David Moyes unable to adapt quick enough to fit at Manchester United
On Sunday, an Everton fan dressed as the Grim Reaper, an inflatable scythe in his hand, sat behind the manager's bench at Goodison Park. For David Moyes, the symbolism was all too apt. His Manchester United team proceeded to put in a lifeless display, being comfortably dispatched 2-0 by the Everton side he used to manage to confirm there is no mathematical chance of the Red Devils qualifying for the Champions League.
That it should be the club he stabilized in the Premier League to inflict the fatal blow felt cruel, but it was indicative of how this season has gone for Moyes, who was unceremoniously axed by Manchester United Tuesday morning.
Fans will argue whether Moyes was ever cut out to be United manager, but that is to slightly miss the point. Managers and players rarely fit neatly into categories. There aren't A-grade manager and B-grade managers and so on down the line: there are merely managers who are right for a particular job in particular circumstances and those who are not.
Even in an age of flux, in which managers and players hop from club to club with abandon, there have only ever been four men who have won the championship with more than one club in the whole 126 years of English league history. Adapting to a new environment isn't easy.
It's a year since Moyes, out shopping with his wife, received a telephone call from Sir Alex Ferguson asking him to visit him at home. It's telling that Moyes' initial react was to panic that he was wearing jeans: he wondered whether to go home and change into something smarter before his wife told him not to be so silly. When he arrived at Ferguson's house, he was told he'd been selected to be the new Manchester United manager. There was no suggestion of him making plans or wondering whether he was up to the job: he was just anointed as a fait accompli, the chosen one.
Since then, Moyes has rarely not worn the look of a man thrust not entirely of his own willing into circumstances beyond his control. His decision to replace the backroom staff with his own coaches was understandable -- most new managers do bring in their own men -- but it helped to alienate players who had spent years training under the same man (Although it should be said that he asked former Ferguson assistant Rene Meulensteen to become his No. 2, an offer the Dutch coach refused). As frustration grew it was as though a number of players -- as the joke went -- were turning round, throwing a tantrum and insisting, "You're not my real dad."
Certain aspects of player relations were poorly handled. Robin van Persie made little secret of his frustration that he wasn't able to follow the fitness program he'd had specially tailored for a body that breaks down regularly. A stray comment over Wayne Rooney seemed to strengthen his hand in negotiations over an astonishingly lucrative new contract. Rio Ferdinand soon seemed to lose faith. Nemanja Vidic may have been considering leaving anyway, but his confirmation he would not sign a new contract when his expired at the end of the season was another headache.
United generally had a poor transfer window last summer, although whether the blame should fall on Moyes or the new chief executive, Ed Woodward, was unclear. There has also been a sense that everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. When Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, his aim was to "knock Liverpool off their f**king perch."
By 1993 he (and Arsenal) had achieved that. He hasn't been gone a year and Liverpool, against all expectations, look as though it has clambered straight back on to its perch: the success of United's most bitter rival has only made a miserable season bitterer for the club's fans.
Everton has taken a leap forward under the inspired leadership of Roberto Martinez. Under Moyes, the Toffees had never won at Old Trafford; as soon as he moved to United, of course, they did so: another statistic to hammer shut the coffin lid. A Capital One Cup success may not have saved him, but it would at least have been something to hold onto: it was lost in the semifinal against Sunderland, firstly by an uncharacteristic David de Gea error in the 119th minute of extra time and then by one of the most hapless penalty shootouts ever witnessed.
Perhaps the greatest issue, though, was Moyes' tentativeness tactically. In a sense that was probably to be expected: why would a manager accustomed to pragmatism be able to adjust to a more proactive approach immediately. But then over-caution was also a criticism Everton fans used to level at Moyes: maybe it is just in his nature.
In another era, he may have been given time to try to adjust: by giving him a six-year contract, United acknowledged that in replacing a long-serving patriarch, it would take time to impose himself and adapt. But the reality is that United cannot afford not to qualify for the Champions League two season running. There's been a recognition that cracks in the squad Ferguson left behind had been covered by the former manager's charisma and aura of authority.
There will be significant rebuilding this summer, with some reports suggesting a kitty of £200 million being made available. And that's the question that seems most pertinent: Is there anything Moyes has done this season to suggest he's the person you want wielding that sort of budget? Anything to suggest he is capable of overseeing the rebuilding work that began with the signing of Juan Mata in January?
The brutal truth is probably not.