to interpret: this squad of players doesn’t want to take responsibility.
It is all too easy to say David Moyes is to blame for recent results; that the players don’t like his system, don’t enjoy his training methods, don’t think he compares to Alex Ferguson, don’t have confidence in his methods. But really it is all lame excuses.
Moyes is a good man and a good manager who holds the respect of just about everyone in the game so the problem cannot lie entirely at his door. When Ferguson stepped down at Old Trafford last year everybody in world football knew United would have a difficult transition period as the club adjusted to a new era; and certainly the players knew it too. Their job was to make it as easy for the new manager as possible by taking responsibility for performances on the pitch. The bottom line is they haven’t done so.
One of Ferguson’s last parting messages, during an emotional farewell speech at Old Trafford, was directed to the fans in the Stretford End. “I’d also like to remind you that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me, all my staff stood by me, the players stood by me,” he said. “Your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important.”
The United fans have taken that message to heart and, even during the most miserable season the club has seen in more than 25 years, they have backed the new man. There have been no boos, no ‘Moyes out’ chants, and when negative comments have appeared online calling for the manager to be sacked, the silent majority have stepped forward to challenge the madness.
If only the players could say the same because it seems Ferguson may have aimed his last words at the wrong people. He should have been addressing the dressing room not the stands.
Look at the performance in Athens. It wasn’t only Moyes who found it inexplicable — so did dozens of pundits who previewed the match suggesting United have been starting to re-find their form in the Premier League and would win comfortably. Nobody could have predicted the lame, passionless, aimless display that lasted until the 80th minute — and yet all 11 players who started the match have championship medals from last season.
Not one of them took responsibility and even star striker Robin van Persie, whose goals won the title last year, is not showing the kind of commitment that should be a prerequisite for pulling on a Manchester United shirt.
Rumours persist that van Persie is still sulking after signing a contract at Old Trafford on the premise that Ferguson would be staying for the duration — and that he has been reluctant to play when not 100% fit. Who knows if that is true but he gave critics further ammunition with an interview on Dutch television after the defeat to Olympiacos, suggesting the team’s current system didn’t suit him.
“Our fellow players are sometimes occupying the spaces I want to play in,” he said. “And when I see that it makes it difficult for me to come to those spaces as well. So that forces me to adjust my runs, based on the position of my fellow players.”
Does that sound like a team player to you? Does it sound like a player who is taking responsibility for his performance and doing everything possible to help a new manager in ‘the impossible job’ of replacing a legend?
Nobody would say Moyes is blameless for the disastrous way the season has gone so far, he will be the first to say he is disappointed at the way things have turned out and perhaps he has struggled to cope with the change in mentality required when moving from Everton to United; but neither can he be totally to blame for the performance of players who — we have always been led to believe — are some of the most professional in football.
It’s time for those players to take responsibility.
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