Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

Hard to see a way back for David Moyes after Manchester United's Athens debacle

Full stretch: Ireland Iain Henderson (centre) during training in the Ireland camp in Belfast

The David Moyes debate is now as hollow as his team's performance in Athens this week. The jury isn't so much out as in a coma, one induced by months of failure to find a case for the defence.

For some this may sound like a rough assault on the professional standing of a football man of unquestioned integrity, who for a decade gave Everton a life beyond their means.

But we are not talking about Everton now. We are talking about Manchester United, a great club falling to pieces in front of our eyes.

Everyone accepted that United's 11-point title win last season was, more than anything, a tribute to the enduring ability of Sir Alex Ferguson to galvanise a group of footballers and his sure-fire reading of the short-term effect of signing a restless, trophy-hungry Robin van Persie.

Now the team is about as galvanised as a pot of gruel on low heat and Van Persie, the erstwhile hero, has become a parody of a single-minded, hugely rewarded professional. His performance on and off the field in Athens was crushing evidence that Moyes has to look elsewhere for the kind of commitment and moral leadership he has so desperately craved these last few months.

Wayne Rooney is making the right noises now that he has become the corporate emblem of preserved ambition, at £300,000 a week, but then his past record is hardly a monument to consistent application. The rest, as Roy Keane, put it so scathingly at the disaster scene this week, is a body of workers which has become simply unfit for purpose.

Keane talked about the need for six major players, six major characters. Unavoidable, though, is the most pressing need of all. It is a manager who is plainly in charge of both himself and his players. Moyes did that impressively enough at Goodison Park, but when he moved to Old Trafford he faced a whole new set of demands.

The most vital concerned his ability to preserve a thread of leadership, a capacity to affect players so long conditioned by the uniquely aggressive style of Ferguson.

Here, by his own admission, he has run into a brick wall.

One statistic screamed from the 2-0 disgrace against Olympiakos. It was that United had produced one shot on goal. Translation: the United players didn't try a leg, certainly not a meaningful one guaranteed to disrupt the commendably committed but hardly devastating Greek team.

For the United hierarchy, it left a critical question which would have been answered, we can be sure, in only one way by such serious rivals as Real Madrid, Chelsea and, in their more stately manner, reigning European champions Bayern Munich.

All three of these football behemoths have made their statements about the kind of managers they would countenance at the first hint of failed momentum.

All three jobs went to Champions League winners – respectively, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and, the supreme example of seeking the best available leader for a team already favourites to win club football's greatest title, Pep Guardiola. Instead of such certainties, United invested in Moyes' commendable but trophy-less track record. Essentially, they entrusted Ferguson to pass on the baton. So far, the only beneficiary is Ferguson's own reputation.

When we look at Moyes we see a man plainly experiencing not so much the great, inspiring challenge of a previously fine career but some ultimate ordeal.

Given his nature, he will surely fight this bleak conclusion. But for how long can his employers indulge such a questionable luxury? Athens certainly brought a sense of the end of something.

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