That famous Steve Jobs quote about how you can only connect the dots backwards has gotten me thinking. I remember Ferguson standing in the centre circle at Old Trafford and saying: “This club stood by me through tough times, so stand by your new manager”, and I think he had a feeling about what was coming. He may have known that David Moyes would test our collective patience, but he may not have known the extent. Old Trafford, once a venue where giants of domestic and European football were beaten, has now become a place where teams like West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle and Swansea pick up points. To add insult to injury, Roberto Martinez, who became coach of Everton and replaced Moyes, came to Old Trafford and collected three points. Everton currently sit in fifth, four points ahead of a team with vastly more resources, with over half of the season gone.
It may be that Ferguson saw part of himself in Moyes, but it is unclear what it was, exactly. Moyes turned 50 in April, but by the time Ferguson was 50 (in 1991), he had broken the Rangers-Celtic dominance in Scotland over a decade earlier. Ferguson won three of Aberdeen’s four Scottish League titles to date, before embarking on a rescue mission at Old Trafford. Upon taking over the team on 6th November, 1986, United were 19th out of 22 teams in the English First Division, and had not won the league for 19 years. If there was anyone in Britain who could say he wanted to knock Liverpool off their perch and mean it, it was Ferguson. He knew the mentality required to break an established order. He also knew the mentality required to sustain one.
This is the context within which we must assess Moyes. He has been given one of the biggest clubs in the world to manage, a team that finished 11 points clear of their nearest rivals less than 9 months ago. No amount of preachments and shibboleths can erase these facts. It therefore stands to reason that the parameters used to define ‘patience’ in the late 80s at Old Trafford, cannot possibly be the same parameters in 2013.
I would be the first to admit that had Moyes taken United straight into another title fight, I would join others in applauding him – and Ferguson – for masterminding a nearly seamless transition. However, this is not the case, and the time for an inquest is at hand. Indeed, it has already begun.
The managerial stability at Old Trafford is legendary, and is no doubt a thing of pride for its supporters all around the world. There have been 20 changes of authority in the dugout, but Real Madrid by contrast have had 60. In fact, there have been 27 managerial appointments at Real Madrid since Ferguson took over in 1986, which is more than all the managers United have ever had. A similar pattern plays out among many of Europe’s top clubs.
Having said that, there is such a thing as stability for the sake of stability. The three managers before Ferguson had a total of 14 years between them: Tommy Docherty (5 years), Dave Sexton (4 years) and Ron Atkinson (5 years). They only managed three FA Cups, Atkinson winning two of them and Docherty the other. In fact, Atkinson, who preceded Ferguson, had league finishes of 3rd, 3rd, 4th, 4th and 4th in his five full seasons in charge.
This is not 1986. United have a lot more to lose now than they ever did, and they also have the example of Liverpool’s decline as a cautionary tale. While Anfield sleepwalked through the 1990s and 2000s, living off the occasional cup winning high, United arose, as well as Chelsea, and Manchester City. Wenger’s savvy has seen Arsenal remain competitive, and Liverpool now find their route back into the big time blocked by these four teams.
My suspicion is that some think United have one or two seasons to allow Moyes to get things right. If this ‘patience’ comes at a cost of missing out on Champions League qualification in back to back seasons, it becomes a lot harder to attract the kind of players that can take a team to the next level, something Liverpool are finding out. Professional footballers love money, but they also want the glory, and they know that in today’s hypercommercialised environment, both go hand in hand. With teams like PSG, Monaco and City able to splash the cash, in addition to the traditional European powers, United are far from the only ones looking for – or able to afford – top talent.
One thing we know about the fall of empires, is how fast things can unravel. In theory, much of what Ferguson spent nearly 27 years building could be significantly eroded inside five years. He could yet live to see his legacy irreparably tarnished. The irony of this would be that it happens under the watch of a man he personally recommended to take over from him.
Some would say that Ferguson earned his right to choose his successor, but as far as the Glazers are concerned, it is probably as much a payback for his support for their regime, as anything else. I would be surprised if they are not privately wondering if that was a mistake.
Under Moyes, Manchester United have set unwanted record after unwanted record on the field, taking confidence among the players down with it. It is not just that results have taken a turn for worse, it is also that there is no consolation of having played well. Dire results, dire performances.
By all accounts, the Glazers are prepared to back Moyes substantially in the transfer market, but the kind of players United needs are hard to come by in January. On current form, the club may be unable to offer new recruits Champions League football next season. Therein lies the problem. One minute you are Premier League champion, the next minute you could be struggling to retain your place at Europe’s top table.
Of course, it is still possible that Moyes turns results around, secures Champions League qualification, and marches on with aplomb. It is possible that we could look back a year from now and wonder what the fuss was about. It is also possible that we look back and remember that this is where it all went wrong.
As for Ferguson, the words of Harvey Dent come to mind: “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.