Thursday 22 March 2018

He's gone but not forgotten

The irony is that while David Moyes didn't actually inherit a mess, he is leaving one behind him. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images
The irony is that while David Moyes didn't actually inherit a mess, he is leaving one behind him. Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

Poor old David Moyes. He was doomed from the start. In this very column, right after Manchester United had won last year's Premier League, I wrote, "United's comprehensive title victory should not hide the fact that the team is a complete mess. It's probable that next season the weak squad bequeathed by Alex Ferguson to his successor will finish outside the top six, over 20 points behind likely new champions Liverpool, and lose more games in a season than they have since finishing fourteenth in 1989-'90."

Oh, OK then. I didn't write that. And neither did anyone else. Not a single person on the planet predicted that Moyes' first season in charge would go as badly as it did. And that's why those currently peddling the line that Moyes "inherited a bad team from Alex Ferguson" are spoofers. Though naturally I'll apologise for this slur on their character should they direct me towards the pre-season preview where they predicted that United wouldn't make the Europa let alone the Champions League.

The truth is nobody saw this one coming. How could they have? Moyes inherited a team which had won the Premier League by 11 points, the biggest winning margin in eight years. Their European campaign might have been ultimately disappointing but they'd comfortably earned a scoreless draw in the first leg of their quarter-final against Real Madrid and were 1-0 up in the second leg when the controversial dismissal of Nani turned the game on its head.

They didn't look like a team in decline and anyone who says they did is merely proving the words of the great George Benson that "hindsight is twenty-twenty vision," without having the decency to add the funky jazz guitar solo.

The return of Jose Mourinho to Chelsea and the usual dip into the wallet by Manchester City made it seem likely United wouldn't have things all their own way this season but they still looked a decent bet to retain their title.

That's why it's extraordinary to hear people parroting the canard that Ferguson in some way handed Moyes a poisoned chalice. Ferguson may bear some responsibility for the season United have endured but that's because he saddled good players with a manager who wasn't up to it, not the other way round.

The former Everton boss was a strange choice from the word go. It was reminiscent of the time Chelsea appointed André Villas-Boas and their thinking seemed to be that this young manager might be the new Mourinho because he'd just steered Porto to a European trophy. United, and perhaps Ferguson himself, seemed beguiled by the notion that Moyes' dourness and Scottishness made him the ideal replacement for a gaffer virtually defined by these qualities.

But the striking thing about Moyes' CV was that, unlike Ferguson who arrived at Old Trafford with a Cup Winners' Cup victory and three Scottish league titles under his belt, he had never won anything. His work at Goodison Park was honourable but there is an enormous difference between keeping a team away from the drop zone and actually taking the leap required to amass some silverware.

In all those years, despite having a squad which was usually stronger than 75 per cent of their Premier League rivals, Everton could not win either an FA Cup or a League Cup. Last year's 3-0 Goodison Park trouncing of Everton by Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup quarter-final should perhaps have rung a few alarm bells at Old Trafford.

Wigan's manager Roberto Martinez became Moyes' replacement at Goodison Park and you could argue his performance there was another factor in United's decision to sack their new manager. Because the notion of Moyes as a kind of miracle worker who had extracted the maximum from a limited Everton team took a severe knock as Martinez brought the team into contention for a Champions League spot. Everton's last four Premier League finishes under Moyes were eighth, seventh, seventh and sixth, this season they will finish no lower than fifth and might yet make fourth.

Martinez has achieved this with a style which always eluded Everton under Moyes. The Toffees never reached the 60-goal mark under their previous manager; with three games left this term they're already up to 57. The sight of Everton flourishing in his absence added to the pressure on Moyes so perhaps it's not surprising that his old club's 2-0 victory this day last week finally brought the curtain down on the whole sorry farrago.

The irony is that while Moyes didn't actually inherit a mess, he is leaving one behind him. The most notable millstone Moyes has hung around the club's neck is the new £300,000-a-week four-year contract awarded to Wayne Rooney. This apparent panic measure amounts to a massive bet on Rooney's ability to drive United towards the top. Rooney is not a negligible presence for United but he is a fitful one, a flat-track bully whose best work comes against inferior and beaten teams. He has scored three goals against the top eight teams this season.

What Moyes has done is effectively saddle the club with Rooney for the remainder of the player's career when they might have been better off cashing in on his inflated reputation. Right now, it beggars belief that there was a time when people spoke of Rooney in the same breath as Cristiano Ronaldo. In the last three seasons Ronaldo has scored 160 goals for Real Madrid. In the same period Rooney has managed 68 goals, 16 less than the injury-prone Robin van Persie, nine less than the serially-suspended Luis Suarez and five less than Sergio Aguero. It's hard to see how his galactico-level wages can be justified.

A couple of moments in that defeat last week told us a lot about where Rooney is now. Late in the game he was bundled off the ball with ease by Seamus Coleman who then tore up the field and almost set up a third goal for Everton. Haggard of feature, spare of frame and palpably hungry, Coleman burns with the intensity Rooney has lost. Later still, Rooney was put clean through but struck his shot straight at Tim Howard. A precise finish, the kind Ronaldo or Suarez routinely summon up, might have given United a sniff at saving the game. But Rooney's lazy finish and his apparent unconcern about it again underlined Moyes' folly in hitching his team's star to a player in decline.

His successor will have to deal not just with Rooney but also with the prospect of the very best players finding Old Trafford a much less inviting prospect with no Champions League football on offer next season. He will also have to rebuild the confidence of the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young who seemed utterly undone by the malaise of the Moyes era, brief though it was. Nemanja Vidic has already voted with his feet and will be joining Inter Milan at the end of the season. Anyone who thinks that the 32-year-old didn't have a lot left to offer United should take a look at the performances of 33-year-old John Terry at the heart of the Chelsea defence. He will be a significant loss.

Moyes may yet do a job for Villa or Newcastle or West Ham but he was overmatched from the start with United. Right up to the end he was still denying reality, babbling on in the interview after the Everton match about United passing the ball well and having plenty of the ball and giving away bad goals.

The endless comparisons with Wilf McGuinness, sacked 18 months after taking over from Matt Busby, are wholly inaccurate. McGuinness actually inherited a team which had finished 11th in the 1968-'69 season and moved it up three places in the following campaign. He really was left with a mess to clear up.

Moyes' reign is more like that of Brian Clough, who in 1974 took over a Leeds United team which had won the league title the previous season, and quickly reduced it to rubble. The Clough reign lasted only 44 days but the Moyes era had the same air of lunacy about it and will probably take on a similar legendary aura.

In years to come our children and grandchildren will ask us about it. 'Was it really that bad?' they'll ask. 'You have no idea,' we'll say. And neither did poor old David Moyes.


Boston marathon here for long haul

There's always been something special about the Boston Marathon.

The antiquity of the event for one thing, it's almost as old as the race itself, having been on the go since 1897, a year after the 1896 Olympics which introduced the marathon to athletics.

But it's never seemed as special as it did on Monday last when 36,000 people ran the race just one year after the bombing which killed three people at the finish line. "Take back that finish line," the race announcer shouted to them at the start. And they did.

They included 28 people calling themselves the 4.15 Strong group, all of whom were among the 260-plus injured last year and some of whom were running the marathon for the first time. Among them was Lee Ann Yanni, a 32-year-old Boston woman, who had her right leg broken and its muscles damaged by shrapnel in last year's blast when watching at the finish line, but who returned to run this year's race in 5:47.05.

These heroes remind us that there will always be more people in this world running than planting bombs. That's why the Boston Marathon will continue on long after the names of the bombers are forgotten.

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