Week 37 – Class (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)
In the DVD extras for ‘The Class of ’92’, directors Gabe and Ben Turner speak of their intention that the film, while inevitably nostalgic in subject matter, should also capture the immediacy of six men at the end of one stage in their lives and about to transition to the next. The sight, less than five months after the picture’s release, of four of this sextet occupying the Old Trafford bench again – manager Ryan Giggs, assistant Nicky Butt, coaches Paul Scholes and Phil Neville – made for an astonishing epilogue. For four matches at least, the theatre is dreaming again.
Giggs himself played to the narrative quite perfectly. Appearing a touch busied by the events of the past week, but nonetheless natural and assured, Manchester United’s new interim boss began his maiden press conference on Friday by thanking David Moyes for his first opportunity in coaching, then immediately suggested his primary task was to wipe clean the memory of the Scot’s ten-month era. Attacking football, fast-paced wing play, smiles on faces of players and supporters alike. The new, happy mood at the Carrington training ground – as if they had just won the league again, according to one newspaper – was reflected in Giggs’s humorous remark that he had taken the opportunity as manager to offer himself a new five-year contract as a player. Suit or tracksuit? “You’ll have to wait and see,” he smiled.
24 hours later, having resisted the temptation to name himself within the matchday 18, Giggs strode out of the tunnel in the tailored club suit – black jacket emblazoned with the Manchester coat of arms, red tie with narrow black and white stripes – that has been such a good fit for the Welshman since his mid-teens. He, and his players, meant business.
After just seven minutes of the game against Norwich City, he reminded us of his long apprenticeship under Sir Alex Ferguson, who Giggs tellingly still refers to as ‘the manager’, by stepping into his technical area to offer referee Lee Probert a spot of advice. Despite struggling initially to break down a determined Canaries defence, a 41st-minute penalty for Wayne Rooney provided the platform for United to race away after half time and win 4-0. Giggs made a point of praising a “tremendous… master class” from Juan Mata, whose omission from the starting XI had cost the new gaffer his beauty sleep, and thanked the delighted supporters for making him feel “ten feet tall”.
One has to feel a certain amount of sympathy for the 6’ 1” Moyes, who oversaw 4-1 and 4-0 victories in two of his last three league matches in charge before the Everton defeat which drew the final straw. A change of manager and formation has not turned United into world beaters overnight, as evidenced by their toils amid a flattening atmosphere at 0-0 on Saturday. After all the “hard work, honesty, and integrity” he had put into the role, the former Goodison man deserved better than to have news of his impending demise leaked to northwest-based broadsheet journalists last Monday before he was officially told himself early the following morning.
Yet Moyes never did quite manage to wear that bold black suit, bright red tie combination particularly well during his almost-a-year at the helm. The 51-year-old – his birthday was on Friday – was officially unveiled last summer in a pale grey number with white and grey tie. The wardrobe he took with him to Manchester rarely veered too far from reserved shades of grey and blue; a solitary reddish tie he wore early in the season was offset with equally broad stripes of navy. The conservative look suited him better. Of course, this is just a visual metaphor, but having seemingly ticked the box as the sensible, long-termist alternative to a passionate but fleeting affair with José Mourinho, Moyes quickly displayed warning signs that his was not the right aesthetic for the United hot seat.
On day one, the man determined “the Premier League manager you’d least like to get into a fight with” during a tangential discussion on The Guardian’s ‘Football Weekly’ podcast last season appeared awestruck – overcome with gratitude at the opportunity to manage such a big club. This was understandable, but needed to be overcome quickly such that he should be the dominant presence in a dressing room full of medals. Yet as the early on-pitch struggles persisted, Moyes never gave the air of a confident manager in control of the situation and happy with his own position.
Incredible as it now sounds, United were only two points behind current leaders Liverpool as 2013 faded into 2014 after 19 league matches. With an exciting comeback win at Hull City, the impending arrival of Juan Mata, and the manager’s own history of strong second halves to the season, there was reason to expect clearer signs of Moyes’s intentions for his side. What signs emerged were increasingly negative.
Mata must have wondered what on earth he had let himself in for during the game of 81 crosses against Fulham, when the pent-up stress released by his new boss at 2-1 was soon redoubled as Darren Bent equalised. When Liverpool arrived at Old Trafford a month later, Moyes referred to them as “favourites”. Following successive 3-0 home reverses then and against Manchester City, Ferguson’s “noisy neighbours” now represented to his successor “the sort of level we are aspiring to”.
It was this attitude, above even the poor results, that pushed Moyes toward the exit door. There is a perception that following Ferguson made the job a poisoned chalice; as Gary Lineker put it, “the manager’s job to have at Manchester United was the one after the one after Sir Alex”. Yet when Gianluca Vialli remarked to BBC Radio 4 in February that “David Moyes, in Italy, would have been sacked three times now”, it was in praise of the understanding nature of the Old Trafford boardroom. As outlined in this column five weeks ago, the very nature of the United job meant that the owners and chief executive Ed Woodward were determined to give the new man plenty of time. They did not want to fire him.
Supporters shared this support for ‘The Chosen One’, singing “Every single one of us will stand by David Moyes”. Even when their belief gradually disappeared, they did not allow this to be shown; those who did hire that plane were roundly booed by the Stretford End. The press knew he would not be dismissed quickly and did not demand that United did so. In this sense, the working conditions for Moyes were actually quite favourable and generous in comparison to what he would have experienced with similar results at most other clubs of similar size.
After an 11th uninspiring league defeat of the season, during which United had never looked like mounting the sort of turnaround for which they were once famous after falling behind, Moyes was yet again the only man to remark afterwards on how well he thought his side had played. By now, equally dour training sessions had robbed the players of their daily joie de vivre and, crucially, their majority support. Like Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, there was a sense that Moyes had misread the demands placed upon both style and substance at the biggest clubs. Unlike Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool last season, there was little sense of a team being carefully moulded to a blueprint even while immediate results may have been poor. The United board first discussed the gravity of their concerns after the 2-0 loss at Olympiakos; when a Champions League return became impossible, the inevitable decision was taken.
Truly great clubs must play the game their own way. Moyes allowed a distance to broaden between himself and Giggs, and soon saw his team eviscerated live on television by Scholes. The first task for the next full-time manager at Old Trafford will be to harness the experience, spirit, and uncompromising demand for excellence of the Class of ’92.
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