The last time David Moyes spent an entire season in charge of a Premier League club it ended in the Championship, in him resigning because he felt he did not deserve a pay-off for being sacked. This one may yet end in the Champions League.
Ever the realist, Moyes feels that West Ham need four wins to stand a chance. They also require either Chelsea or Leicester to slip up and, while they face each other, the Hammers’ fate is still not in their hands. But if Moyes can steer West Ham into fourth, it would rank as the greatest year of his career. His 11 years at Everton amounts to an impressive body of work, but for a solitary season, this would be no.1.
There is an obvious comparison. Moyes is almost guaranteed an 11th top-eight Premier League finish; only one of those has been in the top four and there is a temptation to suggest he could steer everyone bar relegated Sunderland – whether Everton, Manchester United or West Ham – to somewhere between fifth and eighth. But in 2005, his Everton side finished fourth.
It remains a stunning feat, and not merely because Everton could look down on that season’s Champions League winners in the eventual standings. There are certain similarities with events in east London this year: each team had diced with the drop the previous campaign, seen morale dented by a controversial sale, even if Grady Diangana is no Wayne Rooney, and kicked off amid low expectations. Both sides benefited from Moyes’ transfer-market alchemy, his willingness to scour the Championship for players, whether Tim Cahill or Craig Dawson, and his capacity to use a talismanic midfielder with a set-piece threat to compensate for the lack of a natural goalscorer, whether Tim Cahill or Tomas Soucek.
Yet fourth with West Ham should outstrip fourth with Everton on Moyes’ roll of honour. That is not to diminish his achievements at Goodison Park: that Everton side was probably less talented than West Ham are now and, even by austerity-era Moyes’ standards, the notion the £450,000 Marcus Bent could replace Rooney and the team could double their number of wins feels improbable.
But the context may enable the Hammers to displace Moyes’ workmanlike Toffees. Fourth place then did not bring Everton Champions League football; it got a play-off, which they lost to Villarreal in such luckless manner that Pierluigi Collina still should not want a season ticket at Goodison. Now, unless Arsenal win the Europa League, Chelsea win the Champions League and neither finishes in the top four, it will send West Ham into the European elite.
Everton got fourth with 61 points, a historically low tally. Four more wins would take West Ham to 70; four more than third place Manchester United got last year. When Everton finished fourth, English football had a ‘big four.’ Now it has a big six (plus Leicester) and while this may be officially the worst Arsenal team in a quarter of a century, those six clubs boast far more of a financial advantage over the rest than was the case 16 years ago. Getting a top-four finish now entails finishing above at least three of them; one bad league season, as Liverpool had in Rafa Benitez’s debut campaign, no longer affords such an opportunity to an outsider. In 2005, Leeds and Newcastle had declined, Aston Villa and Tottenham were yet to advance and Manchester City to spend; no European Super League would have granted automatic entry to six English clubs.
In 2005, Moyes had longer to plan; his Everton tenure was almost two years longer than his time at West Ham is now. He transformed Everton, inheriting a club on course for its sixth successive bottom-half finish. And yet altering the culture at West Ham may rank as a still bigger feat; they were the byword for expensive underachievement, for bad signings and delusions of grandeur. Moyes has brought a mentality and a consistency; it is quietly remarkable that their only defeats are to the big six and Newcastle. He has done so while playing better football than Everton did 16 years ago.
But the other reason why this would become Moyes’ landmark achievement is personal. There were times during his wilderness years when he appeared yesterday’s manager, that his capacity to forge teams as bloody-minded as him, to find bargains, to conjure the best form of players’ careers with his man-management and to overachieve had deserted him. Rewind to 2004/05 and, with the exception of the previous year, his career had been almost exclusively on an upward trajectory in its early years; though he did a respectable job in his first spell at West Ham, it was almost entirely anticlimactic since leaving Everton.
Until this, until Moyes’ throwback season. Both his Everton and his West Ham have proved people wrong on their gravity-defying charges towards the footballing heights. But while rebuilding his reputation, Moyes may have constructed his finest ever season.
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