Moyes plight proves player power will always call the shots
Published 01/03/2014 | 02:30
Some years ago, Niall Quinn told me the story of a Sunderland footballer who decided he'd had enough of life in England's north-east. His desire to get a transfer was articulated by the virtual downing of tools.
In pre-season, the player barely broke sweat, strolling through sessions with the urgency of a swaying oak tree. Heart monitors measured individual energy expenditure and, in his case, he could have been out walking an arthritic dog.
Manager and team-mates fumed, because – deep down – they knew precisely where this was leading to. He was one of the club's bigger earners and someone, thus, who knew that his talent had a market.
Sunderland could, of course, have played hard-ball, fining the player, tossing him into the reserves and hoping that – in time – the experience might introduce him to the concept of professional responsibility.
But what if it didn't? What if they were left with a £40,000 a week sulk, playing in the Central League?
It wasn't a gamble worth taking, so this Charlie Big Potatoes got his move to another Premier League club, where, surprise, surprise, things didn't quite work out either. The player is still playing mind, still taking home more in a week than anyone wearing his name on a replica shirt will probably take home in a year.
But his story exists as a kind of living parable for how, in professional football, managerial power is a largely obsolete concept today for all but those who are accumulating silverware. So, if David Moyes feels bad getting up to go to work these days, he must feel infinitely worse the moment he opens the dressing-room door.
In Paul McGrath's autobiography, 'Back from the Brink', Alex Ferguson describes his early days as Manchester United manager and a growing realisation that he was doomed to failure in trying to win some of the senior players over.
"I had to be ruthless," he reflects. "I felt if I don't make my mark, I'm going to die here. And if I don't do it quickly ... "
Ferguson's way was to move two of the club's best, but least disciplined players, McGrath and Norman Whiteside, out of Old Trafford. It would take him four years to mould a team he wanted, but, given that United hadn't been champions in 20 years, he was afforded the necessary time. For Moyes, that luxury will not apply.
Just now, he too probably feels he is "going to die" unless he makes his mark, but how precisely does he do it?
On Tuesday night in Athens, Wayne Rooney's new £300,000-a-week contract seemed to have reduced him to almost docile outbursts of vexation with the match officials rather than prompt anything resembling serious competitive aggression. And Robin van Persie followed a mind-numbingly tepid outing in attack by suggesting, essentially, that United's tactics were confused.
Having thus thrown his manager under the bus, Van Persie did what footballers do better than just about any other professionals. He took a few steps down the mixed zone, then spoke out the other side of his mouth.
"He is new and needs time," he said of Moyes. "It's easy to point at the manager, but that's not who I am!"
The story of Moyes and United is probably already beyond repair now. Not because his management skills aren't good enough, but because his job has been subsumed by the monumental egos of those around him. Tactically, technically, philosophically, nothing that Moyes now brings to the United dressing-room can truly matter if the big players are not listening.
True, a key part of his job is to get those players to listen, to sell his vision for the club to footballers for whom his life thus far in the game must seem dreary, low-watt stuff.
When last season's runaway Premier League champions lose a game at Stoke, the obvious thing, the easy thing is to ask what has changed in a year?
Supporters' anger, naturally, thus settles upon the new manager, but should it not equally arc its way towards high-rank players now playing, palpably, with a different intensity to what they summoned under Ferguson? Moyes, we are told, was the old manager's preferred choice as his successor and there can be any number of theories why.
But what is beyond argument is the brewing sense that that choice is now doomed. For there is no new game plan, no new set of managerial philosophies that can assuage the stubbornness of players who decide a manager is not quite up to it.
In any other industry, that might constitute some kind of scandal. In football, it is simply life, perfunctory, cruel, humdrum even. The game has many glories, but few enough true heroes.