So David Moyes has been sacked by Manchester United, what did we learn?
About football? Not a lot.
Inevitably and frustratingly in the aftermath people have dwelt on the trivial questions. There’s been the endless, tedious dissecting as to why Moyes failed, when it’s blatantly obvious, and whether United were right or wrong to sack him, and to do so now. Who will they hire to replace him? Who can they get? How much will they spend on players this summer? On and on it goes, rinse and repeat.
Watching the whole debacle of Manchester United’s season unfold made me return to one question:
Why is David Moyes, David Moyes?
That may seem like a strange question, but let me explain what I mean.
The superficial answer is simple, David Moyes used to play football professionally. Similar to a lot of other footballers who retire, he then became a manager.
The reasons behind this are likely to be benign and straightforward. Most folk need to earn a living, and Moyes had spent his whole adult life playing football. More speculatively, and it’s a hideous cliché that’s often trotted out, perhaps Moyes was driven by an unfulfilled playing career, whether it be through injury or a lack of talent, and that this fomented his drive to be a manager. It was the only remaining route for him to reach the top of the game.
None of this is unusual, and that’s just the point, some how, some way, Moyes, a normal to be gracious, uninspiring and unremarkable, to be less so, manager suddenly became a figure of intrigue. He became ‘the chosen one’. He was labelled ‘a winner’, despite having never won anything. That more people didn’t find this peculiar, was, well, peculiar.
And that’s where we find our answer, the creation, rise and fall of David Moyes, football manager, is subject to context.
Contexts are malleable, and things that are malleable and undefined are subject to corruption by human influence.
The seeds of Moyes’ demise were planted during his Everton tenure. Having taken over when expectations were meagre – Evertonians had been scarred by too many flirtations with relegation – Moyes kept them up. He continued to keep them up, comfortably. He got them into the top half of the table. He got them into Europe. He managed them to a fourth placed finish. Then, having reached that threshold, he started to come up short, or rather his anachronistic, simplistic tactical methods and modes of thinking met their ceiling. He tantalised Everton fans with hope of a true revival, reminding them what their club once had while paradoxically what they wouldn’t and couldn’t have again if he remained.
By this point it had been a decade in charge at Everton for Moyes. His reign was deemed as success, contextually, due to where Everton were when he arrived. If you chose to, you would see that the characterisation of these kinds of achievements as successes is a disingenuous, cheap and lazy form of marketing the mediocre echelon of the Premier League product. The Premier League sells itself as the best league in the world, so the more successes and success stories it can conjure the better. When Moyes, a manager who had won nothing, was inexplicably transferred to United, a club that tends to win stuff, therefore is expected to, his limitations were placed in a context where they could be given no sanctuary.
His dismal failure at United was inevitable, but that Roberto Martinez, his replacement at Everton, and the possible, previously thought of as improbable, league winning success of Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, have, from Moyes’ perspective, cruelly combined to expose the excusing myth on which his favourable reputation was built: that to contend and ultimately win that you need to have the financial resources of your foes. The excuse was that Moyes, at Everton, never had the resources to compete. That Everton could still achieve fourth this season with two games remaining (even though it now looks unlikely), playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football than Moyes would dare aspire to or is incapable of developing, having spent far less than Spurs, Arsenal and, in the ultimate of ironies, United in the last twelve months alone, dents that theory. And if Rodgers is able to mastermind Liverpool’s first title in twenty-four years, while going up against the financial behemoths of Chelsea and Manchester City, it will destroy it.
It should destroy the narrative that David Moyes’ tenure at Everton was a success. The events of this season should recalibrate how other instances of similar ‘successes’ and those who are given kudos for overseeing them are viewed, but more than likely it will not. Through a lack of critical thinking and or tribalism, we aren’t inclined to challenge the mediocrity of this culture, a culture we are complicit in shaping.
As a Liverpool fan I have no sympathy for Moyes, not because he managed Everton, but that he had the cynical wherewithal to realise the opportunity afforded to him by this narrative, and that he chose to accept its validity. Moyes was all too happy to inculcate it to insulate himself. He used it, not to challenge and better himself, but as a means of maintaining people’s acceptance of him as he was. He spoke glowingly of being in charge of the ‘people’s club’, a petty euphemism which insinuated that folk who were grounded, knew their place, and weren’t likely to demand something he couldn’t deliver, were likely to support Everton. Not only was it a slight on Evertonians, but it was breathtakingly arrogant, ignorant, and it spoke of a self loathing, self serving, self regarding defeatist complex in which Moyes revelled. He had taken a club on its knees, stood them up again, then psychologically cut them off below the knees again, priming them, with the use of petty tribal hatred, to accept mediocrity. Moyes certainly didn’t want Evertonians to be like Liverpool fans, driven by ambition and having expectations of being in contention to win trophies. He encouraged Evertonians to wear his mediocrity as a badge of honour, and sadly, some did. All Moyes’ rhetoric did was galvanise and intensify the hatred between the two clubs, as distraction from the disparity in culture between them. Liverpool were busy challenging for and occasionally winning trophies while Everton weren’t. That was fine with Moyes though, as long as Evertonians were looking in anybody’s direction but his if and when someone was brave enough to break ranks and pose the question as to why.
Fittingly by immuring himself in this defeatist culture, and the widespread acceptance of narrative that underpinned it, it would help seal his fate at United. When he tried the same defeatist shtick at United, people, en masse, immediately saw him for what he was.
That Moyes wasn’t able to adapt his tactical concepts and his training methods was no surprise. One standard of mediocrity is the inability through nurture or experience to conceive of the world other than it is. Moyes couldn’t conceive of what was required of him at United, as we enabled the creation of the conditions that never forced him to, as we couldn’t conceive of him belonging to another context.
And that’s the only thing that changed, the context in which David Moyes existed. Not David Moyes. Given this it’s appropriate that he failed to live up to the narrative that was bestowed upon him as the ‘chosen one’. The change itself, and the language used to support it, betrayed his constitution by creating the belief that his methods would translate without him having to change. Given how the majority had viewed him to this point, how he was lauded, Moyes was quite entitled to believe that what he’d done at Everton, what he’d ‘achieved’ earned him the job at United. Here we find a strange phenomenon, the notion that by deeming Moyes as the chosen one, and as a winner, who would make sure the story (read success) would continue, it alone would be enough to transcend the reality and evidence of him and his career, and that he was capable of the adaption that would be required to truly succeed.
Some will say that Alex Ferguson was entitled to believe that the winning culture he’d created and bequeathed could have transformative powers over Moyes. If Moyes believed the narrative of his time at Everton, that he was a winner in waiting, then he would be at United, as United would mould him into one.
This is no surprise as we see daily examples of hubris which is disparate from reality. It is but a desperate last feint at avoiding acceptance. In United’s case it was the acceptance of the inevitability of change. Ferguson going was a seismic change, Ferguson picking his successor made the change seem less perilous. The simplistic train of thought went as so – Ferguson was a man who judged himself by success, sorry let me be definitive, make that winning trophies, and he knew what that took, as such, if he’d picked Moyes, then surely he saw some of those attributes in Moyes.
As we’ve found out being a king and being a kingmaker are two different things, which require two different methods of analysis. Ferguson looked for someone in his own image, when there simply wasn’t another and instead of finding the best man, he settled for the narrative surrounding one who might, finally, given the chance, be the most like him. It’s difficult to make cold calculated decisions within a vacuum, to look at your flaws truthfully and objectively, and those of others, without nebulous insidious external influences and perceptions clouding one’s judgement.
This inability is pandemic in our culture, and part of that culture is the Premier League, a product which is built on shameless greed and hype. As such it needs figures, characters and caricatures of interest to consume and repeat the narrative cycles on which it is predicated.
One of these narrative cycles is the battle for Premier League survival. If we look at Moyes specifically, he is a symptom of what I call the middle manager complex, which has many facets to it.
Facet one. The Premier League is a conglomerate. All of the decisions made by its members (clubs to you and me) are taken with financial ramifications as the primary consideration. As a result, managers who are able to get teams into and keep them ensconced on the Premier League gravy train are now seen as a commodity. Yes, that means that Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce are now seen as commodities. Pause for a moment to consider this. Before, in the pre-1992 days of greater financial parity, there was less importance placed on simply remaining in the top division, the accent was building over a number of years for a sustained chance at success.
Facet two. Hubris and mediocrity. These middle managers exist and are enabled through the ineptitude of chairmen and owners, who, imbued with hubris of success in other fields, are largely unable to recognise that identifying talent in football management is a vastly different challenge. That means those who who have proven track records of attaining midtable mediocrity become safe bets. This is aided by impoverished expectations. As outlined above at Everton under Moyes, teams and fanbases often become immured, through various modes of subtle propaganda, into aligning their expectations based on how wealthy their club is or isn’t, relative to others. Some call it realism, others pragmatism, and there is an element of sincerity and truth to those counter arguments, but it also breeds a culture, a philosophical approach which strives to maintain the average and the belief that this is a form of success. This is understandable, as belief in it prevents thoughts of discontent. It maintains the perpetual hope that things will change for the better, eventually, some day. No football fan wants to be discontented or without hope. It’s akin to the process of buying a lottery ticket and the range of delusional emotions it incurs. This week will be the one. You can feel it. You picture how it will change you and your life, until it doesn’t. By the time next Friday has arrived you’ve forgotten last week’s disappointment.
Facet three. Xenophobia. Moyes’ reputation is a legacy of mediocrity, and that mediocrity was elevated through the assistance of a fawning media, who, with their specific form of delusional, deeply illogical, contemptuous xenophobia, were desperate for a successful British management story. There was pride in seeing a British manager, who’d paid his dues too, get the biggest job around over some Johnny Foreigner. That his credentials, be it his experiences in football, and his methods were unsuited for it, were irrelevant to the where he was born, of Ferguson’s approval, and most of all, in the intellectual stock that some had placed in Moyes, that they were right about him being a success at Everton, and that this would finally be validated when he arrived at a big club like Manchester United.
The various forms of these celebrity public contracts of mutuality are pitiful. All of them are founded upon displacement and projection, a method of distancing personal self loathing, disenchantment and insecurity by living vicariously through the success of others. The most famous and extreme example of this is Tiger Woods. You all know what happened there, right? Woods fucked around, got caught, and his wife left him. This happens every day all over the globe, but because it was Woods it was different. Why did he feel compelled to give that strange, grovelling press conference to apologise to millions of complete strangers?
Remove the context and it’s a completely perverse intrusion. But the answer is we all, whether we wanted to or not, had a stake in creating him and his gigantic brand. It was our creation as much as his. He got famous quickly, remarkably, deservedly through his remarkable abilities, and we all, no matter how fleeting, paid some level of interest. Some of us went further than that, we believed him to be something he wasn’t, we wanted him to be something he couldn’t be, because we knew we couldn’t be that either. Therefore someone else, someone with a brilliant gift, should shoulder that burden for us. Woods, of course, was complicit, just as Moyes was at Everton, as he was happy to go along with the narrative as long as it suited him, and he cashed in on it. Ultimately, for purposes of consolidation, mediocre minds conjure a persona synonymous with the talent they see. Like Woods had no chance of living up to his persona, Moyes didn’t in his vocation, and any contextual shift destroys the guise we’d helped create.
The usual reaction is to hold them to account, not for failing themselves, but for failing us. Contrition, in some form, is the means of salvaging the narrative, as it allows both parties to elide the recognition of their ludicrous behaviour and potentially start the process all over again. That’s why Tiger chose appeasement and it’s why David Moyes waited for Manchester United to sack him.
Moyes of course diverges from Woods in that he was given his professional cache undeservedly, while Woods earned his. Moyes’ talent, what there is of it, belonged in a certain echelon, an echelon that most of us wouldn’t like to admit that we belong to and likely always will. Most of us will live unremarkable lives – comparatively speaking – but seeing (helping?) someone unremarkable like Moyes succeed in defying that likelihood gives you hope that you can transcend your circumstances, and perhaps, nature.
I suspect that Moyes will return to management relatively soon, and when he does it will be to a context to which he is suited, where he can be himself, where he can be successfully mediocre and the masses can applaud him for it, applaud themselves, starting the potential cycle again. Personally and selfishly I hope Moyes doesn’t return and he retains his position as the perfect analogy of the cultural and psychological defect that created him: the decay of critical thinking that has lead to the lauding of mediocrity, then the fetisizastion of its inevitable failure, a process that offers us the opportunity to devolve to forms of introspection, but that appropriately, we seldom do.
And why did I say appropriately? Well, we made David Moyes in our own image.