Moyes at the Union: “I wish I had got the Manchester United players in their prime”

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It would be easy for David Moyes to feel hard done by after his last few experiences in management. At West Ham he took over with the team in disarray and kept them up in 13th place, but the club decided not to renew his contract at the end of the season. His Real Sociedad side beat Barcelona at home in La Liga, but he was sacked after 364 days in charge.

Then there is the fact that many football fans remember him for his ill-fated spell at Manchester United rather than the 11 hugely impressive years he spent at Everton in which he completely transformed the Merseyside club.

And yet Moyes is genial, intelligent and funny in person. He cut an impressive figure during a question and answers session at the Durham Union Society.

“I’ve really enjoyed my career, but I still think the best is to come,” the former Everton, United and Sunderland manager told the audience at the Union. “I’ve always felt that way about life. I’d like to win more; I’ve not won enough, I’ve only won the odd trophy, so I need to win more as a manager.”

It was inevitable that lots of questions would centre around Moyes’ time at United. Sir Alex Ferguson chose Moyes as his successor when he retired in 2013, and following the most successful manager in the club’s history was always going to be a difficult task.

The former Everton boss was handed a six-year contract but was only given nine months at Old Trafford as the club’s aura in the Premier League rapidly disappeared. It is a process which continues to this day; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are seventh in the table, the same position United were in at the time of Moyes’ sacking.

To his credit, Moyes was frank when asked about his experience at one of the most demanding clubs in English football.

“I thought I fitted what Manchester United stood for,” he said. “United had always stood for giving the managers time, giving them an opportunity, playing young players. But in the end they’d gone along with the others, they’d had to try and keep up with them.

“Everything couldn’t be changed, it had to be done slowly. In a way, I wanted to follow everything Sir Alex had done – why would I not? And the club worked that way. Obviously, personality – players realising that I’m not Sir Alex, I don’t manage in the same way as Sir Alex, which means that they would need to change also. That problem made it difficult for us.”

He also shed light on how Ferguson hand-picked him to be his replacement.

“Sir Alex didn’t say to me ‘David, do you want the job?’, Sir Alex said ‘David, you’re the new manager of Manchester United’. There wasn’t an interview process, it wasn’t a ‘Why don’t you go away and think about it?’, it was simple as that. In hindsight, I should probably have said ‘Give me a few days, let me go away and just think about if this is correct’.

“But the minute he said it to me, I wasn’t going to turn down Manchester United, even though Everton were my love and I had brilliant times at Everton. Manchester United was just too big an opportunity to say no to.”

It is clear Moyes looks back fondly on his time at Everton and that the rivalry between Merseyside’s two biggest clubs has not left him. The Scot recalls seeing only Everton jerseys as he drove through Liverpool for his first press conference at Goodison Park, and how he won instant respect with fans when he remarked “The people in the streets of Liverpool support Everton”.

There was also a tongue-in-cheek response when a Liverpool supporter asked him why Anfield was such a hard stadium to go to given the former Everton boss has yet to win a game there.

“When I was manager of Everton, it was always difficult to go, and it was very difficult to win. But I ended up leaving Everton because I was fed up of finishing above Liverpool in the league, so winning at Anfield didn’t really matter to me then.”

He credits the recruitment of “unbelievable players” for his long-term success at the club. His first answer, when asked about which players he would like to go back and work with in their prime, drew laughter from the audience, but it was telling that two of the names he picked out were archetypal Moyes signings at Everton: hard-working players brought in for relatively little who he moulded in his image.

“I wish I had got the Manchester United players in their prime,” Moyes said. “I wish I had got [Nemanja] Vidic, [Rio] Ferdinand, [Ryan] Giggs in their prime, because when I had them they were great players, but in their prime they were top players.

“It would be easy to say Wayne [Rooney], because I had Wayne at Everton. But I probably had as much pleasure out of taking someone like Tim Cahill from Millwall, or Mikel Arteta from Real Sociedad. We got really, really good players and great characters. People want to work with good characters, people who they can trust, and people who they can rely on, and just the names I’ve mentioned would be all that.”

In the case of Arteta, Moyes tips the former midfielder for a fine career in management when he makes the step up from being an assistant with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. “Mikel was a bit different. He was a bit more of a thinker, a bit more thoughtful,” he said. “Do I think he can step up? Yeah. But it’s not always the ones who you think are going to do it, it’s not always the best players.”

Born in Glasgow, where he started his playing career at Celtic, Moyes hails from a tough school of management: “You had to play very well not to get a bollocking. Even if you played good, you’d probably still get a bollocking”. Perhaps that is why the Scottish city has produced so many top-level managers, including the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby and George Graham.

Even so, he remembers feeling out of his depth when he first set foot in Everton’s dressing room as a young manager, faced with so many world-class players. The transition from player to manager had been easy enough at Preston North End, where he had made over 100 appearances as a tough-tackling defender. The same could not be said for Goodison Park.

“When I first became a coach, they taught me all of these things – how to put on sessions, how we speak, who we speak to,” he told the audience.

“But then I got the job at Everton, and when I had to come in on the first day on the Friday morning and speak to the players, I had Paul Gascoigne, David Ginola, Duncan Ferguson, Tommy Gravesen, a host of high-profile players. And I was thinking ‘What the hell am I going to say to these players?’. They’re probably thinking ‘Who’s he?’.

“For all the training you do and the roles you’re doing just now, there’ll be something when you start somewhere, where you’ll go ‘Oh, shit, what have I done? Am I prepared for this, am I ready for this?’. Sometimes you have to bluff it a wee bit as well, you have to get through it and you have to make sure that you stick your chest out and chin up and say ‘This is what we’re going to do’.”

It was interesting to hear Moyes speak about the signings he missed out on at Everton and United. He is frequently cited as claiming his Everton side were one player away from being Premier League title contenders, and he reiterated that here.

Miroslav Klose and Demba Ba were targeted in the search for a “real top-end centre-forward”, but the Germany striker broke his wrist in a friendly on the night Moyes flew out to meet him, while the latter failed a medical.

At United, the two big misses which came to define his tenure were Cesc Fabregas and Gareth Bale. Fabregas had agreed to join if Barcelona did not select him for the first game of the season, and Moyes says United offered Bale and his agent more money than Real Madrid.

In the event, the midfielder started Barca’s opener against Levante and put in a man-of-the-match display, while United could not talk Bale out of his dream move to the Spanish capital despite having a helicopter ready to collect him.

Moyes has taken the reins at several relegation-threatened sides, including Sunderland and West Ham. He was unable to prevent the Black Cats from dropping out of the top flight, but still describes the club as “one very close to my heart”. He laments the situation the North-East outfit finds itself in after years of overspending.

The Scot is one of the few British managers to have worked abroad in recent years. His time at Real Sociedad was characterised by his struggles with the language among other cultural differences as he recorded a mere 28.57% win rate, but he talked glowingly of the opportunity to work in Spain.

“It was a brilliant experience,” he told the audience. “The players were fantastic. They would do anything, anytime, except they wouldn’t do it at lunch.

“One of the things we talk about technically in this country is are we doing enough work with the ball? In Spain, everyone was considered good enough on the ball. Everybody took the ball, everybody played.

“Beating Barcelona at home was great, and the chance to play in Madrid and the opportunities to see Messi, Ronaldo, close up at that time, were certainly very special.”

So, which game would he single out as the highlight of his career?

“It’s too difficult to think of one game,” Moyes said. “I think I’ve had moments – I lost in an FA Cup final at Everton to Chelsea, I won the Community Shield with Manchester United. I lost a semi-final to Liverpool in the FA Cup at Wembley which we should have won, which was really disappointing.

“I’ve had big days – we beat Manchester United at Everton 1-0 with about four games to go at the end of the season, Duncan Ferguson scored the goal, we win 1-0, and it gets us in the Champions League. So there were things like that along the journey. 

“I’ve been really, really fortunate, I’ve had some great times as a manager. But I think whatever manager takes any of the jobs, you’re going to have bad times as well as good times. You can’t always win.”

Images by Durham Union Society

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