Tuesday 20 August 2019

Cautious Moyes doomed to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Dion Fanning

Last week, The Guardian published a picture of three football men engaged in an exchange of ideas sometime in the 1980s. John Toshack, Terry Venables and the late, great Howard Kendall were sitting in a Spanish restaurant, clearly mulling over the important issues of our time.

Toshack is holding a notepad and pen, possibly making a football point. The four tankards of lager in front of them on the table may well be arranged in a narrow midfield formation as Tosh uses them to illustrate his position. Venables has another tankard in his hand. These three men were entirely relaxed in their environment, and there were certainly no issues surrounding cultural assimilation.

The picture appeared above an article, which had originally appeared on the excellent website, The Set Pieces, telling the story of a time when British coaches were in demand in Spain.

If we hadn't known already, the picture made clear that these were hommes serieux engaged in vital matters. The British football man was on the continent and, as the writer Nick Miller pointed out, in 1987 seven of the 20 coaches in the Spanish league were British.

On Friday, David Moyes gave his first interview since he was dismissed as manager of Real Sociedad. Moyes was eager to rebut the claims he hadn't done enough to embrace the local culture or learn the language. Some of the criticisms centred on the fact he had never moved out of the San Sebastian hotel he stayed in when he first arrived.

Moyes joked it was a very fine hotel and added that he had been about to move into an apartment just before Christmas but unfortunately the club were not going to wait.

"Look, the club had shown me apartments that just weren't suitable. But in the end I'd actually found one, right on the sea front, and I was planning to move in before Christmas. They were just sorting a few things out. It needed a new kitchen."

Again we are provided with an insight of a man who likes things just so. This was the Moyes who worried about showing up to Alex Ferguson's house wearing jeans and who had to wait until the new kitchen was installed before he could move into a home.

In this, we see how far the football man has travelled. Miller's article told us that Kendall lived at the training ground at Athletic Bilbao, an arrangement he described as "fabulous", while the only way Tel would show any interest in home improvement would be if he had acquired a competitive rate from a firm of local builders and a share of future earnings in return for posing for some promotional material in his new kitchen. This, after all, is the man who invented the Thingummywig, a hairpiece which would allow women to go out while wearing their curlers.

Moyes is, of course, right but what good is that now? Nobody wants to be surrounded by builders and the folk memory at Real Sociedad of Chris Coleman arriving late for a press conference because he claimed his washing machine wasn't working lingers. With that precedent, why take the risk of moving into an apartment before the kitchen is functioning properly?

In the 1980s, the BBC broadcast a documentary about a man called Hilary Hook. Home From the Hill told the story of his return to England after a lifetime living in Kenya and the problems he encountered in the land of his birth. Hook was baffled by the modern supermarket, fleeing with two bottles of Scotch and two bottles of vodka after his first visit. Hilary generally struggled having become accustomed to certain things during his time in Africa.

The modern British manager appears to leave the land of their birth with the same reluctance with which Hook returned to his.

When Coleman blamed the washing machine for his tardiness, it transpired he had, in fact, been in a nightclub the night before.

"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. Any of us who have found ourselves in the wrong place - a nightclub - at the wrong time - 5.0am and not, say, 3.0 in the afternoon - would have understood.

We would have sympathised also with the slightly bewildered tone as if there had been some sort of baffling accident which had resulted in him ending up in this wrong place at the wrong time. As Myles na gCopaleen would have put it, nobody was more surprised than himself to find himself there.

Informed by this history, Moyes was characteristically cautious and waited until the kitchen was installed. This will possibly go down as a strategic error on a par with his refusal to spend the several hundred million pounds Manchester United were making available to him until he had conducted a thorough and painstaking review of every aspect of life at Old Trafford.

There is an absence of urgency in Moyes which suggests he may now struggle in any job where he is placed under microscopic and intense examination, which is all of them.

He took Spanish lessons twice a week, he says, but couldn't attend more because of the demands placed on him as manager.

Nobody would question Moyes' thoroughness but he may have failed to grasp a reality of modern management: there is not only a need for progress, there is a need to believe that progress is being made, even if that progress only involves the manager speaking more Spanish this month than he did last month.

Moyes makes the valid point that he had attended more B-team games than previous Sociedad managers. "I feel a bit aggrieved when they talk about the culture."

This may be the problem for the modern British coach. They can't shake off the suspicion that they would rather be somewhere else, that this is an exile from the land they love and whose practices they understand.

With their tankards of lager, Venables, Toshack and Kendall looked out of place but they were in the right place. Their successors can't shake the feeling they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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