The poisoned chalice of being the man that follows the man.

Moyes - Manchester united

With the new season just around the corner, and a new man at the helm at Old Trafford, it seemed an appropriate time to reprise an article I produced around the turn of the year talking of the difficulties that Davis Moyes was facing, and would face moving on as he sought to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. It also discussed that if Moyes was moved on, the next manager in line may have an easier ride. It turned out to be quite prescient.

As if the pressure on Manchester United manager, David Moyes, was not intense enough, the weekend saw a number of newspapers suggesting that the club have it in mind to place a Dutch ‘Dream Team’ of Louis van Gaal and Frank de Boer in charge for next season. The Champions’ League first leg defeat against Olympiakos in Greece pushed United’s season to the very edge of the precipice, and the report suggests that the club hierarchy have looked over the edge and peered into the abyss.

There’s an old saying in football that you never want to be the man that follows the man; you want to be the man that follows the man, that follows the man. Taking over from a legend such as Sir Alex Ferguson can initially sound like a dream job, and surely no-one would have been surprised that, when Moyes was offered the chance, he grabbed it with both hands. He may now have burnt fingers however.

Many people have offered fairly pointless wise counsel after the event to Moyes. He should have done this. He shouldn’t have done that. He should’ve played this way. Picked him. Bought this guy. Sold that one. Keep the old coaching staff. The simple fact however is that whichever way he chose to go, David Moyes would always have been saddled with one major problem. And that simply is that he isn’t Sir Alex Ferguson.

Moyes isn’t the first manager offered the opportunity to pick up the reins at Old Trafford after an ‘institution’ has moved on. Back at the end of the 1969 season, Sir Matt Busby initially vacated the manager’s seat, and was replaced by long-time assistant Wilf McGuinness. The role proved beyond the new manager however, and Busby was persuaded to return just after Christmas in 1970 for a further 18 month period. The man who followed the man had come up short in the impossible job.

Sir-Matt-Busby

In June 1971, Busby again retired, and was replaced by the Leicester City manager Frank O’Farrell. The Northern Irishman lasted 18 months before the board deemed incapable of the task of controlling the squad in general, and the mercurial, but troublesome, talent of George Best in particular, and he was dismissed. Again, the man who followed the man had paid the price of the pale comparison.

At this time United appointed Tommy Docherty, and although it took a relegation  and a thorough overhaul of the squad to rinse out the old ways, the Scotsman turned the club around. Not having the the long shadow of Busby’s success hanging over him, the period of O’Farrell had created some breathing space for the new man.

Henry Ford once famously said that “History is bunk!” Moyes however may dispute the assertion of the pioneering carmaker, and be contemplating the difficulties experienced by McGuinness and O’Farrell, comparing them with his own. The question of course, is just how realistic it is for the club to expect a smooth transition from a manager that has very much shaped a club in his own form, to a new manager. It seems an almost comical thing to say, but the biggest help the players, club and fans can offer to Moyes is to forget Ferguson.

If Moyes remains cast in the tragic-comic role of the man who follows the man, his chances of success will remain compromised by the burden thrust upon him.  The manager needs to simply be able to be that, to step clear of the giant shadow and realise that he isn’t the man that followed the man. He simply is ‘the man.’

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘offsiderulepodcast’ website).

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