THE DIVISIVE FOOTBALL nomad from Glasgow is back in the Premier League. After a slow and steady building job at Everton, it seemed like David Moyes’ managerial career has nosedived after taking the poisoned chalice and succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, and then finally relegating Sunderland.
Despite what initially seemed like an appointment made out of desperation, he’s been doing a solid job at West Ham so far. Of course, this little run-down is missing a crucial link from the chain, the adventure far away from the Premier League’s limelight – an interesting but ultimately fruitless stint at Real Sociedad that may be able to tell us something about the future prospects of the former Preston boss.
It seemed like a practical joke. Then again, any job in the beautiful game would have been deemed as such after he crashed and burned in front of the whole world at Old Trafford. Still, it was an unexpectedly adventurous development, the Scotsman agreeing to a job in LaLiga without knowing the language, going as far away from his comfort zone as possible in search of redemption.
Cold Manchester nights were replaced with a battle against relegation under the palm trees with La Real. It was quite the change for the club as well; their previous manager, Jagoba Arrasate, had been groomed for a long time to take over the job, managing the youth team for over two years before becoming assistant manager for the senior side. After Philippe Montanier left for Rennes, it must have seemed like a culmination of years of long work for him to pick up the mantle.
It was under his stewardship that the team made it to the Champions League, eliminating Lyon in the playoffs, however they finished last in the group, collecting only one point. They picked up that one in a 0-0 draw against Moyes’ Manchester United. It’s safe to say that no one would have expected the Glaswegian to end up in the other dugout in a year’s time. While Arrasate’s early performances earned him a contract extension in April 2014, he was sacked in November after an alarmingly poor start to the season.
Enter David Moyes – the third British manager to lead Real Sociedad after John Toshack’s 1987 Copa del Rey win and Chris Coleman’s six-month spell in 2007. There were sceptics, of course – as Phil Ball put it, “if you look at what he’s done since 1993 when he signed as a player for Preston, he’s moved in the radius of about 60 kilometres”.
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Still, not many clubs can say that they successfully picked up an ex-United manager, and maybe that was part of what led to the new manager bounce at the Spanish club. His tenure began with a goalless draw away against Deportivo, which the team followed up with a confident 3-0 victory at home over Elche soon after. The first two months of his tenure were genuinely excellent, and results like the eventual two Basque derby draws and an improbable win over Barcelona seemed to indicate something great.
Even before Moyes’ appointment, the club had been referred to as a Spanish Everton of sorts, both due to being a stable, well-run mid-table outfit, and the general lack of transfer funds. The stadium, however, differed greatly from Goodison Park, with a massive running track meaning less contact with the fans and a much more muted atmosphere.
They finished the season in 12th place. It was a case of mission accomplished, but it was clear that this wouldn’t be enough the next season. La Real harboured greater ambitions, and they had the warchest to underpin them: their goal was to return to continental football, and after missing out on transfers in the January window due to paperwork delays, they provided Moyes with enough money to put together the most expensive squad in the club’s history.
Asier Illarramendi made his return from Madrid for a record-high fee, while Gerónimo Rulli was brought in as goalkeeper. Both are still at the club – the latter’s topsy-turvy career involved a buyout by Manchester City with the team subsequently loaning him back to the Spanish side, then giving up on him altogether last January – while Brazilian striker Jonathas was meant to supply the goals on the other end of the pitch. He scored seven goals in 27 appearances before promptly being shipped off to Rubin Kazan.
It was expected that Moyes’ Premier League connections would allow him to continue his excellent track record of spotting buried treasure at Everton, but the wage differences were way too big to make things work. Still, he was optimistic as the new season was approaching, at least as much as he seemed capable of being: “I don’t want expectations to be too high,” he said, adding that. “We’ve got to establish ourselves in the top half of the league and move in the right direction. We have to do it year on year, layer on layer, like we did with Everton. The difference here is that the philosophy demands that there cannot not be wholesale changes, but it has similarities with Everton – a good academy, good foundations, a solid support, a proud tradition.”
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It wasn’t to be: they started the season with two goalless draws, followed by a 1-0 defeat against Real Betis. Next up was a 3-2 defeat at home against Espanyol. Still, the performances weren’t as bad as the two points from four games suggested. After four more matches, they were on six. “Moyes go home” rang the chants from the terraces. They were courteous enough to translate it for him.
By the time of his sacking, his team ranked 14th for shots on goal and dead last for shots on target. The idea was to implement a more British style at the club: “I want to play fast, the ball moving, energy,” as he put it. Instead, the end result was confusion on the pitch.
His failure had just as much to do with on-field developments as everything that went on outside of the stadium, including a clash of cultures and personalities with a man that, despite his repeated assertions to the contrary, didn’t bend enough. The language barrier was ever-present throughout his tenure, and he clearly didn’t make a big enough effort to get past it. He was widely ridiculed when he stated in one of his early press conferences that members of the B team “have been training with me uno, dos, tres, cuatro times, but I have not seen them play.”
It was understandable back then, but he was still using an interpreter by the time of his eventual sacking. Aitor Karanka made a very similar journey the other way around, his decent command of the English language stemming from daily two-hour lessons. Moyes stuck with weekly ones, his rationale being that “a bollocking in any language sounds the same” and that speaking in broken Spanish would just undermine his authority.
Instead, it was his general demeanour and body language that eroded his leadership, with players complaining about him literally pointing the finger at them in training as he gave instructions. Not that he was completely ineffective in getting his message across; wearing imaginary glasses against Villareal was enough to get him sent off in a contentious Copa del Rey tie, a move that fans loved, but one that still couldn’t ease the sense of isolation.
His offers of a post-match glass of wine to the opposition managers were rarely accepted in Spain, and it was impossible to shake the feeling that he remained a Scotsman in San Sebastián – a legal alien of sorts – staying in the same hotel throughout his whole tenure. As he put it at the time: “I don’t miss that much from home, though I lived within an hour of perhaps 25 professional football teams. But I do miss those midweek nights looking for players and watching opponents all around the north-west. I’d see my dad who’d watch games around Preston.”
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His difficulties in adapting seemed especially odd considering how he had apparently undertaken a lot of research before his interview with Sociedad president Jokin Aperribay, who was so impressed by the Glaswegian that he overruled his sporting director’s wishes to bring in Pepe Mel as Arrasate’s replacement.
In a way, it was a single game that sealed his fate. While the fans and the board were equally concerned about the shaky start to the season, it seemed like Moyes’ head wasn’t yet on the chopping block. However, the team’s performance against Las Palmas was so terrible that it seemed to instantly turn everyone against him. They lost 2-0 to a side that had only won a single game before that in the league, with La Real clearly inferior to the underdogs.
The sharks were out for blood, and the Spanish commentariat had a field day with the proceedings. It was written in the local media that it wasn’t the result that caused such heartache but “the image presented by the team” and that Moyes, despite all his statements to the contrary, “still bears the impression of someone who has only just arrived and doesn’t understand the club, the players, the league, the city, the opponents, the referees, the languages, the stadia, the timetables.” It was a damning indictment.
Even then, the club’s president gave himself a few days to cool off, but couldn’t find a good enough reason to keep him around. The announcement was scheduled for Sunday evening, but Moyes’ flight was cancelled, so it had to be made on Monday instead: an appropriate metaphor for his failure if there ever was one.
If he lasted a day longer, he would have made it a whole year at the Basque club. In the end, despite his successful firefighting efforts in the early part of his short tenure, his record is inferior to his immediate predecessor, and the Scot only won 12 games out of 42 while in charge.
While the Hammers are unlikely to face Las Palmas any time soon in a competitive fixture, the owners should probably cast on eye on Moyes’ Spanish adventure and be careful when deciding how long a contract extension he deserves, even if he successfully guides West Ham to a midtable position. The short-term stabilisation doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be able to keep a previously sinking ship afloat in the long run.