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A Tragedy at the Theatre of Dreams, starring David Moyes

22 April 2014

11:33 AM

22 April 2014

11:33 AM

And so the axe fell and the crowd cheered for they loved nothing more than a good beheading. They had been waiting for this execution for some time and would have grown restless if they had been denied their head very much longer. Now the deed is done and they are booting David Moyes’s napper up and down the Stretford Road.

We all knew it was coming and Moyes, being an intelligent man, must have known it too. His ten month reign at Manchester United has been perhaps the greatest – and also grimmest – drama since Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44 days in charge of Leeds United. Hello David Peace, you have your subject now.

Paradoxically, one of the few souls to emerge from this Tragedy in the Theatre of Dreams with their dignity intact is Moyes himself. He has clung to his beliefs even as the evidence supporting his faith collapsed around him. But what else could he do? He has been victim and protagonist, saddled with unreasonable expectation and unable to meet it or his own ambition. If Moyes has not always put Manchester United in the best position to win this season Manchester United did not put their manager in the best position to succeed either.

Only a year ago the old king was saluted as the Great Wizard of the North. His final coup a championship with an army universally reckoned to be inferior to those deployed by at least two of his rivals. This was a final act of alchemy that concealed the weakness of House Old Trafford. Its foundations were less secure than they seemed as Fergie’s infantry went over the top for one last charge to glory. Win one more for the gaffer.

They did and everyone agreed no-one else could have done it. Now Moyes is pilloried for a slump that has seen Old Trafford looted by houses that would once never have dared to dream points could be plundered from Fergie’s fortress: Newcastle, Stoke, Swansea. To lose to one of these might be unfortunate, to lose to all three looks worse than careless.

But all statistically improbable streaks come to an end eventually. Newcastle and Everton would win in Manchester eventually. That these setbacks did not occur on Fergie’s watch does not mean they could not have done. Moyes has made mistakes  – perhaps many of them – but he has also been saddled with misfortune. Give me a lucky general, Napoleon said, and Moyes has not been a lucky commander this year.

There was, it is true, some reason to doubt his ability before he was elevated to the Old Trafford throne. A lack of european experience, a lack of trophies won, a lack, most of all, of victories against the so-called “Big Four” clubs.

Most of all, however, Moyes’s problem is that he is not Alex Ferguson. A failing made more piquant by the fact Ferguson selected Moyes to succeed him because the Everton manager reminded Fergie of his own younger self. Moyes, the chosen one, was the closest thing to a son Fergie could find in the eligible managerial ranks. A bastard son, as it turned out, and a Red Wedding that ended in disaster.

All of which adds an extra layer of pathos to Moyes’s tragedy. Fergie’s ghost would have haunted any successor but the weight of expectation hung more heavily upon a son unaccustomed to life at Manchester United’s altitude. No wonder Moyes has often seemed breathless and confused.

A dramatist might even hint that there’s a tiny sliver of satisfaction somewhere in Fergie’s dark heart. Sorrow, too, of course, but also the comforting realisation that the Great Man really was irreplaceable. The embarrassment at seeing his chosen successor fail is tempered, at least a little, by this demonstration that Fergie really was unique. If Moyes had succeeded better it would, in some small way, diminished Ferguson’s last championship. Made it less unlikely, less special. It is not enough to succeed yourself, your friends must fail.

Moyes was expected to make changes while keeping the essence of the club the same. Perhaps he should have kept more of United’s backroom staff. He could have made better use of their institutional knowledge, their experience of the Manchester United way of doing things. Perhaps he could have moved on more of Fergie’s old guard. Ferdinand, Vidic, Giggs – all a year older, a year slower and, importantly, less motivated to win for the new man in charge. Belief cannot be summoned at will but the greatest sides are saturated with the stuff. Though not this Manchester United outfit.

Moyes enjoyed the respect of his peers but they did not fear him. Perhaps – for these things are essentially unknowable to outsiders – his players did not fear him either. And by season’s end they no longer respected him either.

It can be a cruel business. Consider Marouane Fellaini, the new prince’s favourite for whom too much was paid and from whom almost nothing received. He became Old Trafford’s fool, pilloried for every hopelessly clumsy touch of the ball. A lead-footed symbol of all that had gone wrong. Teased and taunted and mocked to distraction, stumbling proof that Moyes was not up to the job.

And how delicious it was for other houses to see the fall of the House of Ferguson. What a pyschodrama! What entertainment! A joy given extra depth by Everton’s success this year. Why, it was almost as if they did not miss David Moyes at all. Indeed, Everton’s winning run played an important, often overlooked, role in Moyes’s demise. It mocked his abilities just as surely as his struggles in Manchester suggested a man hopelessly over-matched. It made him seem just another guy, not very different to any of the other guys on the managerial merry-go-round. The Chosen One? Really? I mean, Sam Allardyce could probably have taken Manchester United to seventh place too.

Even the greatest clubs, however, suffer seasons of unremitting grimness and unrewarded toil. Look at Milan, seventh in Serie A this year. Or Internazionale, fifth and more than 30 points adrift of Juventus. Even Barcelona and Real Madrid have, in living memory, endured seasons of significant disappointment. In America, the New York Yankees failed to make the play-offs last year. It happens.

Perhaps Manchester United will recover. You would expect them to do so. The club is too rich – despite being looted by its owners – to fail forever even if they will, by virtue of their ownership structure, struggle to match Chelsea or City in the transfer market. Succession planning is never easy. The corporate world tells us that. So does politics. It took the Tories three leaders to get over Margaret Thatcher; Labour still have not come to terms with the legacy of Blair.

Moyes, however, was supposed to bring change within continuity. Alas, half a revolution destroys much that was good in the past without the compensating progress of a new beginning. Moyes, in the end, was neither quite one thing nor the other and so became the fall guy. A fall to which, of course, he contributed but for which he was by no means solely responsible.

Which is why this has been such an engrossing season. Pitiful and in some sense terrible too and thus a proper sporting tragedy. Gruesome but compelling and unmissable.

Football, bloody hell, eh?

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