They have established a routine of talking after matches, so we can assume that Sir Alex Ferguson, presently in New York, has told David Moyes that every setback has a precedent at Manchester United and that no kind of angst his successor might be feeling now can equate with his own.
United lost 4-1, 5-1 and 6-1 to Manchester City in Ferguson’s time and the second of those scorelines, suffered at Maine Road 24 years ago yesterday, has many echoes of the indignity that befell Moyes on Sunday. It was Ferguson’s first away derby. He had new players – Mike Phelan, Paul Ince, Gary Pallister and Danny Wallace – on display. And the result prompted an inquisition severe enough to make Moyes’ afternoon at the Etihad look like a tea-party.
Emlyn Hughes had already awarded Ferguson the OBE – “Out Before Easter” – at the time and so severe was the onslaught that it’s quicker simply to name the journalists who offered Ferguson hope that he would survive that autumn. The Manchester Evening News’s David Meek, and Rob Shepherd, who filed for Today, ought to have their published observations framed on the wall.
Ferguson described years later how he had asked himself that day what he was doing wrong. “I was convinced the training was fine and the players’ general fitness was good,” he said. “Analysing my team selections, my preparations for matches and my tactics I couldn’t see a major fault.” He was driven into isolation and couldn’t face socialising: not even a quiet drink with his assistant Archie Knox.
The point being that it is folly to make too many grand pronouncements about the broader significance of what befell United on Sunday. Ferguson’s side turned the corner four months after that living hell at Maine Road and the same rules of unpredictability exist today. You’ve only got to look at who tops the Premier League – Arsenal – to know that much.
Moyes requires space – wide acres of it – to accomplish a task almost without precedent in the modern era. He is the first manager in the elite English league since Brian Clough at Leeds in 1974 to go into a club and be asked to defend someone else’s title. And though he offers a nod to Ferguson almost every time he opens his mouth to talk United, there is an unspoken truth about the quality of his inheritance. It is just nowhere near as enviable as last spring’s emphatic title success suggests.
The cold fact is that Moyes has acquired a squad equipped with only two game-changing players – Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie – and one that was propelled to the title in a weak Premier League last May by the sheer bloody will of the man who has now walked away from it all. Ferguson’s ferocious resolve to avenge the manner of the club’s deposition by City – all the players will tell you about the Churchillian moment when he climbed aboard the team bus home from Sunderland on 13 May 2012 – created a heady mix of fervour and fear in his men’s minds. He made them better than they were. Patrice Evra was not wearing a smile when he told me last December: “He’ll sack us all if we give up this lead.” United had just gone six points clear at the time. You can’t inherit that mind-set. It’s not available in the transfer market.
We know that Moyes can engender that kind of sentiment, too, even though the 10 per cent drop off in intensity from his players on Sunday was shocking to behold. “The moment your relationship broke down there was no way back,” his Everton midfielder Lee Carsley once said – and Moyes has brought to United a work ethic hewn from even harder granite than Ferguson’s. “No one else is doing this now,” he would tell his Everton players as he threw them into a hard training session while other clubs would be engaged in a warm-down on Mondays. The United players will tell you that training has become more intense – and contrary to a few of the rumours swirling around, they do not seem to be averse to it. Rooney has said publicly that he likes the change. Van Persie has done so privately.
It is the Everton ethos reincarnate, where the drills were always designed around the team being hard to beat. Some would like to characterise that kind of culture as one of conservatism and caution, designed only for the proletariat of the Premier League, though that is a dangerously simplistic leap to make. Moyes, like Ferguson, is absorbed by the science of football. It was Carlo Ancelotti who, when Chelsea manager, described him as his most formidable tactical opponent, so frequently did he adapt his team’s shape on the hoof during games.
Which brings us back to Sunday, when Moyes’ solitary substitution – Tom Cleverley for Ashley Young – certainly did not scream “We score when we want”, as United’s supporters have cared to do over the last few seasons. The switch seems to reflect the time it is taking Moyes to trust those players at his disposal. Marouane Fellaini, released up the field by Cleverley’s presence, is a player he has more faith in than Luis Nani, whose occasional glitter does not come with guarantees attached on the field. That Moyes feels the same about Shinji Kagawa, limited to 71 minutes of competitive football this season, is mysterious, though not a conclusion he will have come to lightly.
The way Moyes is also clinging to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand like a couple of life rafts reflects the same uncertainties about some of the defenders. Not everyone believes Jonny Evans is one to bet the house on against the best in Britain. It has been Moyes’ misfortune that Phil Jones, a player of genuine potential, was unfit to play on Sunday and the same can be said of Rafael da Silva.
After Liverpool have materialised at Old Trafford tomorrow night, United’s landscape assumes a flatter perspective. West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Southampton, Stoke and Fulham all loom into view – a sequence that entitles United to believe they can soon be around the top. The current complexion of the Premier League table, allied to that dismal desire in football to knock down immediately those who are built up, make wins imperative and convincing ones at that.
It will be a time for Moyes to learn about fearlessness and to play the gambler a little, in a way that Ferguson, with all his riches, so often did while he, a man of modest football means down the motorway, did not. And until the advent of the first transfer window he will have planned properly for, Moyes will need to employ some of his powers of alchemy. It’s hardly base metal he is working with at Carrington, but not all those who glitter at United are gold. They let him down desperately on Sunday.
Sir Alex seeks novel promotion – for his book
Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, meanwhile, strides off in more than one new direction. The timing of the release of his new autobiography makes Real Sociedad’s arrival in Manchester to play a Champions League tie on 23 October something of a sub-plot. And though the name of the business formed to handle the ex-manager’s commercial interests – ACF Promotions – does not reveal him to be launching himself on the scene with very much razzle dazzle – it does suggests that he will not be retiring to the “bath in chair in Torquay” which he so often reminded us of.
Al-Jazeera categorically reject rumours that they have signed Ferguson for several lucrative appearances, once his book is published and the attendant sell-out publicity tour completed. But promotions – the one part of football life Ferguson never needed bother himself with – do seem to be part of the future landscape.