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Once seen as a future Champions League manager, being David Moyes has become a thankless task.

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Illustration by Laura Breiling

 

My first media job was as a football researcher for Ireland’s national broadcaster. One day I heard that David Hasselhoff would be appearing on the network’s big Saturday-night talk show the next week.
I was in the midst of pulling pre-game stats before a Premier League weekend, and my ears pricked up. Heavily involved in my university’s theater society, I imagined how great it would be to have a cult hero of the entertainment world saying nice on-camera things about our little drama group.

The next Saturday, I came to the office with my friend’s Handycam in my bag. After our live studio offering was put to bed, I nervously skulked toward the salubrious part of the building that was off-limits to us sports nerds: the intoxicating, alluring Studio 4 greenroom.

Somehow I blagged my way in. It was otherworldly: canapés, beer, wine. (In our office, luxury was a new box of biscuits.) Hasselhoff was already onstage. He sang a song and did a short interview, the audience applauded, and the credits rolled. I ventured into the hallway, unzipped my bag, and turned on the camera. Then I spotted him, striding toward me alongside various production people. I took out the camera out and nonchalantly held it by my side.

A security guard tapped me on the shoulder.

Disaster. “I just wanted to speak with Mr. Hasselhoff. I’m a big fan,” I lied. It didn’t work. The guard began to escort me to the door when Hasselhoff, bless him, said, “Hey, did you want to meet me?”

I turned, flicked the camera to record mode, and made my pitch.
“Mr. Hasselhoff, wow. I’m such a big fan. I perform with a university drama group and I was hoping you might have a message for anyone who’d like to join us?”

“What’s the name of the theater group?”

“DCU Drama.”
I held the camera up and closed in on his face.

“Hey, it’s David Hasselhoff,” he said, not missing a beat. “Stay in school, study hard, and dreams do come true … for the DCU Drama School. God bless.”

He winked, pulled an imaginary trigger, and made a clicking sound.

And then, like that, Hasselhoff—a six-foot-plus mass of great hair and white teeth—headed into the night as I raced to catch a late bus home.

Sitting on the upper deck, I played the footage back. As I watched the polished way Hasselhoff slipped effortlessly into being “David Hasselhoff,” I couldn’t help but wonder when he’d crossed that invisible divide, from prime-time Baywatch hunk to walking punch line. How did a successful actor and singer lose so much respect from his own industry? When did it all become such a joke?

I thought of Hasselhoff recently while listening to BBC Radio 5 Live. One of the guests was David Moyes. He was quizzed about a range of topics, including whether or not he’d be keen on the vacant Scotland job. It was sobering to hear him earnestly discuss the admittedly faint possibility of taking on a part-time management gig. Again I wondered, “How did he end up here?”

Moyes’s failure at Manchester United and the humiliating way he was treated there ensured the only way was down. Still, the decline has been remarkable. At Everton, Moyes was seen as a no-nonsense, prickly sort—approachable but with an edge. He cultivated and curated a side in his own image—tough, resilient, difficult. Now—even with his recent appointment as interim manager of West Ham—he’s portrayed as a bumbling sitcom character, the seeds having been sown during his fraught, 10-month stint in charge at Old Trafford.

From the start, there was derision. It just didn’t look right. And Moyes seemed to dovetail perfectly with the emergence of that most damning creation: the internet meme. The club endured a chaotic summer in 2013, failing spectacularly to land high-profile signings. There was the bizarre but true tale of United’s not understanding the complexities of Spanish transfer clauses and, as a result, missing out on Ander Herrera on deadline day. There were drawn-out sagas involving Cesc Fàbregas and Gareth Bale. Their former player Cristiano Ronaldo made eyes and flirted up a storm. United bought it too, believing the superstar could be seduced and lured back. But it was all just a ploy to get Real Madrid to pay him more than Lionel Messi was earning at Barcelona. Haplessly, United were humiliated—used and abused—and famously were left with just Marouane Fellaini as their only preseason acquisition.

Through it all, Moyes was the lead player in the farce. The fall guy. And as things tipped off course—with him repeatedly tripping over his own feet—it wasn’t so much the criticism that grew louder but, worse, the laughter. People took delight in his struggle and the slapstick nature of it all: the exasperated looks, the hands on the head, the arms outstretched. Ultimately, his entire spell at United can be reduced to that one viral photograph: intense closeup, mouth agog, eyes wide in disbelief.

88_13_Moyes_2Of course, as it always does, the abuse turned darker and nastier. During a game against Aston Villa, a plane—hired by some United fans—flew above Old Trafford pulling a banner that read, “Wrong One—Moyes Out.” When it became mathematically impossible for the club to qualify for the Champions League, they quickly pulled the trigger and got rid of him, safe in the knowledge that contractually they needed to pay him only a year’s salary in compensation. Moyes found out about his sacking when reporters called to tell him. He told the litany of journalists who spoke to him the same thing: “There’s no way you guys would know before me—this is Manchester United we’re talking about.”

Moyes found out, in a horribly distasteful way, that United really is no different from any other club. They cared little about him or the broken promises or the six-year contract. It was a business transaction. It was damage control. Moyes tried to contact Ed Woodward, the club’s executive vice chairman, and a host of others. His calls were ignored. Finally, he was told to meet Woodward the next day at 8 a.m. Only then he knew for certain what was coming.

You have to wonder just how badly he was scarred by the emotional shock. You have to wonder how much of the trauma has been resolved. Effectively, his reputation—so carefully developed throughout his 11 years at Goodison Park—is in tatters. Right now, he’s a pariah. After the long-term comfort of consistency, West Ham is his fourth club in last three years. He has experienced three firings. The distress of United has affected his decision making and, surely, his self-esteem too.

Despite insisting he would choose his next job carefully, Moyes gambled massively by taking a job with La Liga side Real Sociedad. He had waited seven months but, despite his ambitions to manage in another major European league, it wasn’t the right time or the right place. It wasn’t his team. He was arriving in midseason, and he didn’t speak the language.

Again, it was all family-friendly comedy but completely inadvertent. Like when he appeared at a press conference and was quizzed on his knowledge of the reserve side. “I know about the B team,” Moyes said. “I know some of the players. They have been training with me … dos, tres, cuatro … times.”

He claimed he wanted a place where he could “enjoy football again.” San Sebastián wasn’t it. It was incredibly naive to think he’d arrive in a different place he knew little about but still, somehow, sprinkle some stardust. It was so idealistic and romantic, a bit Shirley Valentine. Given what happened to him in Manchester, it was odd to see him so optimistic.

When Moyes described his evening strolls along the river Urumea, or bemoaned the difficulty of finding a good cup of tea and Walkers shortbread biscuits, it painted a picture not of a football coach but of a tourist. He may have enjoyed the city, but the football? He won 12 of his 42 games in charge—a win percentage of 28.5—before he was sacked 364 days after being appointed.

There was one other huge development in Spain: Moyes was now getting beaten more than he was winning. English football fans take a perverse satisfaction in the failure of others. After all, this is a part of the world where “the sack race” is a juicy subplot to the early part of every season. A place where people gleefully put money on who they feel will be the next coach to lose his job. A place where those odds are widely discussed as part of the 24/7 cycle.

Usually it’s the younger, highly regarded managers who are treated with suspicion. The quiet, introverted ones are seen as academic, smug know-it-alls. If they’re foreign, they’re even more difficult to warm to.

Though it was widely ridiculed at the time, the view of the Arsenal player turned pundit Paul Merson was shared by a fair number of football people in England. Infamously, he fumed at Marco Silva’s appointment as Hull boss back in January. After the bulletproof opening gambit of “I’ve got nothing against foreign managers,” it went rapidly downhill. “What’s he know about the Premier League? What’s he know?” Merson screeched live on Sky Sports. “Why is this geezer any different than Gary Rowett?” the Derby manager.

Silva, it turned out, is an astute tactician. Hired by Watford in the summer, the Portuguese has done a superb job at Vicarage Road, following on from his fine work in his native country and with Greek side Olympiacos. Still, the irony is that even though so many people say they want to see British managers blossom, it’s not really true. Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe are trumpeted, but they’re both in charge of lowly teams, scrapping for survival and defying the odds. When British managers do get a chance at a big side, everything reverts to type. As soon as the novelty wears off, the criticism and abuse are relentless. And when they’re eventually fired, there’s an almost gleeful satisfaction.

As for Moyes, he was fine at Everton. But the moment he moved to United, the public perception seemed to shift. He’d gotten above his station. Now, in spite of everything else he’s done, all Moyes has in many people’s view is the United experience.

There’s a scene in the Christmas special episode of The Office when Ricky Gervais’s character turns to online dating. He calls a girl he’s been matched with and can’t help mentioning that she may recognize him when they finally meet. Though his appearance in a documentary series was scarring and left his career in ruins, he still can’t help but use it—the fact he was on TV once—as a way to impress people.

During that recent BBC interview, Moyes was answering questions about his time at United and how close he came to signing Bale and Fàbregas. Four years later, he was still discussing missed targets. In the intervening years, he’d coached two other clubs. Yet, he felt the need to talk about big-name players because it’s a reminder—to anyone who’s listening—of what he’s still capable of.

Moyes can never distance himself from having been in charge of Manchester United. Despite all he achieved at Everton and, who knows, whatever is still to come in east London or somewhere else, he’ll forever be remembered as the manager who failed at England’s biggest club. It’s his calling card. Whenever he’s interviewed, it will always be brought up. And in a bizarre way, Moyes is thankful for it.

It’s a reminder of the dysfunction of being a modern-day football manager in England. They may not discuss it publicly, but they can’t help but be fearful. After a firing, the line that’s usually towed is how they want to take some time away from the game and recharge their batteries. But for the vast majority, it doesn’t work like that. You must keep up a profile, stay relevant. Otherwise, the phone stops ringing. Certainly, elite coaches like Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti—proven winners—can afford to take sabbaticals and not risk being forgotten. But it’s different in England. You must keep those social engagements. And maybe that says more about how the country’s football industry works than anything else.

Could anyone have imagined Guardiola—during his post-Barcelona break—sitting in a TV studio and posturing about the goings-on in La Liga? Or Ancelotti, between jobs, being a gun for hire for Italian television’s coverage of a major tournament? Or Luis Enrique offering analysis on Spain’s World Cup qualifiers for a radio talk show?

In English football, you need to keep getting invited to the right parties. You need to show your face. You need to remind people you’re still there. And when they draw back the velvet rope and allow you in—to a broadcast studio or a director’s box—it’s an opportunity to remind people of your talents, regardless of how desperate you may seem.

English football has become an extension of the celebrity circuit. When an out-of-work manager signs up for a media appearance he’s little different from David Hasselhoff telling Baywatch stories and doing cabaret on TV. Everyone knows the drill. Spin some yarns, mention high-profile names, possibly offer up an exclusive or a sensational tidbit. Otherwise, everything will go quiet.

Moyes had a taste of silence and didn’t like it. After he was sacked by Sociedad, he was idle for eight months. And when he returned, it was another misstep. Sunderland had been through four managers in less than three years, but Moyes still went to the Stadium of Light last summer. A club always described as having “great potential,” Sunderland have chewed up and spat out various coaches—both inexperienced and veteran—and effectively ended the high-level club management career of as distinguished a figure as Martin O’Neill. The backroom chaos, involving owner Ellis Short’s unsuccessful attempts to offload the club, and the $180 million debt, hasn’t exactly helped matters. For many, it’s been a football graveyard.

Moyes’s arrival wasn’t exactly greeted with wild jubilation, and throughout his brief, turbulent spell there, he seemed lost. As early as August, he was discussing the relegation fight he felt the side would probably be facing. Already, he seemed exhausted by what lay ahead, browbeaten and hardly in battle mode. He seemed caught in a perpetual shoulder shrug—“What else am I supposed to do and, more important, what did you expect?” It wasn’t long before the fans turned on him. “David Moyes had a dream,” they sang, “to fuck our football team.”

As his dreadful side was careering toward the Championship, Moyes was charged by the FA with making sexist comments. After a 0-0 draw with Burnley, he politely responded to questions from the BBC’s Vicki Sparks on-camera, including one about the presence of Short in the crowd and whether it increased the pressure on him. After the interview, Moyes was inadvertently caught issuing a warning to Sparks: “You were just getting a wee bit naughty at the end there, so just watch yourself. You still might get a slap, even though you’re a woman. Careful the next time you come in.” Now branded a sexist, he was fined more than $39,000.

There’s a moment in Glengarry Glen Ross, during Blake’s relentless, scything monologue, when he stops for a second and surveys the reactions of his small, stunned audience of struggling real estate agents. He digs the knife in, painting a picture of their futures:

“And you know what you’ll be saying, a bunch of losers, sitting around in a bar? ‘Oh yeah, I used to be a salesman, it’s a tough racket.’”

At a news conference before a game against Manchester United, Moyes cut a tired, broken, desolate figure as he struggled to grasp his own professional decline. “This season’s been particularly difficult because over the years I’ve become one of those managers with a really high win rate and, now, suddenly I’ve been losing all the time,” he said. “In all my years as a manager I’ve never been used to losing games almost every week. You can’t believe you’ve gone from having one of the best win rates in Premier League history to being down at the bottom.”

In the Trip, the British TV series in which actor friends Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play exaggerated versions of themselves, they talk about success. “Bob Balaban said, ‘Never be hot, always be warm,’” Brydon warns. Coogan, creator of the Alan Partridge character, a star of Hollywood films and an Academy Award–nominated writer, delivers a withering retort. “I’d rather have moments of genius than a lifetime of mediocrity,” he says. “I’d rather be me than you.”

Moyes has always maintained that he had to take the United job and maybe he’s right. But, as a result, he’s now a pale imitation of himself. He’s become nothing more than a punchline because of it. When he was announced as West Ham’s curious choice to replace Slaven Bilić the reaction was incredible. “West Ham are Placing Their Survival Hopes in the Hands of an Undertaker.” That wasn’t a Hammers fan on Twitter. It was a headline in the Times. When the club released a video featuring a sit-down interview with their new boss, there was more tittering at the back of the class. A screen grab went viral. One football writer commented on how Moyes looked like a hospital grief counselor whose job was breaking bad news to families. But through all the jokes and the memes and the ridicule and the abuse, there’s a coach simply trying to get his career and reputation back. He has to achieve that at West Ham. He has to keep them up, settle into the role and rediscover himself. Otherwise, it’s a return to that exhausting football circuit and trying desperately to avoid the deafening silence.

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