For David Moyes the firsts are coming thick and fast. His first Manchester derby is on Sunday. And last night there as the small matter of his first Champions League tie in the United dug-out.
As was mentioned once or twice in the build-up to the game, it was also the first time he had taken control of a team in the group stage of the competition. His previous experience limited to an unhappy brush with the referee Pierluigi Collina in a preliminary knock-out tie with Everton back in 2005.
He may have been new to this level of football, but his lack of pedigree was never going to be evident. Not at this stage. Not yet.
Besides, the idea that he is some sort of managerial ingénue, stumbling around naively trying to locate his feet is absurd. And even if he were, it is unlikely we would have seen any effect of his lack of games out on the pitch. After all, the side he chose lined up with five players who have won the Champions League. It is a core of a team that is not suddenly going to start playing like novices just because there is a slightly younger Glasgow voice barking at them from the touchline. As the man himself said:
“I thought the players knew what they had to do tonight and they went about it well.”
Indeed they did. United strolled past Leverkusen and might – but for Rooney and Van Persie both missing absolute sitters – have matched Real Madrid for goals. It was comfortable victory. Sound, sensible, the word that best sums that showing up is mature.
Moyes is blessed with being able to rely on players who know far more about these things than him. Players like Carrick, Evra, Ferdinand, Vidic and Rooney, with a Champions League winner’s medal sitting on the mantelpiece back home, were not going to falter or stumble. It may have been a first for the boss, but for them it was a stroll in the park.
And yet it would be wrong to suggest that Moyes’s influence is not already beginning to made apparent on this United team. For a start he only made two changes from the side who beat Crystal Palace on Saturday, with Chris Smalling coming in for Fabio and – much to the excitement among the dozen or so Japanese journalists who follow his every step – Shinji Kagawa replacing the Tom Daley impressionist Ashley Young. More to the point, with the Manchester derby on the horizon, he played Vidic and Ferdinand together again. As he will do at the Etihad on Sunday.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson there is no way that centre-back pairing would have been played three times in a week. The old boss was very careful to husband his resources, not to put too much pressure on the creaking limbs of his twin thirtysomethings. Jonny Evans would certainly have played in one or both the two home games, resting each of the senior pair ahead of Sunday’s crucial league fixture.
Moyes, on the other hand, has always been a manager who likes to stick with his first choice team as often as he can. At Everton he maintained a tight squad and always tried to send out his best. Phil Neville, his captain at Goodison, reckoned that was one of the reasons why they punched above their economic weight at the club: continuity compensated for a shallowness of resources.
And it has to be said, so far there is no sign that he is asking too much of his senior defenders. Early days, obviously, but there is an argument that actually playing is often no more exhausting than watching. Players, particularly those who feel themselves important to the cause, are hugely frustrated when obliged to sit and watch, even when they know they have been rested rather than dropped. They don’t find it particularly invigorating watching others do what they feel they should be doing.
Certainly there is already hint that Moyes’s fondness for a Rooney/Van Persie partnership will mean it is far more visible this season than it was last. And already that is promising to pay dividends. Ferguson clearly had his doubts about whether it was the most effective combination in his armoury, often preferring to partner the Dutchman with Danny Welbeck, ultimately not trusting Rooney on the grandest of occasions. Moyes, though, appears to have staked his immediate managerial hopes on that particular pair. Which, given the form they showed last night, does not look like the actions of a hapless beginner.
It remains early days. Maybe too early to discern any true pattern. But – injury allowing – it seems likely that a core of De Gea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Carrick, Fellaini, Valencia, Rooney and Van Persie will be Moyes's default selection. And who can blame him. When you are facing a series of personal firsts on the managerial tight rope, someone else’s experience is not a bad safety net.