Dismal Legacy

04.23.14

David Moyes: The Vanity of Alex Ferguson

The club that won the Premier League last season has slid into into seventh place—and its legendary manager’s hand-picked successor is no more. How Ferguson’s hubris doomed David Moyes.

At the end of his long reign, King Lear was ultimately seduced by vanity. As he wrestled over the identity of his successor, one of Shakespeare’s most tragic characters allowed flattery to cloud his judgment.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in Manchester United history, made the same mistake when he retired last May after 26 record-breaking years. One of the world’s richest sports teams could have had its pick of the finest coaches anywhere on the planet, but Ferguson wasn’t interested in the leading candidates’ trophy hauls or win-ratios. He believed the only person capable of replicating his success was somebody exactly like him.

Ten months ago, he hurled David Moyes, a middling player who had never won a major trophy as a manager, into one of the most high-profile jobs in sport.

Ferguson had hand-picked a successor with the same blunt speaking style, the same old-fashioned values, and the same Scottish background—the two men were born at opposite ends of the Clyde tunnel in Glasgow.

United fans may have been surprised that glamorous alternatives such as Jose Mourinho, a dashing Portuguese trophy specialist, or Pep Guardiola, a legend at the Spanish club Barcelona, had been overlooked, but reverence for Ferguson largely silenced any complaints about “The Chosen One.”

After a miserable season in which last year’s Premier League champions slid down into seventh position and out of the European qualification places for the first time in more than 30 years, Moyes was fired on Tuesday. A resultant spike in the club’s value on the New York Stock Exchange underlined the widespread lack of faith in his ability to turn the team’s fortunes around.

Just like King Lear, Ferguson almost certainly feels “more sinn’d against than sinning,” but he is the only one to blame, according to some observers. The Glazers, United’s American owners, who have no experience of soccer, felt they had no option but to take the advice of the man who transformed United into one of the world’s biggest sporting brands. “To be honest, it was done when Alex said,” United’s executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, later explained.

By fumbling that final big decision, Ferguson may have tarnished his legacy forever.

Only a handful of coaches have the inner certitude and leadership qualities required to lead a sporting empire like Manchester United. By Moyes’s own recollection, Ferguson might have recognized his mistake as soon as he anointed his friend.

The former Everton manager spent his first weeks in the job telling anyone who would listen that he was in way over his head. That included a toe-curling account of the moment he was told he would be the next United boss.

“Sir Alex gave me a call and asked me to come to his house. I was expecting him to say, ‘I’m going to take one of your players’ or something else,” he said in July. “I went in and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m retiring.’ I said, ‘When?’ because he was never retiring, and he said, ‘Next week!’ His next words were, ‘You’re the next Manchester United manager.’ I didn’t get the chance to say yes or no. As you can imagine, the blood drained from my face. I was shocked.”

It was hardly a battle cry.

When Moyes asked players to watch videos of well-drilled players from his time at Everton, stars such as Rio Ferdinand reportedly demanded to know what it had ever won.

Moyes had been given the toughest job in football: following Sir Alex Ferguson, who won 38 trophies in a quarter of a century at the club. Anyone would have found that difficult, but Moyes never suggested he would be able to make the step up.

On a pre-season tour in Australia, a microphone set up in front of the new manager picked up the word “wow” during a five-minute video package capturing the club’s glorious past. “Taking over Manchester United, you think you can walk in there and breeze in and think you can do it easily?” he asked. “Of course not. There has to be an element of fear that comes with managing a club like Manchester United.”

The look of fear, which was etched on Moyes’s face inside Ferguson’s Cheshire mansion a year ago, remained in place as a shaky start to his tenure grew steadily worse as the season progressed. The club’s usual fluency on the pitch evaporated as it racked up a number of depressing records. This was the first time United lost home and away to Everton since the 1969-70 season, its first home defeat to West Bromwich Albion since 1978, and the first time it lost home and away to both of its fiercest rivals, Liverpool and Manchester City, in the Premier League era.

As these remarkable feats played out before him, Moyes looked powerless to effect any change. His substitutions had no impact, his halftime team talks were ineffective, and his on-field strategy remained dour. Robin van Persie, the club’s best player and top scorer in Ferguson’s last season, publicly questioned Moyes’s tactics in February, and players began briefing against him in March before a former player labeled him “out of his depth” on the club’s in-house television channel this week.

If Ferguson’s vanity led to the selection of Moyes, the egos in the United dressing room finished him off. They became increasingly difficult to manage for a man who had no great track record to cite, or experience at handling world-class talent. When Moyes asked players to watch videos of well-drilled players from his time at Everton, stars such as former captain Rio Ferdinand reportedly demanded to know what those players had ever won. More and more players had to be frozen out as Moyes struggled to keep a grip on the club.

The Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were due in Manchester this week to discuss plans for a drastic overhaul of the team this summer. They may have been foolish enough to let Ferguson choose a successor in his own image, but they weren’t about to let him spend another $300 million.