“He is a modest man who has a lot to be modest about,” Winston Churchill reportedly said about political rival Clement Attlee. Of course, Attlee got the last laugh, defeating Churchill in the 1945 parliamentary elections, but the (possibly apocryphal) put-down lives on in political lore.
Churchill’s quip was on my mind as I read A Season in the Red, by the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson. The book, which was released this month in the United States, chronicles all of the various missteps and mishaps from David Moyes’s disastrous 10-month stint at Old Trafford. The book, which covers both Moyes’s ill-fated tenure, as well as the first year of Louis van Gaal’s reign, is written primarily from the perspective of the press corp covering the team during that tumultuous two-year period following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
The book does a good job covering how the press covered Moyes. What really comes through in A Season in the Red is that Moyes not only seemed out of his depth from the moment he was hired but that he never really lost that awestruck “why am I here?” attitude. Maybe it was his natural humility, or maybe he was actively trying to lower expectations so that he could have more time to settle in to life at Manchester United. Either way, he only confirmed what so many people thought about him when he was handpicked to succeed the most successful manager in British history despite having never won a single trophy at the highest level. David Moyes is a modest man who has a lot to be modest about. And unlike Attlee, he didn’t get the last laugh.
It’s stunning to read all of the anecdotes and stories from those first few months of Moyes’s tenure and think that he was ever capable of swimming in the deep end. One of the chapters is simply entitled “Wow!” – after his excited and over-awed utterance in Sydney during the preseason tour when he was caught on a live mic after watching a five-minute video about United’s proud history (a history that he really should have been well-versed on already). Another widely-reported anecdote from that time was when Moyes admitted that he made sure there weren’t any photographers around when he sat in Ferguson’s old office chair for the first time because he was worried he’d look stupid. It’s hard to imagine Jose Mourinho or even van Gaal having the same concerns.
Indeed, the contrast with his successor’s attitude couldn’t have been more striking. Unlike Moyes, van Gaal took the position that United was blessed to have a manager of his caliber. During Moyes’s introductory press conference, for instance, Jackson points out that the former Everton gaffer repeatedly used variations of the word “hope” to talk about what he expected from his new team. “I hope to play the same way.” “You have to get the balance right and hopefully I can.” “Hopefully, I’ll have that same magic touch that Sir Alex used to have at times when he made remarkable decisions that got him results from nowhere at times. I hope I am able to do that.” Contrast that with van Gaal, who only used the word “hope” twice during his introductory press conference and even threw down the gauntlet to his underachieving squad, saying in no uncertain terms that “the challenge is always to come first- not fourth.” It will be interesting to see whether the inexperienced Ryan Giggs gets a real shot at succeeding van Gaal, or whether Moyes has ruined United for all but the best and most accomplished managers (like Mourinho or Guardiola).
In fact, for an experienced manager, Moyes comes off as downright naive at times when dealing with the media. While at Everton, he could usually expect some level of protection, as well as indifference, from a press corp that was more fixated on what was going on at Anfield than in his part of Merseyside. Even after assuming the Manchester United job, Moyes seems startled that the press would ever publish anything that would potentially hurt the team. For instance, when Moyes indicates that Wayne Rooney would be second-choice to Robin van Persie, he is stunned that the media not only publishes his words but makes a big deal out of what he said and nearly cancels a planned dinner with reporters during the preseason tour. “The bigger picture here – the only picture really – is that whatever the rights and wrongs of this, He said, We said dispute, here is another Bienvenue a Manchester for Moyes,” Jackson writes. “And the new man in the hottest hot-seat is struggling to compute this.” And it makes it all the more brutal for him when he has to find out about his sacking from reporters.
Where the book is lacking is when it comes to unearthing previously unreported or newly uncovered bits of information. A Season in the Red really only covers stuff that has been previously reported and sheds no additional light on what was going on at Old Trafford behind closed doors. For instance, when it comes to player dissatisfaction and unhappiness, Jackson recounts the same stories that were reported by him and others during that time-span. We get the story about the player who shouted: “Send him off! We’re better without him!” from the substitutes’ bench during the 2-0 loss to Olympiakos in the knock-out round of the Champions League. We also get the story about the players leaking team information to the media, as well as the one about the coach nicknamed: “F— off (name).”
The book also doesn’t address some of the things that others, including Rio Ferdinand, have written about that season (such as Moyes’s chip ban or the ridiculous tactics used against teams like Fulham). When it comes to player transfers, meanwhile, we read about previously-reported moves for Cesc Fabregas and Leighton Baines, the dithering over Thiago Alcantara, as well as the strange Ander Herrera saga, but nothing else that hasn’t been written about already. Maybe the press corp has been so good at covering Ed Woodward’s moves in the transfer market that there hasn’t been a player he’s moved for that we didn’t already know about.
Ultimately, the best anecdote about Moyes’s tenure comes not from Jackson but The Daily Mail, which wrote about how the gaffer would read self-help books in full view of his players and staff. He read one such book, Good to Great, on the flight home from Greece following United’s disastrous loss to Olympiakos. That book really sums up everything that he was trying to achieve by making the jump to United from Everton – and it also illustrates everything that he did wrong during his ten months in charge at England’s biggest club. Perhaps, he should have read it before he started at United – and away from the prying eyes of the press.