It sounded odd at the time. Leading up to the start of his first season at the Theatre of Hollow Myths, David Moyes chose to abandon his previous upright, downright, straightforward no-nonsense Evertonian demeanour and go for a good old-fashioned Fergie whinge with the requisite helpings of paranoia and self-righteousness. “They’re conspiring against us,” he grizzled, bitterly. “Three tough games against title contenders in the first five league outings. It’s no’ fair.” It was straight out of the Taggart Manual, from Chapter One: “Build a Siege Mentality”. The thing is, however tried and trusted the lines are, you need the right kind of actor to convey them. Now that the Old Ham had gone off, could the relatively green Moyes carry on with the same old act? Was it even such a good idea to try?
Whatever the whys and wherefores, the gambit appears to have blown up in the fledgling Man U manager’s face. Yesterday’s humbling against Mancunian giants City was not only a salutary lesson on the field. It also raised serious questions about the new man’s deportment off it. On the face of it, the Moyes Whinge, as it has come to be called, looks in retrospect like a timely warning. Of the three fixtures he was complaining about, the Pride of Devon have lost both away matches, at Liverpool and City, and gained a somewhat lucky point in a dour home struggle against Chelsea. But the fact is that the fixtures are simply that: fixtures. There’s a clue in the name, and while Sky may tamper slightly for TV requirements, the basic framework for the season is carved in stone. To complain about them at the time Moyes chose to complain, and in the terms, moreover, he chose to employ in making that complaint, showed more weakness than foresight, more lack of confidence in himself and his team than lack of faith in the authorities. What message was sent out by the manager to his troops as they prepared for combat? Would they have been inspired by their leader’s belief in them? Or would they, instead, have had a subliminal fear implanted of facing three formidable teams early in the season? Were they, in short, afraid?
A hindsight version of the Moyes Whinge emerged this morning on the radio. He referred again to the perceived unfairness of the fixtures arrangement. As an exponent of psyching his team up and psyching opponents out, Fergie was tiresome, he was tedious, he was annoying and detestable in the eyes of his enemies. But it clearly worked more often than not in the bunker that was Man U’s dressing room. Moyes, by contrast, seemed to have waved a white flag and called for stretcher-bearers before a shot had been fired. Certain of his players, van Persie for one, are already emitting rumbles of discontent. You can imagine them asking themselves: who would we rather have as our leader as we enter the trenches? The margins between victory and defeat are incredibly fine, one iota of backsliding by the historically dominant force, one iota of improvement in the fortunes of his enemies (the football term for “iota”, interestingly, is “Özil”) – and the tables can be well and truly turned.
It may also be that Moyes’ emergence from the comfort zone of Goodison into the fishbowl glare of the Theatre of Hollow Myths has been particularly ill-timed. The gene-pool at the top of the Premier League appears to have expanded dramatically over the summer. Arsenal have improved by probably more than just one Özil. Tottenham seem to have contrived to have lost a golden nugget and replaced it with the equivalent weight in gold-dust, and to have improved in the process. Chelsea have wound the clock back to the reign of the Special One, and you just know he will weave his magic again whilst laughing sardonically at his carping critics in the media, embittered journalists all of whose significant others are unanimous in fancying Jose. Liverpool have looked “at it” again, despite a dip in the last two games. Everton are unbeaten, with a new style and belief under Martinez. The whole landscape at the top of the game has a new and, from the Man U point of view, dangerously unfamiliar look about it.
Maybe one craggy and purple-faced individual in particular foresaw this sea-change, and perhaps this explains the abruptness of his departure from the hot-seat in Salford. There must, after all, be a significant danger that the still debt-ridden Evil Empire will finish outside of the top six this season, favourable ref decisions notwithstanding; and on that subject – what on earth happened to Howard Webb in the Derby? He failed utterly to live up to his Man U Player of the Season form, and must now be worried about his place in the team. Moyes has a lot on his plate, and – sallow-faced and bug-eyed compared to the smug, well-fed, puce sleekness of his tyrannical predecessor – he frankly does not look as though he has the appetite for it.
The noisy neighbours across the border in Manchester will be well aware, as they leap and cavort in celebration in the sullen faces of Manchester’s Red minority, of the problems that are stacking up for the hapless current incumbent of Salford Towers. But those happy fans will care not one jot, as is the case with thousands of other equally happy fans the country over, outside of Devon and Cornwall. They can see golden horizons ahead, and a game reinvigorated by true competition across a well-matched group of clubs vying for the ultimate prize. If Man U do end up outside in the cold, there will be millions who feel it’s a reckoning that’s arrived not a minute too soon.