Reprieve arrives at last for Moyes as ageless Giggs hushes terrace talk of mutiny
Outside Old Trafford after the calamitous defeat to Liverpool, an elderly Manchester United fan called Ray used a word that stuck in the subconscious of all who saw the video clip of his rant. The word was "bobbins", Mancunian rhyming slang that means "bobbins of cotton – rotten".
For weeks now United's followers have been trying to decide what they feel about David Moyes. The lame Champions League defeat at Olympiakos and the 3-0 home loss to Liverpool pushed many to the edge of revolt. With his impassioned, finger-jabbing speech into a hand-held camera, Ray was both a parody of an indignant fan and spokesman for the frustrations of Old Trafford regulars.
Here in this Champions League second leg all the Rays in Manchester were finally given something to cheer for, to get behind, as Ryan Giggs reminded us what United have been lacking in central midfield, and Robin van Persie – another who had allegedly fallen out with Moyes – scored a hat-trick inside 51 minutes before leaving the field on a stretcher in the 90th minute.
The recall of Giggs reaffirmed how pedestrian and uncreative United's central midfield play has been this season. He provided two perfect long-range passes to set up both Van Persie's first-half goals: the first from the penalty spot, the second via a sharp pass from Wayne Rooney. The equaliser (on aggregate) lifted the boulder off United's spirits. Old Trafford rocked and rolled as a quarter-final place was suddenly visible and Moyes allowed himself a proper, Alex Ferguson-style celebration on the touchline.
Six minutes into the second-half, United were ahead in the tie as Van Persie completed his hat-trick from a free-kick brought about by a foul on Danny Welbeck on the edge of the Olympiakos penalty box. Old Trafford found its full European voice: the one silenced by the dismal tumble from Premier League summit to upper-mid-table scrabbling.
"He's ripped our heart out," Ray had exclaimed in his infamous cri de coeur. "We were absolutely bobbins [against Liverpool]. It's stone age football this guy is playing. He's not got a scoobie doo what he's doing."
Many passing fans stopped to laugh at the old guy from the Matt Busby era sounding off. But the popularity of the clip on YouTube was another small sign that the loyalty of fans was at snapping point when this game kicked off.
Despite the instability of the 1970s and '80s, United are synonymous with the managerial dynasties of Busby and Ferguson. A major reason for Moyes' appointment was that his patient work at Everton marked him out as a long-termist.
Here was a young coach who had earned a shot at the big time and might shape the club for a decade. The three-year cycles on which most big European clubs now operate were a modern vulgarity to which stable, tradition-driven United would not succumb.
The fans bought into this, hailing Moyes as 'The Chosen One' on a banner that still hangs above the Stretford End, despite rumours of a debate about whether it should be taken down. The match-day programme featured heavy praise for the fans and an implicit plea not to turn on the manager. Moyes was first off the rank.
"The one thing that really stood out was your magnificent support up in the stands," he wrote. "There was nothing to shout about on Sunday, but despite the situation, you gave everything in support of your team and did your club proud."
Then Rafael: "We're playing at Old Trafford and with or fans behind us, anything is possible." Then Paddy Crerand: "Our fans have never let United down, they are there when they are needed most."
A party line, plainly. It was almost novel to see club, players and fans united. The focus was where it ought to be: on the team, who bore a mighty responsibility to come up with a dynamic performance. Not to save their manager but to restore their own honour and credibility.
With so few bodies in central midfield, and Olympiakos creating so many chances, the suspicion was that Grade One opponents, starting with a 2-0 lead, would have knocked United out. United simply rose a notch or three closer to where they were under Ferguson.
They reached that higher level on the back of Giggs's long-range passing and Van Persie's finishing. But they lived dangerously as Olympiakos squandered chance after chance. Bobbins? Not on this occasion. The Moyes debate is suspended, a Champions League quarter-final beckons. (© Daily Telegraph, London)