The only surprise about yesterday’s elephantine ceremonials to launch Sir Alex Ferguson’s fourth (and counting) autobiography, was that David Moyes didn’t turn up at the end and suggest he do his Champions League press conference in the same room. After all, that was where what appeared to be the entire British media had gathered.
Poor Moyes. As if the shadow cast by his predecessor was not long enough, this week has come as a pertinent reminder of how diminished things are at United without the old curmudgeon in charge.
Ferguson’s mere presence in a grand reception hall at the Institute of Directors yesterday had hundreds scrabbling for positions. The BBC’s political editor was there. So was the presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme. So was a reporter from Chinese state television, anxious to beam back live and direct to Beijing the former manager’s thoughts on when we can expect China to win the World Cup (he didn’t know).
Moyes’s own event, held simultaneously in Manchester, meanwhile attracted little more than a trickle of interest beyond the half dozen Japanese reporters who turn up at every function at Old Trafford or Carrington in the fond hope of news of Shinji Kagawa (there wasn’t any).
In The Guardian yesterday, the excellent Barney Ronay wrote that while Ferguson had unquestionably been the finest manager the game in this country has ever seen, he is proving to be a pretty rotten ex-manager. Instead of disappearing discreetly into a claret haze, there he is dominating the national conversation and in doing so offering a savagely critical point of comparison to his successor.
Although not through his own timing, his return to the centre of the national conversation with the publication of his book has reminded United followers of quite what it is they have lost. And it is more than the derby.
There is no doubt Moyes, after 11 years of almost unimpeachable work on Merseyside, is suffering reputational damage in Manchester. The gathering noise in the stands at Old Trafford is that he is United’s equivalent of Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. Out of his depth is the growing charge. Put him out of his misery now, the developing solution.
Putting aside for a moment the irony of followers who once boasted of how their club had been so patient with Alex Ferguson in his early days now writing off his successor before the trees are bare in his first season, as an idea jettisoning Moyes is total balderdash. The man is a formidable manager and an excellent human being. He will come good.
Of course he has made mistakes. His transfer window was hapless and hopeless. His tactical response has been limited. Only his mum would suggest Marouane Fellaini is the answer to United’s midfield problems. And without doubt his biggest evident deficiency has been in his caution.
One of the most revealing passages in Ferguson’s book is when he deals with the matter of Fergie Time. He admits that theatrically tapping on his watch as matches reached their conclusion was a psychological ploy. It was a reminder to the opposition that it was at the end of matches that his United were at their most dangerous. That was when they would chuck the kitchen sink at opponents, that was when the manager would urge them forward whatever the consequence (on one occasion he recalls his goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel being in the opposition box for most of added time, desperately leading the line in search of an equaliser).
Contrast that with Moyes’s demeanour when United sank so lamely at the Etihad last month. He sat in his seat, quietly accepting defeat rather than raging against the dying of the light. That was not the Fergie way. Inevitably, then, it was not the United way either.
It is, however, worth saying that it took some time for Ferguson to feel confident enough at United for that to become his default reaction. In his early days he was nothing like that gung-ho buccaneer. Indeed his embrace of a caution-free approach can be largely dated to the game against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, the game Fergie Time was born. It was only when such an approach had produced such evident return that it became part of the governing philosophy at the club.
In other words, even Fergie needed time. Which is all Moyes needs a quarter of a century later. Sure, his task is gigantic, not least because of the legacy he was left by his predecessor in the shape of a squad whose deficiencies were largely covered up by the strength of Fergie’s will.
Sure, right now the aura which attended the club under the Ferguson leadership is diminished to the point where Mauricio Pochettino can turn up with his Southampton side genuinely believing he has a chance of winning at Old Trafford. Sure, the buzz seems to have left too many of the players who shone under the old guard.
But jettisoning the new man in charge will not resolve any of those issues. Whoever had come in during the summer would have faced all of the same problems now banking up in Moyes’s in tray. What Moyes needs is support and backing. But before that, what he needs is a win. Beat Sociedad and Stoke and he can cheerfully watch the old guy dominate the news agenda. Slip up, however, and the comparison will continue to do him no favours.
Premier League: A History in 10 Matches by Jim White is available now £18.99 (a full £6 cheaper than the Fergie book).