Does Moyes have the mettle to follow Fergie? A psychologist speaks

With David Moyes announced as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor at Manchester United, Joe Brewin quizzes a top sports psychologist on the challenges ahead

The heart, the soul, the passion, the genius. The tantrums, teacups and rages. The watch-tapping, gum-chewing, dead-eyed stares and no-nonsense nagging. Soon it will all be gone. But somehow, somebody must step up to fill the gaping void left by Sir Alex Ferguson – and it’s outgoing Everton boss David Moyes.

After 11 years at Goodison Park, Fergie’s fellow Glaswegian is set for centre stage in football’s most thankless position. But just how do you follow a man like Fergie?

In all likelihood, Moyes won’t be able to match his predecessor’s 13 Premier League crowns, five FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions League titles. He will not be the same untouchable presence at Carrington. But he will be expected to hit the ground running.

It will take a strong mind, of course. But more than that, according to leading sports psychologist Dan Abrahams, it will require every manager’s most desired commodity – respect.

“It’s a massive word in football,” Abrahams tells FourFourTwo. “That's where his biggest challenge lies, especially if he suffers a few opening defeats. 

“Players like to be coached, rightly or wrongly, by managers who have a history of playing or a level of success at a certain level. If it was Arsene Wenger or Jose Mourinho going in, they could point to the Invincibles of 2003/04 or two Champions League titles.

“The challenge Moyes has is that he really can’t point to any trophies or any enormous successes, and he can’t draw upon an illustrious playing career. So how he builds that respect is going to be his big challenge.” 

Ferguson didn’t have it easy when he took the reins at Old Trafford, but the underachieving club he took over in 1986 is a million miles from the one Moyes is about to inherit.

November 1986: Fergie and United’s players size each other up

Now the 50-year-old must work out how to gain the esteem of Ferguson’s country-conquering squad. After all, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have been exposed to nothing but the departing manager’s methods at club level. According to psychologist Abrahams, who has worked with top clubs including Tottenham, Celtic and West Ham, a balance is crucial.

“I don’t think it’s a case of stamping your authority and I don’t think it’s a case of stepping back,” he says. “I think it’s about doing what he’s done on a daily basis for many years at Everton.

“You just have a different selection of players, a different training ground, a different match day ground and a different coloured shirt.

“It is different for different players. It’s an art, it’s not an exact science and there are going to be some players who will be profoundly happy. Then there will be other players who would be profoundly disappointed and upset.

“What a new face has to bring, however, is renewed energy and vigour. At the same time, it’s almost cliché to say it, but you have to prove yourself to a new manager whoever you are.”

At Everton, Moyes gradually built a squad that climbed from finishing in the bottom six for six consecutive years to being in the top eight for seven seasons. But at Old Trafford he will preside over a glittering array of stars who, says Abrahams, may not necessarily warm to their new man immediately.

“If those players do not perceive Moyes to be good enough, if those players have the perception that they aren’t going to play for him – which can happen often – then his reign might last not that long,” he says.

“But it might be difficult for Manchester United players to rebel in the dressing room with Ferguson or Bobby Charlton in the background, with that rich history of success.”

United pride themselves on stability, and Abrahams says that the change of management can have a crucial effect on players.

“I’m warmed ‘em up for ye, Davie”

“What you can guarantee – and I’ve seen it – is that you do get a different player mentalities in training when a new man turns up,” he says. “They have to prove themselves and they have to show him they are capable of being first choice. There is plenty of competition between players for only 11 spots.

“Then there is the potential for fresh tactics and a new way of going forward. It is a fresh voice, so that is interesting, and it can be both exciting and daunting for players.

“At United there’s always a high intensity – it’s renowned for being that way – so whether that increases, whether the players enjoy that new voice and that new approach, remains to be seen.”

When the dust has settled, attentions will finally turn to his successor. Scrutiny from the start seems inevitable. And ultimately Moyes does not have silverware or European glory to fall back on. He has only his character and a respectable record with Everton that, to his great credit, has got him this far.

And so the million pound question: can he really succeed in Ferguson’s house?

“I’ve worked closely with players and coaches who have been with him and I think yes,” says Abrahams. “He’s intelligent, he’s calm, he’s tactically astute and to my mind he has been good in the transfer market over the years.

“I think he™â€™ll absolutely love the challenge – and he’ll do it with a who-dares-wins attitude.”

Dan Abrahams is a leading sport psychologist who has worked with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Celtic. See for more.

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