Sunday 18 February 2018

Chosen One fighting for life as he suffocates in Fergie shadow

Ferguson: Keeping a watching brief
Ferguson: Keeping a watching brief
James Lawton

James Lawton

Jose Mourinho was said to have been sleepless for 24 hours after hearing he had been passed over in the race to succeed Alex Ferguson.

Now we can only speculate on how much David Moyes would give for such brief deprivation.

If Moyes ever had any illusions about the luxury of the football life that awaited him at Old Trafford, they are surely over now. You can see it in his increasingly drawn expression – and the growing idea that in moving from Everton to Manchester United he simply exchanged one fight for survival for another.

There is, however, a huge difference. At Goodison Park, he was facing a challenge for which his background and temperament made him entirely suitable.

He had only one option. It was to impose the values he had made for himself in a career in which only supreme commitment would separate him from those who each year swelled the legion of football losers.

Overachievement, the beating of odds, became his professional life and the more he did it, the deeper became the esteem of all those who recognised his extraordinary ability to make Everton competitive in a way utterly beyond their means.


Each year he had to pick a player or two and impose the same old imperatives of running and fighting a little harder.

Now that very success, seven straight seasons when he finished no lower than eighth, and the remarkable push for Champions League football in 2005, is a whip to lash him with as United flounder 12 points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal – and five behind his old club after this week's demoralising home defeat.

Moyes, after shaking hands with his conqueror and successor at Goodison Park, Roberto Martinez, conceded that United now faced a major task of catch-up even to win a top-four place.

He could hardly do otherwise under a bombardment of statistics which included the most damning one that United's haul of just 34 points since the start of April leaves them 20 points shy of Arsenal's mark – and also trailing Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton by embarrassing margins.

Seven months after Alex Ferguson delivered the Premier League title by what now seems a scarcely believable 11 points, ninth-placed Moyes can only brace himself for the possibility of fresh trauma when Newcastle United arrive at Old Trafford tomorrow.

If it should happen, we will have another reason to believe that Moyes' fate is not to ride the seamless success created by Ferguson, give or take a few obvious and easily affordable adjustments from time to time, but to survive the consequences of what is beginning to look increasingly like corporate neglect.

Of course, he has a six-year contract and of course United would face withering criticism if they submitted to panic and quickly ejected the man who was lauded as the Chosen One when Ferguson finally walked away. Well, he hardly walked away and some see this as part of the problem.

Certainly, if there was anything more excruciating for Moyes this week than his brave-faced chore of congratulating Martinez on Everton's first win at Old Trafford in 21 years, it was the inevitable TV picture of Ferguson brooding in the stand.

For the moment, there is the relief of some impressive performances in the Champions League, but with four defeats in the Premier League, including another at home at the hands of West Bromwich, even the old assumption of automatic qualification for the big league is in jeopardy.

It means that Moyes is confronting an entirely new spectre, for him at least, if not the club.

United have been here before in the wake of the creator of a great football dynasty.

After Matt Busby's retirement, some of English football's most notable managers were forced to give way to the pressure.

After the over-promoted young coach Wilf McGuinness found that his hair had gone white in the course of 24 hours, Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson all inhabited the shadows of past achievement before Ferguson arrived in 1986.

When Sexton, who had done so well at Chelsea, told Busby that he needed to sign Peter Shilton to underpin his team, he was left in despair by the reply: "At Manchester United we do not spend so much for a goalkeeper."

Ferguson soon enough strode beyond such old restrictions, he made his own empire, but will Moyes have as much time – or freedom of choice?

What he can surely argue, at least within the walls of Old Trafford, is that he is in charge of a squad in drastic need of refurbishment.

His values may be secure enough, but with Robin van Persie injured and some still doubtful about Wayne Rooney's ability to produce sustained evidence of his current revival, his resources are looking variously time-worn or just plain inadequate for the challenge of competing seriously with the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and the resurrected Arsenal.

the shelf life of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic also appear to be sharply curtailed; Patrice Evra's old vibrancy is in shorter supply, and the first major attempt to reinforce an ailing midfield with the £27m signing of Marouane Fellaini is causing more embarrassment than uplift.

The priority for Moyes is to produce a January shopping list which might create the first wave of vital renewal.

The Scot has to be strong in his convictions about what constitutes his kind of player – and his type of team ethos.

He may even have to say the unsayable, which is that his job is not quite the gift it was painted when Ferguson came down from the mountain top with the name of his successor.

Rather it is the huge one of creating new momentum under the crippling pressure of what in English football is quite unique.

We have to see more examples of undiluted anger at performances which would have enraged him, at least to some degree publicly, when he was leading Everton to unlikely levels of achievement.

Decency says that he should still enjoy considerable time to make his mark. But then, whenever was such a quality the touchstone of a football club gorged on success? Moyes may have less time than he imagines.

The best he can do is say it precisely as it is. He isn't, after all, so much playing catch-up as fighting for his life.

Irish Independent

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