In 1982, before I realised that I hated musicals with a passion, my parents took me to see Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, a staggering four times. The last time we saw the show, I remember there was a pre-curtain announcement which explained that Jess Conrad – the star – would be unable to perform due to a family bereavement, and that the role of Joseph would be played instead by the understudy.
On hearing this news, the audience emitted a deep guttural groan as if they’d just been told that Norman Tebbit had been bused in to play the lead. I imagine the sound of mass disappointment filling the auditorium didn’t make the understudy’s heart sink so much as it tried to burst through his chest and roll out of the nearest backstage exit. It must have been a terribly disheartening moment.
I can’t actually remember anything about the performance that followed. All I remember is the audience reaction to the announcement and the instant assumption that the performance would be sub-standard. After all, how could a young pretender possibly replace the mighty Jess Conrad and still provide us with the high levels of entertainment we’d come to expect?
Believe it or not, this Jess Conrad-based preamble is my way of easing you into a blog post about football. You see, I’m a Manchester United fan. Admittedly I’ve only ever been to one game (Old Trafford, March 1985: we beat Aston Villa 4-0, during which I accidentally hurled a meat and potato pie over the man sitting in front of me) so I’m probably more ‘armchair fan’ than dedicated ‘super-fan’.
True ‘super fans’ of Manchester United probably live in a subterranean netherworld beneath Old Trafford itself, where the blood, sweat and tears from every match filters through the hallowed turf and hangs in the air like a fine mist. (In contrast, I live in a light and airy flat in a small Warwickshire village.) Furthermore, true ‘super fans’ probably attend every first team match – home and away. They’d probably turn up to watch the ground staff kick an empty can around the car park if they could. I obviously can’t compete with that level of fandom, but I’m still a fan and I still care what happens to my team.
The incomparable and uncompromising Sir Alex Ferguson has been at the Manchester United helm for all but a couple of years during my time as a supporter, but the idea that he would one day retire never really crossed my mind. Part of me expected a Weekend at Bernie’s-style scenario to eventually transpire, whereby a complex pulley system would be employed to animate Sir Alex in the dugout, inspiring thrilling victories and late comebacks for evermore. But now he’s gone (retired, not expired) and David Moyes sits in the big chair.
I feel a bit sorry for David Moyes. When he first took over at Manchester United it was reported that Sir Alex Ferguson had seen him as his understudy and natural successor. He was the man standing nervously behind the grand drape listening to a groaning audience of doubters, dubious of his ability to deliver high quality entertainment and anything but disappointment. “Will David Moyes turn Man United into a team who have to fight to get into the top four?” asked one fan on Yahoo Answers, using a forum best known for people asking if it’s safe to eat urinal cake.
Does any manager go into a club with the aim of actively reversing its fortunes? No, of course not. It was an idiotic question that was posed before David Moyes had presided over a single competitive game.
Still, David Moyes and the new executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, have had a tough time so far, particularly in the transfer market. In July it was reported that Woodward had departed the club’s pre-season tour of Australia to deal with “urgent transfer business”, and like many supporters I salivated at the prospect of Gareth Bale arriving, or even Cristiano Ronaldo returning, perhaps to be joined later by the likes of Geoffrey Kondogbia, İlkay Gündoğan, Mesut Özil, Ander Herrera, Eliaquim Mangala, Ezequiel Garay…and any number of players that we were being linked with on a daily basis.
Speculation about the “urgent transfer business” was constant. Woodward was in Spain trying to tie up the Fabregas deal. He was in Hungary on the trail of Puskás. Meanwhile, reports of secret meetings with Jossy Blair suggested that he was close to securing the signature of a Glipton Giants playmaker. We were about to go wild in the transfer market – and I couldn’t wait!
My excitement was somewhat dampened at 11pm on deadline day, when our only signing was £27.5m Marouane Fellaini from Everton. It’s an over-priced signing that, granted, gives us some much-needed physicality in midfield. But signing just one player in a last minute frenzy of transfer activity on deadline day was undeniably disappointing. Especially when you consider that, in the same transfer window, Spurs managed to snap up Christian Eriksen from Ajax for a mere £11m, along with the likes of Erik Lamela, Paulinho and Roberto Soldado. “If even half of these impressive Spurs signings succeed – look out,” tweeted Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl.
Oh, and Mesut Özil – one of the most technically gifted attacking midfielders of his generation – ended up at Arsenal. “The Premier League…is a league with much more space and Özil is a player that, given time and space, he will kill you,” warned Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas, fresh from playing the lead role in our long summer of unrequited love. Arsenal, it seems, could be deadly this year.
Fellaini’s arrival, on the other hand, was greeted with a mixture of dismay and indifference, with only a light dusting of vaguely positive reaction. “Probably our least exciting £20m+ signing ever,” sighed ‘kps88′ on the RedCafe.net forum. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one contributor to a forum thread has, at some point in the last couple of weeks, predictably referred to him as “Marian FAILaini”. But that would be unfair, seeing as he hasn’t even pulled on a Manchester United jersey or kicked a ball competitively for us yet.
Fellaini could be a great signing for us, so we should give him time. And I really hope David Moyes is given time, too.
In spite of a pre-season Charity Shield win for David Moyes’ United, followed by four points and four goals in three Premier League matches (in what Moyes described as “the toughest start Manchester United have had [in the league] for 20 years”) I’ve already seen some fans calling for his head – which is madness. We’re not going to become that club, are we? The type of club that casts stability to the wind and throws a manager under the bus every time there’s a dip in form.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s first game in charge of Manchester United, on 8 November 1986, was a 2–0 defeat at underdogs Oxford United, which was followed by a goalless draw at newly promoted Norwich City. It was hardly a scintillating start, but it didn’t define Sir Alex’s managerial reign or prevent him from eventually building teams that went on to deliver a historic level of footballing achievement.
Robert Chalmers’ open letter to Sir Alex Ferguson, which appeared in GQ magazine shortly after the Scot announced his retirement, noted:
“Paddy Barclay wrote, at the time you were possibly facing the sack, around 1990, that you had got everything right at [Manchester United], except at first team level. We read those words, as supporters, and thought: what use is that? But a great manager – given time, as you were – moulds a club in his own image.”
Wise words indeed.
David Moyes has a six-year contract at Manchester United and I think we should let him have those six years to build his own empire and write his own history at the club, even if it means that we have to part with success temporarily. He needs to impose his own style, make further signings (something he was very good at as manager of Everton) and even create his own urban myths. Like the time Sir Alex Ferguson disemboweled a hapless boot boy following a 2003 FA Cup defeat at the hands of Arsenal, before angrily stuffing the organs into a boot and launching it at David Beckham’s head, with the steaming entrails flapping like a comet’s tail as it flew across the changing room.
I’m not qualified to give David Moyes tips on how to achieve success. Although, I do have a very successful Manchester United career under my belt courtesy of Football Manager. (Or I did until last week, when I jokingly resigned after 12 glorious [game] years following some poor results, then watched in silent horror as the game immediately autosaved.) Football Manager is one of the most addictive games of all time. It’s like being captivated for hours on end by a detailed and thoroughly entertaining PowerPoint presentation. And when you’ve played the game for so long that your new signings are all ‘regens’ (regenerated players), your squad begins to look like it’s made up of talented E-FIT criminals. It’s swallowed a lot of my spare time over the years. But here’s what I’ve learned from that virtual managerial world: give youth a chance!
David Moyes shouldn’t be afraid to blood the youth at his disposal. Wilfried Zaha reminds me of one of those talented footballers at school, who could beat you with a flashy trick and blistering pace one minute, then go from pirouette to crumpled heap, clutching his balls, the next. His skill certainly needs refining, but he’s absolutely fearless and can run all day – which should terrify any defender lacking concentration or pace. Similarly, I’d love to see Adnan Januzaj get some significant game time under his belt this season. I’ve just heard that Juventus might do another ‘Paul Pogba’ and poach him from us if his contract runs down, which I’d hate to see. Surely he’s the future of Manchester United – PLEASE GIVE HIM A NEW CONTRACT, DAVID!
Also, please play Shinji Kagawa as often as possible. I know the trick is finding a way for him to play alongside Wayne Rooney in a position in which he can excel, but just find a way. Injuries aside, I thought he was great in his debut season. Just the nimble, creative force we need.
Still, what the fuck do I know?
After 26 years of managerial continuity at Manchester United, our 2013/14 transition season is obviously going to be tough as hell – especially with five very strong teams challenging us for the title. But before he disappeared down the players’ tunnel for the last time, Sir Alex Ferguson instructed supporters to do one very simple thing: “Stand by your new manager.” And unless David Moyes uses the January transfer window to re-sign Eric Djemba-Djemba or sell Wayne Rooney to Chelsea, that’s exactly what we should do. Jess Conrad is gone, now it’s time for the understudy.