Monday 9 December 2019

Moyes' appetite for a food fight cost him at Trafford

United boss failed to appreciate footballers' immaturity

'The job is hard enough without going into battle over low-fat chips'. Photo credit: Ian MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images
'The job is hard enough without going into battle over low-fat chips'. Photo credit: Ian MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Sadlier

Dragons' Den star Theo Paphitis did many positive things during his time as Millwall chairman. He ran the club his way based on the success he had elsewhere, but not everything he did was met with widespread approval.

He wanted the canteen at the training ground to operate in the same way it did in his many other companies. More specifically, he wanted the players to pay for their own toast. You'd think that would be a minor enough issue for us. You might even assume that people earning relatively large amounts of money would not even pass comment about such a plan, let alone get aggravated by it. But you'd be wrong.

BBC cameras happened to be filming Paphitis in the training ground on the morning the change was made. The reaction of Neil Harris, the club's top scorer and highest paid player, was caught on camera, and was included in the final edit which was aired some months later. He was disgusted, and he wasn't alone. The reasons for the change and its impact on us were debated long after the cameras left. Was it a sign we were being taken for granted? Was it a show of disrespect? Were our efforts being under-appreciated? The 'shut up and pay' voices were in the minority.

And rather amusingly, in what I assume was somewhere between a show of solidarity and a piss-take, a large flag was unfurled during the next home game by fans offering to pay for as much toast as Harris could eat. You'd be amazed how little it takes to upset a group of footballers. By the way, each slice was going to cost 50p.

I was reminded of this last week while reading extracts from Rio Ferdinand's autobiography #2sides, which was serialised in The Irish Sun. In particular, the section given over to David Moyes' decision to ban players from eating low-fat chips the night before games.

"It's not something to go to the barricades over," writes Ferdinand. "But all the lads were pissed off. And guess what happened after Moyes left and Ryan Giggs took over? Moyes has been gone about 20 minutes, we're on the bikes warming up for the first training session and one of the lads says: 'You know what? We've got to get on to Giggsy. We've got to get him to get us our fucking chips back.'"

Looking in from the outside it seems an absurd way to respond to such a minor change, particularly one which was probably consistent with the advice of nutritionists. Why not accept the move as one of the inevitable consequences of a regime change and realise it's in the best interests of the squad? Or once he realised the strength of feeling among players, you might think Moyes could have softened his stance and kept the players happy. Either way, it's hard to pick a winner in a row about chips.

As was the case during his brief spell in charge of United, Moyes suffers in Ferdinand's book by comparison to Alex Ferguson. Much has been said about Ferguson's managerial approach. Some have whittled it down to his famous utterance, "get rid of the cunts". Others focus on his need to maintain absolute control all of the time. But Ferguson's genius may also be seen in his acceptance of the juvenility of modern footballers. It may seem like a case of choosing the right battles, but his control was unaffected, perhaps enhanced, by his ability to respect the collective immaturity of any group of footballers.

In his autobiography, Gary Neville refers to it as Ferguson's skills of man-management. An example of this was how he handled Eric Cantona showing up at a club function in a denim jacket rather than the club blazer. Rather than take him to task or fine him for breaching club rules, he just turned to the players saying, 'Eh, lads, some man, that Cantona.' As Paphitis did at Millwall, and presumably like every other newly-appointed manager does, Moyes was implementing his own version of best practice. He wasn't the first football manager to be met with resistance to change, but he was always going to fail if he was unable to overcome it.

Obviously, there's a point to be made about players behaving differently. Successful management at any level and in any field, is about getting the best out of the staff at your disposal. Acting your age has never been a requirement to be a professional footballer, but keeping those who don't onside is a must for managers to succeed. The job is hard enough without going into battle over low-fat chips.

rsadlier@independent.ie

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