MANCHESTER United’s deeply entrenched values of loyalty and continuity are killing the club from the inside out. The club’s hierarchy admirably refuse to swing axes around like an excitable Cardiff City owner. Such behaviour is unbecoming of their proud heritage; short-term sackings are beneath them.
That’s all well and good. But it might be time to put away the history books, stop staring forlornly at the statues of Ferguson and Busby and acknowledge reality. David Moyes’ nightmarish first season is no longer the end of the world. The end of the world came and went at Olympiakos.
Being the weakest team left in the tournament, Olympiakos expected the Musketeers. They were greeted by the Muppets.
United’s most distressing defeat in the Champions League confirmed the death of the club in its previous guise. Great European nights are commemorated with tributes, trophies and memorabilia in the Old Trafford museum. The Greek tragedy should be remembered with a tombstone; the night Manchester United died.
Whatever factors might have colluded on the night to ensure such an insipid performance, the perfect storm began rattling the windows at Old Trafford the moment the club consented to Sir Alex Ferguson’s demands without a murmuring word of dissent. He brooked no argument on the issue. David Moyes was the only man qualified for the impossible job.
At the time, events at both Everton and Real Madrid validated his appointment. Moyes was the man. Jose Mourinho was madder than a lorry-load of monkeys. Continuity was the Manchester United way. Anarchy has no place among such cultured artists. Hindsight has since ridiculed such naivety.
United’s dramatic, unexpected plummet from the summit has reinforced the increasing suspicion that successful mini-mart owners are not usually head-hunted to run multi-national corporations. Handling the goods and balancing the books are laudable qualities in a corner-shop manager. That doesn’t mean Google is going to call any time soon.
The Olympiakos defeat confirmed what United fans have long suspected. Moyes can’t shake the mini-mart mentality. He operated a low-risk, low-budget enterprise for too long. He is struggling to become the Mark Zuckerberg of Premier League management; the mindset shift appears too vast.
The anger has gone at Old Trafford. Defeat was once an indignation; a poor attitude nothing short of an abomination.
Contrary to misguided belief, continuity isn’t the United way. Winning is the United way, preferably with a swashbuckling panache. Moyes is struggling to achieve either; looking ever more like a recalcitrant roundhead among bemused cavaliers.
Mourinho is hardly the d'Artagnan of the dugout guiding his Musketeers to glory, but he usually knows when to brandish the blade and when to sheath the sword. Moyes instinctively holds back. His innate conservatism brutally betrayed him in the Champions League. Being the weakest team left in the tournament, Olympiakos expected the Musketeers. They were greeted by the Muppets.
Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were sent out to offer a protective shield, which immediately curtailed their attacking instincts. They couldn’t defend either. They were left to drown as Alejandro Dominguez, a player never considered good enough to play for Argentina, drifted away from them with the ease and grace of a synchronised swimmer.
Cleverley was picked ahead of the more attack-minded, and less predictable, Marouane Fellaini. Adnan Januzaj didn’t make the squad. The club’s most impudent creative option was considered a risk not worth taking against European lesser lights. That’s not only negative. That’s not Manchester United.
The club, in the traditional, philosophical sense, have ceased to exist. The global brand remains, for now, but could decline as quickly as the pitch performances if the very essence of United is allowed to dissipate in such a swift and inglorious fashion.
Just to be clear, United have never dominated in the Champions League. Ferguson went to his director’s box still nursing the gaping wound of European near-misses. Two Champions League triumphs was a poor return for his tenure; his words, not mine. But they mostly competed. They challenged. They invented. Even when inspiration deserted them, they were rarely less than industrious.
Savouring his newfound role of speaking for United’s sullen majority, Roy Keane castigated his former side for their lackadaisical attitude. He wasn’t being petty, but perceptive. The anger has gone at Old Trafford. Defeat was once an indignation; a poor attitude nothing short of an abomination. Such failings were previously savaged by Keane’s tongue. He censored neither thought nor deed when it came to a lack of effort. He couldn’t countenance failure. He played – and was instructed to play – to win. Always.
Ferguson was always excited by the youthful promise of a free-spirited kid like Wilfried Zaha. Moyes sent him out on loan.
United are set up not to lose. The fear of losing dominates Moyes’ thoughts and tactics, breeding uncertainty and insecurity. Everton fans have seen all this before. Mavericks were distrusted in tricky fixtures. A striker was invariably sacrificed when visiting any of the big four – where Moyes never tasted victory in 11 years with Everton. Caution always won the day.
Moyes has switched clubs, but not philosophies. Ferguson recognised a fellow, no-nonsense Scotsman equipped to handle the egos of multi-millionaires (Robin van Persie, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Shinji Kagawa might suggest otherwise.) But he failed to spot the obvious difference between the two. Ferguson was always excited by the youthful promise of a free-spirited kid like Wilfried Zaha. Moyes sent him out on loan.
According to reports, the Glazers are backing their manager, recognising the extenuating circumstances; an ageing squad, David Gill’s departure and the big spending of title rivals. They believe that time and cash will accelerate the recovery. Their unique patience will be rewarded.
All of which misses the obvious point. Manchester United are gone; their spirit departed not when Ferguson stepped down, but when Moyes struggled to step up against Olympiakos. At the moment they needed the boldness of Busby, Ferguson or even Ron Atkinson, they realised they had a gifted small business operator still looking for that plucky point away from home.
No matter who they sign in the post-season shopping spree, the club will struggle to recover until there is a Manchester United manager in the dugout.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year