Manchester United are not a sacking club.
It’s easy to make statements like that when you’ve shown faith in a manager in the 1980s, when you were in the relegation zone, and he’s gone on to prove himself as one of the greatest managers of all time.
When David Moyes struggled, the board, the fans and the players all stuck by him publicly. Who knows what was going on behind the scenes at the club, or what was being said on the training ground, but inside Old Trafford the fans were keen to show they weren’t about to start booing or bringing in banners to get the manager sacked.
During the 4-1 win over Aston Villa, following the plane funded by some fans off a football forum with the sign ‘Moyes Out’, the fans started chanting “stand up for David Moyes”. To my amazement, everyone around me stood up. I didn’t.
In the post-match interviews, the players were quick to dismiss any fault on the manager’s part and instead insisted that they had to take responsibility for yet another poor performance.
Rival fans will scoff now, following the dismissal of Moyes. “Not a sacking club, you say?” But the truth remains that any other club, and I literally mean, any other club, would have got rid of Moyes long before now. In February, Gianluca Vialli claimed that Moyes would have been sacked three times by then if he was coaching in Italy. It is not acceptable to spend over £60 million and drop six places in the league, whether you’re at the top of Serie A or midtable in La Liga, Moyes’ end product was nowhere near what is required for any football club.
Still, despite this, the players have come in for some stick from some sections of the press and fans. Roy Keane, who is no stranger to sticking the boot in these days, was quick to criticise them.
“I think it’s a shame, he should have been given more time,” said Keane of Moyes. “Some of the players should be ashamed of themselves, they really let him down.”
Really? More time? And is this the players’ fault?
On New Year’s Day, United were just 3 points behind Chelsea. We’d suffered a few poor results but for the most part, we were still challenging, even if from a distance. You’d assume the title was out of grasp but it wasn’t implausible that United would have a strong second half of the season, as they usually did, and be in amongst the teams going for the title.
As it is, we now find ourselves 18 points behind Chelsea and, crucially, 23 points behind league leaders Liverpool. Gutting.
So, having had more time at the club, more time to settle, a better understanding of how things work, more knowledge of how good the players are and what their strengths are, United’s performances have got worse. But who is to blame?
You could argue that the backroom staff United had prior to Moyes, who oversaw league title after league title, had the players ticking over nicely. The winning mentality was ingrained in to the players thanks to Ferguson. But as the months went on, in the absence of both the training expertise and the managerial presence, the strengths of the seasons before slowly drained away.
Let’s not forget that in the 2007-2008 season, when Jose Mourinho was sacked after a few months, Chelsea managed to take the title challenge to the last day and the European Cup to a penalty shoot-out, before bowing out, and that was with Avram Grant in charge. If you’ve got a team of winners that have been trained well by the manager, they can keep themselves ticking over in the mean time. The difference between these scenarios is that the useless Grant kept as much of the backroom staff in place as he could. Obviously Rui Faria left with Mourinho, but the likes of Steve Clarke stayed put. To replace the quality staff that left, Chelsea brought in world class replacements like Henk ten Cate, who left his role as Ajax manager, having been the assistant manager at Barcelona for three years.
In contrast, Moyes got rid of all of United’s backroom staff and replaced them with Steve Round and Jimmy Lumsden. Round’s CV boasts being a coach at Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Moyes’ assistant at Everton. After a failed managerial career with Bristol City and Rochdale, Lumsden’s coaching career consists of working for Moyes at Preston and Everton.
Another argument is that the United players never gave Moyes or his coaches the time of day. For Keane to suggest they should be ashamed of themselves, it implies that from day one they were unprepared to adapt to a new way of doing things. Giggs was rumoured to have serious problems with the way Moyes conducted training, to the point where he stopped attending coaches’ meetings and walked out of training after spending two hours working on defensive tactics.
Maybe a third scenario is more accurate though. Maybe the players were fairly shocked to see Ferguson leave, particularly the ones who had spend most, if not all, of their career playing for him. But still they were prepared to give the new manager a go. But when Moyes came in and decided to bin off all the things they were doing before, introduce a knackering training regime to the pre-season (one that had always seen Everton start the season slowly) and replace the world class, proven coaches with men who had achieved nothing in the game, maybe the players worked out that he wasn’t up for the job. Maybe they were genuinely prepared to give him a go but nothing he did, from Carrington to the dressing room, inspired any confidence in him having the ability to take the club forward.
Keane brands some of the players a disgrace. If Giggs behaved in a way that helped move along an incapable manager, so that a better manager could be brought in his place, is that a disgrace?
You would imagine that, as professional footballers earning an obscene amount of money, they would be able to turn it on regardless of who was giving the instructions. But when you look to that game against Fulham, when the instructions were to keep playing it wide and crossing it in, despite this clearly not working, you do have to wonder what you expect the players to do. Should they ignore their managers tactics and do what they think will work? Would that be less of a disgrace than doing what the manager told them to do and dropping points?
“The players have to take massive responsibility,” Neville said. “They are the ones out on the football pitch. I never once in my 18-year career at United said, ‘You lost us that game boss’. Players have to take responsibility and accountability in football, but the fact of the matter is you don’t go and sack 24 players. Those players there are not as bad as they have been showing.”
Whilst we should remember that Neville spent his entire career playing for Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest of all time, and not David Moyes, he still makes a valid point. No, he wouldn’t walk off a pitch and blame Fergie, but if he was playing for Moyes, he might have felt differently. Still, this season, the only players to improve have been David de Gea and Danny Welbeck. However, with De Gea having another year’s experience of the Premier League and Welbeck playing more games up front instead of on the wing, you could argue these players would have done better this season regardless of who the manager is. So what have the players been doing? Why have they under performed?
Either the tactics weren’t good enough or they didn’t respect the manager so actively decided not to play for him. Neither scenario is particularly encouraging for United fans, although the former is less daunting now that the manager has been sacked.
Are players obliged to show up regardless of who is in charge? It’s not really on that Wayne Rooney earns over £200k-a-week but can’t control the ball to save his life. But then if they played out of their skin, managed to finish 5th with Moyes’ archaic approach to football, would we be in a better position? Even if we managed to finish in the top 4, that would only mean Moyes kept his job, but he’s shown that he isn’t capable of managing the champions. So did the players do us a favour?
I’m sure over that in our lifetime we will get to read an autobiography or two that will shed light on what went on behind the scenes. Has Rio Ferdinand been as disruptive as we’ve been lead to believe? Did Giggs run out of patience months ago? Is he now thoroughly enjoying getting one over Moyes? Who knows.
But the fact that Robin van Persie has immediately returned from Holland, that the players are playing practical jokes with their ‘gaffer’ sign over Giggs’ seat at Carrington, and the players are all speaking so positively about Giggs’ appointment, arguably shows that they all felt Moyes wasn’t up to the job. Would it have been more professional to give 100% on the pitch like they did for Fergie? Definitely. But would that have helped the future of the club? Almost probably not.
Moyes has gone now and we can look to a brighter future. I’m certainly not ashamed of our players and I’m looking forward to them turning it around under a proper manager next season.
Made in Manchester is available for just £5. It includes 30 articles from the country's best football writers about graduates from the Manchester United academy. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.