It’s rather incredible to think that just four years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in the history of English football, hand-picked David Moyes as his worthy successor at Old Trafford.
It’s also rather incredible to think that decision was largely backed by not only Manchester United fans but the wider Premier League audience and pundits alike. Moyes had shown a miraculous consistency in the top flight with limited resources at Everton and sharing Ferguson’s Scottish grit, he seemed like the natural heir to the throne.
But fast forward to present day and Moyes is unemployed, resigning as Sunderland manager yesterday after leading the Wearside club to 20th in the Premier League table and consequentially relegation to the Championship for 2017/18 – finishing a staggering 16 points away from safety.
In the hyperbolic world of the Premier League, Moyes will inevitably be branded a failure, past it and tactically primitive – the labels that accompany practically every British manager when they leave a club on unsatisfactory terms – such has been the spectacular velocity of his sudden decline.
Yet, Moyes proved he’s a talented manager during his decade at Everton and although the beautiful game moves forward at a relentless pace, it really hasn’t changed that much in the last four years. In any case, Moyes has remained highly involved throughout that time, so it’s clearly not a matter of him being somehow left behind.
More than ability, career decisions have cost Moyes dearly, transforming him from arguably the Premier League’s most in-demand manager ahead of summer 2013 to the jobless mastermind behind a staggeringly apathetic relegation four years later. Moyes’ last three appointments have all proved disastrous, but that’s as much a consequence of his inability to pick the right jobs than his failings as a manager.
Take his torrid spell at Old Trafford, for instance. On the one hand, few managers in world football – let alone one who’d qualified for the Champions League just once previously and never actually won a trophy – could have turned down Manchester United in 2013, when they were still near the summit of their powers. He was inheriting proven Premier League champions, a squad with an abundance of experience and a club in strong health. Furthermore, Ferguson had requested him directly.
On the other, however, Ferguson was an impossible act to follow, especially for a manager treading new ground and without the help of retiring chief executive David Gill. Seven months later, after attracting only two of his own signings to Old Trafford, both of which were bought somewhat reluctantly, Moyes was relieved of his duties. Perhaps a shrewder careerist would have bravely waited, opting to be the successor’s successor. Then again, even that role has proved tough for Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, two of the best managers of their respective generations.
Seeking sun and shade from the media spotlight, Moyes went to La Liga to lick his wounds, taking over Real Sociedad. But it’s hard to think of a tougher place to relaunch your career than in a new league and a new country at a club that had just sold their talismanic entity, a certain Antoine Griezmann, to a La Liga rival. The odds were stacked against Moyes and he lasted just a calendar year.
Looking back, it’s clear the Scot rushed into the decision. British managers have rarely made an impact abroad since the turn of the millennium and the move came just six months after his dismissal at Old Trafford – a significant spell out of the game, yet probably not long enough considering Moyes’ next job after leaving United would always be the most important of his career.
Whilst it would be unfair to criticise Moyes for accepting a difficult challenge, it was also naive to add the extra dimension of cultural barriers to a job that would confirm or disprove the negative opinions created from his nightmare spell at United. He attempted to implement a Premier League philosophy at Anoeta and failed spectacularly, winning less than 29% of his 42 games in charge.
And thus, after nearly a whole season unemployed, Moyes was sucked into the Sunderland job under equally unaccommodating circumstances. He inherited a squad that had relied upon shock therapy and miracles to cling onto their Premier League status for four consecutive seasons and arrived with just a month of the summer transfer window remaining as Sam Allardyce answered the call from England.
Once again, the Scot put himself under uniquely testing stipulations, further added to by Ellis Short’s ambitions to sell the club. Moyes was allowed a net spend of just £13million yet was asked to pull off another miracle on Wearside with Sunderland’s weakest squad since their promotion to the top flight in summer 2007. It proved too much for him.
Not every Sunderland fan has been pleased with Moyes’ performance, essentially writing off his squad just a matter of weeks into the season as he made the self-fulfilling prediction of a tough relegation battle. But once again, he chose a job where factors obviously outside of his control would inevitably work against him.
That’s not to exonerate Moyes of any blame for Sunderland’s season. For a manager with the fourth-most wins in Premier League history, you’d expect a more convincing resistance regardless of the level of quality at his disposal. Likewise, since looking lost in the headlights during his first press conference as Manchester United manager, Moyes has lacked that passionate aggression which made him such a feared force at Everton and such a natural candidate to succeed Ferguson. He used to always have fire in his eyes and a ferocious tongue ready to lash – that can’t be said of his last three tenures.
Yet, there is still a talented manager in there somewhere, the same talented manager who took Everton from the peripheries of relegation battles to a regular spot in the top six, and he’s been around so long it’s often forgotten Moyes is just 54. He’s seen a lot of football, he’s endured incredible highs and lows, and has a wealth of experience to offer, but still plenty of years ahead of him.
The reality, however, is a perception of failure created by three poorly-selected jobs, none of which particularly lent themselves to the strengths Moyes had shown at Everton; consistent results with limited financial backing by playing organised and physical if somewhat unspectacular football.
It now begs the question of where Moyes will actually get the chance to revive a career sliding into the abyss. The Championship, the SPL, the Scottish national team? All are rather spectacular falls from grace for a manager who left Manchester United just three years ago and won a third LMA Manager of the Year award in 2009.
The worst thing Moyes can do now is rush into his next job. He can’t afford picking the wrong one for the fourth time in a row. Perhaps equally importantly, he needs time to rediscover that infectious angst that once made him British football’s brightest management hope. As Moyes has proved, however, four years is a long time. Who knows what heights he could return to by the time 2021 comes around.