When the news broke that Sir Alex Ferguson was stepping down as manager of Manchester United and the name of his successor was revealed the following day, I was one of those who claimed that David Moyes was the logical and right choice. I expressed this belief on Danish television only minutes after Moyes had been officially “chosen”, but as it happens, I did in fact already indicate in the book Standing on the Shoulders of Giants that Moyes was the best bet, at least in terms of British candidates for the most impossible job in the world. But (and there is a “but” which has become only more visible in hindsight) I forgot to mention that Moyes being “the right choice” came with a precondition. The name of that precondition was René Meulensteen.
When it became clear in the course of July that Moyes had indeed made a clean cut and released Ferguson’s entire staff, I thus immediately felt the dark clouds assembling above Old Trafford. Ferguson is from Scotland, and so is Moyes. No problem in that. On the contrary, if one knows the history of Manchester United one also knows that the two most successful managers – Alex Ferguson and Matt Busby – are both Scots, and, apart from that, they both occupied the Old Trafford hot seat through more than twenty-five years. These facts, the Scottish connection and continuity, are some of the reasons why Moyes was the right and logical choice. In short, Manchester United have a deep love for both Scots and continuity, and this is why they not only chose Moyes, but also chose to give him a six-year contract. So far so good.
But in the wake of the fabulous Treble-winning season of 1999, a season where the Red Devils had shown what one could rightly label an uncompromising, but at times also naive all-out-attack mentality, Ferguson realised that the United engine was in urgent need of a continental component who could provide the team with tactical finesse and new training methods, since United were being punished in Europe for a similar tactic in the following season. In other words, Ferguson went looking for a new assistant manager to replace Steve McLaren, who after the Champions League final against Bayern Munich in 1999 went his own way. Ferguson found the cosmopolitan Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, and later he hired the Dutchman Meulensteen. With their schooling in the Portuguese and Dutch football philosophy respectively, Queiroz and Meulensteen brought elements of technical flair, tactical flexibility and strategic intelligence into the United team. Neither must we forget that Queiroz, apart from his technical, tactical and strategic inputs, also kept his fellow countryman Cristiano Ronaldo happy, just as Meulensteen kept his fellow countryman Robin van Persie happy in the latter’s first season at Old Trafford. The importance in relation to man management of having a staff with a multinational composition is not to be underestimated in this era of globalized squads.
When Moyes led Meulensteen go, what did he then do? In contrast to the master, who had realised the need for a continental ingredient in Manchester United’s English and Celtic core, the apprentice brought with him Britishness, Britishness and Britishness. Worst case scenario for a United fan is indeed that Moyes quite simply brought Everton from Goodison Park to Old Trafford. The signs of this have been clear in several matches. But perhaps they were most unambiguous, and symbolically so, in the match against the very Everton team Moyes only abandoned a few months ago. With Roberto Martinez at the helm Everton not only dominated in large periods of the game against Manchester United at Old Trafford, they also secured their victory in what came close to being Fergie Time – that specific period of the match when United historically have excelled in pushing their opponents further and further up the Stretford End and scoring late winners.
Maybe I am too harsh on Moyes. Maybe I underestimate his own tactical intelligence. But I do fear another post-Busby era. Is that too pessimistic? Is it an untimely premonition (untimely because as a United fan one is committed to give Moyes a chance and committed to thinking long term)? Perhaps too pessimistic and untimely, yes, but Meulensteen’s exit was a bad decision. If it was a catastrophically bad decision, only time will tell.
And I guess we could leave it here, hanging in the air in good postmodern fashion. But there is a merciless point that we cannot neglect, namely that seven years are longer today than they were in 1986. And that is not all. It is also much more fatal for a club today to fall out of top 4 than it was then, not just because of financial reasons, but especially because it influences a club’s ability to attract players from the top-top shelf negatively. The consequence is a vicious circle which is almost impossible to break. Just look at Liverpool.