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Apr 23, 2014

Moyes' failure at Man Utd hurts football managers everywhere


The best place to start to assess Sir Alex Ferguson's misplaced faith in David Moyes is probably the ancient Mayan citadel of Chichen Itza. Once you look at Chichen Itza, everything becomes clear. Chichen Itza was one of the great pre-Colombian cities. It is dominated by a soaring, sacred pyramid -- El Castillo -- which served as the focal point of the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the snake god. In its shadow lies a ball court where the Maya played what is now known as the Mesoamerican ball game. Every year, the best and brightest would be chosen to play the ball game in honour of Quetzalcoatl; every year, one or more of the best players would be sacrificed to please him. There is an inherent structural problem with this. Any civilisation that is built on killing off anyone of intelligence and athletic prowess is not the best plan. The Maya may have seen being sacrificed as an honour -- though it's a fair bet not everyone was so keen on the idea -- and so in the short term may have managed to inculcate a culture of excellence, but in the long run, genetically, getting rid of anyone with any promise is a bad idea. It encourages and engenders mediocrity. Mediocrity is a cancer on society. As it grows, it weakens everything around it. In his wonderful depiction of the final days of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, the journalist and author Ryszard Kapuscinski details how the King of Kings' paranoia resulted in his court being stuffed with the mediocre. Rulers need brilliant talent around them to help them make the best decisions. Selassie was so afraid of plots to overthrow his rule that he weeded out anyone of promise just as ruthlessly as the Maya. He wanted only yes men and apparatchiks. Ethiopia's once-thriving society suffered and stagnated. Selassie sacrificed the country's well-being in order that he might survive. This brings us, neatly, to Ferguson, Moyes and Manchester United. Ferguson was a brilliant manager. He will forever be mentioned in dispatches as one of the finest of all time, up there with Arrigo Sacchi, Rinus Michels, Helenio Herrera and a clutch of others. One of his greatest flaws, though, was surrounding himself with mediocrity. Ferguson long had a cabal of protégés who he bestowed with his wisdom. There was a gaggle of his former players (Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce), a couple of his erstwhile assistants (Steve McClaren and, for a time, Brian Kidd) and a few who had come to him, people like Sam Allardyce. Ferguson was always the first on the phone to congratulate a young manager on a new job or commiserate on a sacking. He stamped down any dissent -- witness what happened to Roberto Martinez while still at Wigan -- and did all he could to belittle anyone who was a genuine challenger to his authority, such as Arsene Wenger. Even after his retirement, I was told by a high-profile manager that he wanted to say something positive about the Scot (referred to as "the boss") so that he could get back in his good books. Moyes, Man Utd Coverage - Brewin: Firing was inevitable - Marcotti: United need a director of football - Shaw: Five reasons Moyes had to go - FC bloggers: Would you want Moyes? - FC TV: Bad fit from the start? Ferguson's was a classic system of patronage. And just like Selassie's, it favoured the mediocre. Arguably the finest manager to emerge from the ranks of Ferguson's former players is Mark Hughes, who was long shunned by the Scot for reasons that have never been entirely clear. That explains, in part, why Moyes seemed such an obvious candidate as the successor to Ferguson. Of course the Scot knew that his countryman was not quite as good a manager as, say, Jose Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti. But he had been surrounded by the average for so long that, in contrast, Moyes perhaps seemed to have more promise than he actually did. He had done a fine job at Everton. Ferguson allowed himself to be fooled into thinking that such a background was perfect preparation for managing Manchester United. What the subsequent nine months have proved is that it is not. Much of the timbre of the coverage of Moyes' sacking has been that it has set back the cause of British managers when it comes to being given the very best jobs in the Premier League, something only slightly offset by the success being enjoyed by Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. This is misleading, mainly because there are no British managers in line to be given a top job (if we assume that Rodgers is unlikely to leave Anfield for the next couple of years, at least). This is a source of great personal frustration whenever this debate arises, which is whenever a decent post becomes available. Everyone is quick to say that British managers should be given a chance; nobody is quick to suggest which one. There are no outstanding candidates, and a large club should not be expected to hand control of its ambitions to someone who is not qualified simply on grounds of nationality. Why this should be can be attributed to a number of factors: that clubs lower down the food chain continue to give jobs to the same mediocrities; that so many British managers seem so reluctant to produce stylish, attacking football; that so many ex-players like Tim Sherwood and, possibly, Ryan Giggs seem to believe they do not need to learn their trade lower down the pyramid, instead insisting they should be able to go in at the very top; that the media now offers a far easier life for many of the game's brighter individuals. It is, then, a misnomer to suggest that Moyes' failure is a blow for British coaches, when there are none who would have been anywhere near a position to take advantage of any success he might have had. No, the real victims of Moyes' failure are those managers of whatever nationality currently working at clubs away from the elite -- people like Mauricio Pochettino, Martinez, Mainz's Thomas Tuchel and Fiorentina's Vincenzo Montella. What Moyes' misadventure has proved is just how vast the chasm is between working at a strong club toiling to make the best of itself and being employed at one of football's superclubs; you could say much the same for Tata Martino, currently struggling at Barcelona. Martinez is a manager United would ordinarily consider, and rightly so. But how can they, when now they know incontrovertibly that doing well at Everton is no guarantee of success at Old Trafford? It is too much of a risk. The same goes for Pochettino. They must look, instead, at those already established, people like Ancelotti and Louis van Gaal. And it applies outside United too. All of the very best jobs in Europe, at Real Madrid and Barcelona and Bayern Munich, are gradually becoming the preserve of a select few coaches. Bayern would not appoint Juergen Klopp a few years ago because of the risk involved. Would they look at what happened to Moyes and think that when the time comes to replace Pep Guardiola, someone like Tuchel is a worthy replacement? No. Because doing well at Mainz means nothing in Munich. That is the real effect of Moyes' failure and of Ferguson's inability to spot his failings because he had surrounded himself with the average. It will serve to make everyone just a little more cautious, a mite more conservative. There is abundant promise at smaller clubs, but those managers are adrift in a sea of mediocrity, their burning light dimmed just a little by the shadow.