Was David Moyes ever really Ferguson’s ‘Chosen One' at Manchester United?
The downfall of David Moyes this week after 10 months as Manchester United manager was cast as a blow to the authority and judgment of Sir Alex Ferguson, who had recommended his fellow Glaswegian for the post at the end of his own spectacular 26-year reign. In time, history may expose this as a myth.
“The Chosen One” banner that hung from Old Trafford’s Stretford End has been taken down. It was put up in the first place to accord Moyes special status. He was no mere football manager moving into a vacant post.
He was the anointed one of the great dictator, the favoured son, the heir to a fine tradition of Scottish managers stretching back through Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Ferguson himself, who won 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League crowns from 1986 to 2013.
In the molten days of Ferguson’s retirement last spring, it suited the United board to portray Moyes as the only sensible choice, the continuity candidate. In 11 years at Everton, where he had established a reputation for good team building without winning a trophy, Moyes had emerged as the British manager most likely to maintain the Fergusonian principles of faith in youth and long-term planning.
Ferguson knew Moyes’s family back in Glasgow and was friendly with one of his most trusted aides, Jimmy Lumsden, who has also now left United. He understood the 'young’ appointee’s drive to succeed in English football and society; his honesty and strength of character.
These were qualities Ferguson associated not only with the city where he grew up but management itself. Strong men prevailed. Weak ones went to the wall.
Thus it was easy to see Moyes as Ferguson’s mini-me. This was an appealing narrative for us in the media, as we gazed into the void left by Sir Alex’s departure. I should say, as the ghostwriter of his recent autobiography, that nobody asked me to write this piece. It is not an attempt to rewrite history.
The truth, however, is that Moyes was one of several obvious candidates to take over from Ferguson in May last year. It was not a case of the incumbent appointing his own successor without consultation with his employers.
An example. By his own admission Ferguson socialised in New York with the super-charismatic former Barcelona manager and now coach of Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola, who was taking a sabbatical in Manhattan (Ferguson owns an apartment off Central Park). The idea of retiring first came to the boss of bosses in December 2012, around the time Guardiola was planning his return to management.
It would not be inconceivable that the conversation between Ferguson and Guardiola in a swish New York restaurant drifted round to the possibility of the younger man managing United one day. By then, though, Guardiola was about to sign a contract with Bayern.
Equally the combative Jose Mourinho would have been on United’s list of potential replacements: a roll that would have been tucked in a drawer, at that stage, with no retirement officially pending. Mourinho, though, was being heavily courted by Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s owner, and was keen on a return to London.
In football, managers habitually pointed out that the time to succeed Ferguson was not the day after he relinquished control – but the time after that, to avoid failing by comparison. It would be like following Frank Sinatra on to the stage in Vegas.
With Guardiola and Mourinho out of the running, the two most obvious contenders were Carlo Ancelotti, now manager of Real Madrid, and Moyes, who was thought more likely to stick around and build an empire. Ancelotti was a hired gun who would work in a two-to-three-year cycle, thinking more of trophies than the club’s foundations. This logic ultimately landed Moyes the job.
But it was not a case of Ferguson believing he had found a younger version of himself, back in his Glasgow heartland, though the Glazer family who own the club will undoubtedly have been struck by his enthusiasm for the intense, workaholic and ambitious Moyes.
Back in May, 'Fergie’ watched the world’s presses roll with news of his retirement and immediately promised not to involve himself on Moyes’s patch. He told me: “After [nearly] 27 years as manager, why would I want to involve myself on the football side?” He planned a cruise around the Western Isles of Scotland and holidays with friends and family. The effort of regaining the English title from Manchester City in his final season in charge had exhausted him.
“I’ve never spent so many hours in the video analysis room,” he said. He wanted to go out a winner and join Sir Bobby Charlton, his fellow knight and legend, in the directors’ box, as board member and travelling fan.
After an especially painful hip operation and a honeymoon period for Moyes, Ferguson became a regular attendee at games. Since he was not interfering on the football side he felt there was no reason to stay away.
It was up to Moyes to show he belonged in the job. In a stadium where you could sit in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand after travelling up Sir Alex Ferguson Way and passing the Sir Alex Ferguson statue, a supporter could hardly say that Ferguson’s actual physical presence was spoiling it for Moyes.
As results deteriorated and Moyes’s tone became ever more defeated, less coherent, Ferguson’s instinct will have been to help by leaving his door open to his protege, even though just about everyone at Old Trafford agreed that Moyes had made a major error in clearing out Ferguson’s backroom staff and implanting his own, less experienced, team from Everton.
By the turn of the year, Ferguson’s antenna will have been alive to the stories of player unrest, tactical confusion and overly long and dull training sessions.
In the stands at Old Trafford he maintained his inscrutability, never betraying annoyance or despair. The chances are that he was disappointed by the half-heartedness of some of United’s players and by the turgid pace of play.
When Ryan Giggs said this week, “It’s time to play like Man United again”, it was a cry from the heart of the Ferguson era, when the emphasis was on boldness, entertainment and spirit. When a critical mass of players lost faith in Moyes, Ferguson was conflicted between loyalty to his successor and his own mantra that the well-being of the club should come before any individual.
Reports say some players grumbled to their old leader about the new man not being up to the job.
Ferguson’s own career was defined in part by the ruthless expulsion of anyone who threatened his own power and the greater good, as David Beckham and Roy Keane can attest. From his seat on the Old Trafford plinth, Ferguson will have been unable to ignore the wind that was blowing Moyes towards dismissal.
He had helped the young apprentice get the job, but he was in no position to make sure he kept it, if the opportunity handed to Moyes was going to be wasted, which it so obviously was. At the end, the so-called Class of ’92 fostered by Ferguson – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville – have taken control of the ruined palace. So his reign continues, by other means.