It is almost a year since Manchester United sacked David Moyes and, for fans of the club, hearing that news was something of a ‘Where were you when..,’ JFK moment.
I was abroad with my family. After watching United’s abysmal defeat to Moyes’ old club, Everton, I felt (or hoped) that the writing was on the wall for the Scot. Nevertheless, the fear that the club would stick with their manager and allow him to remain over the summer and try to salvage something from the wreckage he had caused remained.
So, when his sacking was confirmed, the overwhelming feeling was relief. It’s a harsh reality but the fact is that, on that day, millions of people around the world were rejoicing over a man losing his job. Such is life. Moyes is a good man who tried his best but was swept hopelessly out of his depth the second he stepped through the doors of one of the world’s biggest football clubs.
I saw Moyes a few months later at a wedding. He was looking tanned and healthy – a far-cry from the haggard, haunted man who had prowled the Old Trafford touchline and retreated to his bench on so many occasions, when his world was unravelling before his eyes, over the previous few months. He posed for photos with the wedding-guests. He was all smiles but there was a meekness about him. Such is the burden of failing at United. As with failure as England manager, it is something that will follow you for the rest of your days.
Some United fans despise Moyes, unable to forgive him for bringing the club to its knees. I’m not one of them. Yes, it was a harrowing season of so many lows, but I always felt that there was enough quality in the squad to recover quickly, provided the club got their appointment of Moyes’ replacement right.
Almost a year on from that fateful day, it appears that United did get that next, all-important step right. Louis van Gaal has transformed the atmosphere around Old Trafford. It is no longer an ordeal to sit in the Theatre of Dreams and watch the team we love. United are not quite back, but they are well on their way.
There have been many jitters along the road to recovery. After the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford, many were questioning Van Gaal. The worry was that he was yesterday’s man and that football had moved on and left him behind. For long periods this season the football played under the Dutchman had been drab and deeply uninspiring, and it was difficult to see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, however, the future looks bright. The team is playing with the kind of verve and swagger that the fans demand. Players that had been written off as being nowhere near the required standard for the club have resurrected their United careers, while others have shaken off the shackles that made them shadows of their former selves last term. The recent surge in form and quality has transformed United from a club that looked likely to miss out on Champions League football for a second year to one that expects to qualify for that competition with ease.
Saturday’s defeat to Chelsea may have exposed a few remaining weaknesses, not least a lack of squad-depth that will make Champions League football a tough ask unless it is addressed, but fans came away from the match feeling relatively positive.
In Louis van Gaal, United fans have a manager that they now trust implicitly. They trust him to meet his target of Champions League qualification and they trust him to buy the players needed to progress to the competition’s latter stages while also challenging for a twenty-first title. They trust him to win silverware and to entertain them while doing so. They also trust him, crucially, to prepare the club for his own eventual departure.
It feels like Manchester United is back on track, thanks to Louis van Gaal. Continuing on that upward trajectory will ensure that, when the time comes for him to leave the club, unlike David Moyes, he will do so on his own terms, with his head held high.