As an American fan of football, I am predisposed to like David Moyes for this: he twice brought over Landon Donovan for winter spells with Everton, in 2010 and 2012. Donovan is the greatest player in the history of the American game, easily better than Clint Dempsey, who is erratic and less-than-selfless when playing for the national side.
Donovan, however, had been dogged for much of his career by a segment of US fans for his perceived failures in Europe, particularly in regards to his signing with Bayer Leverkusen at age 16, when he pined and withered during a winter of neglect in Germany, and his subsequent return to the Bundesliga side, short and ill-fated, in 2005.
Donovan’s two stints under Moyes, in which he twice played Premier League football for two solid months, put an end to the “but he failed in Europe” criticism. And Donovan came away with a deep respect for Moyes and an abiding love for Everton.
Also, what is not to like about a man who has done so well with such modest resources, at Everton? Moyes’s teams were sure to finish in the top 10, and stood a good chance of winning a place in Europe. Or the Europa League, anyway.
But this move to Manchester United … I am not convinced this is a good idea for Moyes. We turn to American sports for instruction on what happens when a successful manager at a club of limited means suddenly jumps to a job with one of his sport’s richest clubs.
Consider the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA. They won three championships under Phil Jackson before he left them for the first time, and his replacement, Rudy Tomjanovic, was overwhelmed by the high-profile job, quitting after half a season.
When Jackson left the Lakers a second time, after two more titles, his next replacement, Mike Brown, despite a nice history with the Cleveland Cavaliers, also struggled to fill the void of personality/class/celebrity required by the position, and he was fired five games into his second season.
The same franchise produced Pat Riley, as much a star of the 1980s “Showtime” Lakers as were Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The club won four championships in a decade. One of his successors was Del Harris, who had done well in Houston and Milwaukee, but he found the Lakers to be a much different sort of assignment. He was a competent coach but not a celebrity. He, too, struggled to live up to fans’ expectations of what a Lakers coach should do and think and wear.
Riley would later reprise much of his success with the New York Knicks, another position of extreme scrutiny, and none of those who followed him there have ever seemed as interesting.
Moyes risks tumbling into the same sort of black hole at Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson leaves behind an enormous chasm of personality and style and achievement at the highest level.
Moyes will be judged quite differently, going forward. A gutsy sixth-place finish played well at Everton but would be a disaster at United. Moyes will be dealing with players at the very top of the English game, talented but also likely temperamental, instead of the second-tier professionals he forged into units at Everton.
Moyes is a clever man, and his leadership qualities are significant, but he is stepping into another world. He knew all the buttons to push to achieve success, as Everton defines it.
United are a different realm entirely, a place where money is not an issue, where anything less than a league championship is a failure, where every fan in the world will be looking at him and wondering how he measures up to Ferguson.
He is a brave man to take on the job. I fear he will wish, sometime fairly soon, he had gone in another direction.