So the dust is settling on David Moyes’ departure from the appropriately-dubbed Theatre of Hollow Myths. It was the increasingly poignant tragedy that had been waiting to happen as Moyes appeared to become progressively more haunted and helpless with every passing interview, following each successive, damaging defeat. Now, in the aftermath of his inevitable sacking, the media have gathered like a host of scavenging vultures and they’re asking one question above all. David Moyes: was he really clueless – or merely luckless?
The thing is, though – this has not really been about David Moyes at all. His sad fate would have been the natural destiny of any inheritor of what was clearly a poisoned chalice, made more poisonous by the addition of the lethal factor of self-delusion. Because Manchester United have succeeded in convincing themselves that they are something special; the Biggest Club in the World™. It is a problem that is unlikely to go away in the short term, whoever eventually succeeds the former Everton boss. The problem that Manchester United have is that the myth they have been complicit in building up could well now be the one single factor that reduces them to the ranks of also-rans.
Manchester United have willingly, eagerly saddled themselves with this “Biggest Club in the League/World/Universe” tag, one that they were only ever even apparently able to live up to through the – let’s say “unique” – approach of former manager Alex Ferguson. His intimidatory, choleric style and remorseless insistence on the accrual of each and every marginal advantage available, resulted in a domination of the rest of the pack. In a game of fine margins, Ferguson’s regime – his mind games, his fear factor, his volcanic tantrums – continually gave his club the edge over the rest. The truth of this is amply illustrated by the club’s title success last season – with a squad probably the fourth or fifth best in the league – and conversely by their hapless capitulation this season. A serpent with its head cut off is bound to find that its biting potential is not quite what it was.
Even on the morning of Moyes’ sacking, as BBC radio went into debate and post-mortem frenzy, the usual suspects were still at it. Ex-Man U player Mickey Thomas talked fluent bollocks about Moyes taking charge of “the biggest club in the world”, having to cope with “the biggest job in the world”. This lazy tendency towards hyperbole has long caused hysterical laughter in places like Munich, Madrid, Barcelona, Milan and Turin – even in London and Liverpool – and understandably so. Take any empirical measure of the size of a club – stadium capacity, attendance records, trophies won – anything – and Manchester United would have to acknowledge, in the cold light of day, that they are not world leaders. And yet the myth has persisted, has thrived even, as the club and the media have deliberately nourished it. It has been an extremely useful marketing tool in the interests of encouraging the mass-delusion of the particular type of people – of whom Dr Freud would have had so much to say – that choose to support a club based on perceived size and power. There is now a nervous terror out there in Singapore, Nairobi, Bangkok and Milton Keynes, at the thought of not being the biggest and the best – and that is very much the product of expectations fostered by extravagant and untrue claims. But, perhaps fatally, it has become self-delusion on a grand scale too.
Some of the sound-bites from the morning of Moyes’ dismissal were risible – and frankly insulting to other institutions of the game. Moyes, it was said, “lacked big club experience”. This is a man, let us not forget, who was in charge for over a decade at Everton – an undeniably massive club of illustrious history and achievement; one which was able to win League Championships in the eighties on a pre-Murdoch, pre-Sky level playing field – something which conspicuously eluded the alleged “biggest club in the world”. This casual denigration of fine and dignified football clubs is very much a part of the modern Man U psyche, and it is something that – aided by a complaisant media and a gullible support – they were allowed and able to carry off under the bluster and tyranny of Ferguson. But it’s a dog that will no longer bark when reality sets in; when the tyrant is deposed and when the superior quality of rivals has consigned the fallen champions to the hinterland of mid-table mediocrity.
Manchester United today stand in dire need of a wake-up call. Like it or not, they are not the biggest club in the world, and a continued insistence on such a demonstrably groundless claim will do them more harm than good in the future. Whoever next ascends the hot-seat will find that he is playing catch-up as thoroughbreds like Liverpool, City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and – yes, Everton too – threaten to disappear over the horizon. One thing Man Utd do have going for them is a large and, in parts, fanatical support – but even this is an asset that will eventually be diluted by foolish attempts to perpetuate a dying myth. All football fans share a common “we are the greatest” delusion to a certain extent, but at Man U it’s been elevated to the level of brand identity – and that cannot be sustained in a harsh, post-Ferguson reality, where there is no longer a fulminating Govan Svengali to hold the rest of the game in thrall, and to inspire fear and terror in the corridors of power.
Man U is a huge club and one that should be able to sustain success along with the other huge clubs. But they have no divine right to that success, and certainly not to utter domination as they have rather stupidly come to expect. Whoever comes next will have the best chance of long-term recovery if they have the wisdom (and if they are granted the time) to introduce a modicum of humility and respect; two qualities that have been sadly lacking over the past two decades in this part of Greater Manchester.
A failure to embrace and deal with this new mid-table reality is going to mean that things will steadily get worse before they can feasibly get better. The days of domination – of a near-monopoly – have gone, and for the game of football as a whole, that is definitely A Good Thing. The current big four, and the pretenders just behind them, will not allow that situation to be repeated. Ferguson was a one-off and not in a particularly good or healthy way. His time is gone, and now football goes on without him – and without the skew effect his tenure imposed on the game’s honours list. Manchester United now have to learn to live with this – and if they are wise, they will commit to a manager who is capable of finding for them a place in a game where it’s a lot tougher at the top than they have been used to.
Who that man will be is a matter for speculation. But again, whoever comes in, it will be necessary to be realistic. This is still a poisoned chalice of an inheritance in terms of exaggerated expectations from a global, glory-hungry fan-base; yet there is no Champions League football, possibly no Europe at all next season. Will the top players come in at that price? Will the likes of Rooney, van Persie and even Mata relish at least a season out of the Champions League limelight?
Whoever the next manager of Man Utd might be, he certainly will have a job on his hands dealing with just these problems. To expect him to labour under the weight of a hollow myth as well, is likely to be too big an ask. The spurious label of “Biggest Club in the World” proved to be a fable too far for the hapless David Moyes. His successor will have to hope – probably in vain – that wiser and more realistic counsel will prevail from now on.