By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 26, 2013) US Soccer Players – Seeing Alex Ferguson during the Hull – Manchester United game the day after Christmas was almost jarring all things considered. In a game Manchester United won, the emeritus manager taking in an away game from the stands was all the reminder anybody needs of what was. Under David Moyes, United is a team that isn’t intimidating the contenders. Under Ferguson, intimidation was a hallmark. So was winning.
It’s not just that United are the defending Premier League champions. Ferguson’s decision to exit the sideline trophy in hand makes sense. There are enough examples of a head coach hanging on just long enough to leave his successor an obvious problem. What’s less common is to pass on a championship caliber team creating its own issues.
Everybody knows the list of obstacles confronting David Moyes. Replacing the legend was more than enough. That includes replicating the legend’s results. Manchester United requires trophies. They’re that club, the one you either support or despise because they dominate the competition. Everyone working for them knows that’s part of the deal.
When it doesn’t work, make moves until it does. Though it leaves enough otherwise neutral fans with chagrin bordering on outrage, United play a domination game. It’s a season-long mentality that helps fuel expectation, and Alex Ferguson is the face of the modern version.
United as the new Liverpool in terms of league titles wasn’t a return to form. They won of course, but the pile of trophies wasn’t what Ferguson’s sides produced in the Premier League era. United won the First Division in 1967 and didn’t lift the trophy again until the First Division became the Premier League for the 1992-93 season. In between, Leeds, Everton, Arsenal, and Derby County won multiple titles in decades dominated by Liverpool’s 11.
Ferguson’s United had seven titles before the Premier League era and overcame Liverpool’s record 18 two seasons before Ferguson retired. As work product goes, it’s impossible to downplay Ferguson’s teams and remain reasonable. As an added bonus for the next guy, Ferguson never had a team finish lower than third in the Premier League era.
It’s the Premier League era that looms over Moyes, not Ferguson’s early years with the club when he transitioned from what he knew from playing and coaching in Scotland. It’s an insult to the seasons Moyes put in as a Premier League manager to suggest a career resets at a bigger club. He was good enough to get the job, after all. Among the elite in England, it’s too one-sided, much too convenient, to put all the expectations on a new manager and leave out the club.
Moyes picks up his fifth consecutive win, and the feeling is all he’s done is regain his footing. The expectations never have United out of contention. The struggle to push his squad as they slid down the table became more about Moyes individually as a team in obvious transition. Every club in the league knows things change, sometimes taking season to remedy. Not United, intolerant to playing for the indignity of a Europa League spot. Not even for Ferguson, who spent seasons with his eventual retirement part of the discussion.
Ferguson continuing to show up in his role as director and ambassador is what it is. This isn’t politics, where the last head of state is supposed to stay far away while the next one does the job. It’s also not the old days where managers left and the club immediately turned a corner and moved on. Why would any club want to move away from what Ferguson represents?
This wasn’t a coach to an assistant transition. Moyes isn’t an acolyte. His changes to United showed his willingness to operate like he did with Everton. The club is his, and it’s too easy to say so are the early results. Then again, it’s also hard to consider Manchester United a work in progress regardless of leadership.
Any team that wins enough sets the standard so high that they no longer get to underachieve. There’s a substantial difference between failing to win a title and failing to even contend. That’s United halfway through the season, it’s Moyes’s unexpected challenge, and it’s the story of 2014.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson: