In hindsight, being anointed the Chosen One and named as Alex Ferguson’s successor was unlikely to work out very well for David Moyes. The shadow of his predecessor was long and large, and even if that pressure couldn’t mitigate the sheer humiliation of his time in Manchester, it’s probably true that Moyes did have the impossible job.
It seemed so perfect: one fiery Scot was chosen to replace another. And a manager who had probably overachieved with no money for a decade at Everton – a big club who demanded some sort of success, but one who didn’t really have the finances to achieve it – was groomed for years to take over at one of the top jobs in the country. Perhaps, given the sustained success of Ferguson, the most coveted.
But it’s what Moyes did when he finally managed to get his hands on some money that sticks out. And whilst it might not actually have been Moyes’s fault – probably more likely Ed Woodward’s – the fact that United spent an entire summer pursuing Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines before missing out on the left-back and paying more than the release clause for the midfielder has a comical element the two men, new to their jobs and flailing without Ferguson, didn’t need.
In fact, after United bid £28m for both players, Everton described the offer as ‘desultory and insulting’. Moyes and Woodward subsequently paid a reported £27.5m just for Fellaini alone. And that was just three weeks after the Belgian’s £23m release clause expired.
After a bungled transfer deal like that, it’s clear that both Everton and Manchester United will have walked away fairly unhappy. United, for obvious reasons, and Everton because they wanted to keep Fellaini – widely seen as the club’s best player. But by the end of the season, it was obvious who got the better deal.
Only two wins in their first seven Premier League games put David Moyes on the back foot from almost the very start of his time in charge. The five defeats suffered before Christmas – as many as the whole of their previous, title-winning season, and more than they suffered last year under Jose Mourinho – and Fellaini’s big fee and bigger hair made him stand out. Those things – mostly the price tag – made him more visible, and therefore singled out for criticism, too. But by the time the long back-stretch of the season was underway after Christmas, the awful football on display was causing consternation.
Against Fulham in February – in front of the Old Trafford crowd – United broke records by sending 81 crosses into the Cottagers’ penalty area in a 2-2 draw. Rene Meulensteen, the Fulham boss, called United’s approach ‘straightforward’, whilst 6’7” defender Dan Burn, who had played for Darlington in the National League, said he had ‘never headed that many balls since the Conference’. If that criticism wasn’t bad enough, it came from an abject Fulham side who were relegated after conceding more than anyone else, who had lost the most games, and who had the worst goal difference in the league.
A humiliating 3-0 was to follow the next month at home to Liverpool, and Moyes, despite his position as the chosen successor to a club legend, and despite the fairly-long six-year contract, looked like a dead man walking.
The Fellaini debacle is a shining beacon to miscalculation and incompetence that will probably stand out as the defining moment of Moyes’s tenure at the club. There are other incidents from his season or so in charge that happily reinforce the image of a hapless man flapping hopelessly out of his depth, but none seem so overtly catastrophic as spending more money than was necessary to sign a player who has gone down as the one-dimensional poster boy for United’s post-Ferguson decline and the consequent turgid football served up to an Old Trafford crowd who had been used to swashbuckling, attacking football.
Indeed, whether or not that’s an accurate characterisation of Ferguson’s final years at the club is up for debate, but it’s irrelevant to this question – United fans seemed to feel entertained when they watched a game in those days. Not many would speak of thrills and spills last season.
What’s interesting, though, is that Jose Mourinho still considers the Belgian as ‘too important’ to sell to Galatasaray.
Since the days of Moyes – and including the tenure of the supposedly-sophisticated Louis van Gaal – Fellaini has been the totem pole sent forward as a target for the rest of the team to hit with long balls. He is a symbol of United’s boring and unsophisticated play over the last few years, and yet even after spending a world-record fee on one of the planet’s most exciting players in Paul Pogba, United still seem to rely disproportionately on his power, height and flailing arms.
United seem to be persevering with a player who is already the poster-boy for the feverish, nightmarish period between the Ferguson-era and today, and the boring, uninspiring football that came from it. And now that trophies have come back to the club – three in two seasons – this should be a period of looking up to bigger and better things than they’ve managed since the departure of the former boss in 2013.
United should be aspiring to much more than lumping it up to Fellaini.