Moyes sacking was act of mercy - and God help his successor

Inheriting an ageing squad and not enough cash, David Moyes had been handed a poisoned chalice

(Image credit: 2014 AFP)

WATCHING David Moyes in the dug-out these past few weeks has been agony. One could see deep into his psyche.

I am not up to the demands of this job, I’m drowning, the defeated look on his face proclaimed as loudly as if he had worn the message round his neck. Even from the distant safety of the sitting room, the viewer was almost compelled to look away. Who but a sadist wants to see an about-to-be condemned man’s anguish in the final moments of his trial? It was an act of mercy to sack him.

Football management is an odd trade. There are countless coaching courses and certificates, but there is nothing except trial-by-result to test a man’s mettle. Many have stepped forward with the right certificates and qualifications only to fail when their teams take to the field. Others, unheralded themselves as players, prove to have the iron and the charisma for this most exposed of leadership roles.

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What if the CEOs of companies had to sit under the glare of TV cameras week in week out while shareholders, stacked in stands behind them, bayed for their blood?

Moyes is, by all accounts, a decent and conscientious man. What sleepless nights he has had since arriving to fill Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes only he knows. One suspects that, with an ageing squad and far less spent on new players than is spent by many a super-club, Moyes soon knew that he had been handed a poisoned chalice.

Ferguson is a canny operator. Maybe he quit because even he knew that the United bubble was about to burst and he wanted to go with his giant reputation enhanced by last season’s Premier League title.

He did, of course, nominate Moyes as his successor, and it is hard to believe that this was malice. But even Ferguson made mistakes - though while he was the boss he put them right ruthlessly, as fast and as soon as he could. He was cold-blooded in disposing of players, especially those like David Beckham whose ambitions threatened his own. Ferguson was made of granite and Moyes, sadly, of friable clay.

Football has no career structure. A general reaches his senior rank having been (one hopes) a successful captain, colonel, brigadier; a CEO has (again one hopes) been through the company mill, salesman, strategic advisor, chief financial officer. In business when people are parachuted in without due care and attention failure looms.

One problem with British football is the education of the players. Some years ago I heard a French player in the Premier League interviewed on radio. He spoke near-perfect English and had thought (and could articulate) about not just what to do on the pitch, but the context in which British players come to the fore. He claimed that even in the suburbs of French cities the standard of education was better than in British inner-city sink schools. French players reached adulthood better equipped as citizens.

The celebrity culture (of which football is now a major part) is a failing of contemporary Britain. Pupils sit in class dreaming of being a pop star or a footballer, rather than working at the books before them. Day-after-day they are bombarded in the media with images of success seemingly gained by glamour or sporting ability rather than by hard graft. It is for this reason that so many successful managers and great innovative players (think Eric Cantona) in our game are foreigners.

Successful managers come out of left field, as did Ferguson himself. In the English game now there are examples of men who would make a better fist of taking the reins at Old Trafford than did the wretched Moyes. Brendan Rodgers who, many hope, is about to guide Liverpool to the Premier League title; Tony Pulis who plucked Crystal Palace to safety from the sub-basement of the division; Roberto Martinez, who has proved more successful at Everton than Moyes was himself.

None made a great mark on the playing field, but that reflects a division between creative talent and leadership common to many walks of life. How many great writing journalists have made great editors? Creating and running the show are separate skills.

Where Manchester United turns now will be the subject of non-stop speculation. Poor, haunted Moyes will take whatever payout the club offers – enough for him to put his feet up if he wants. And a new potential victim of the desperate desire of a great club for success will step into the cruel spotlight of the dug-out. Think of the procession who have passed through Chelsea in recent years: even some ultimately successful had shorter shelf lives than perishable fruit.

Once it was said that if a cricket team needed a fast bowler they went to the nearest coal mine and whistled down the pit. There is no such formula for football management, and the Glazers, the United owners, may find that it takes several years of trial-and-error before they stumble on another Fergie.

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Robert Chesshyre writes regularly on police culture and is a former US correspondent of The Observer. His books include ‘The Force: Inside the Police’ and 'When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain''.