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Looking back at the last few cycles of top-flight English football, every great managerial failure has had a thing. One moment or decision or action that, in hindsight, acts as a handy up-sum of the whole entire and sorry mess. Roy Hodgson's Liverpool reign can be entirely understood just by gazing at that sad and sorry face-rub. Paolo di Canio kicked off about ketchup, in the process exposing himself as entirely the wrong kind of fascist. Alex McLeish had Alan Hutton.
It might well be that the world doesn't actually bother to provide such symbols, and that this is simply a consequence of the human animal's compulsion to finding shape and meaning in a random universe that hates you and wants you to die. But either way, it's how things work at the moment, and so we turn to David Moyes's faltering quest for a knighthood and wonder: what, precisely, will be his moment? This is not to say that he's bound to fail, of course. But it's best to be prepared, and nobody's here to read about Norwich.
With Moyes, there are options. It could be Marouane Fellaini, who neatly combines a large price-tag, an underwhelming start, and the lingering sense that his was a purchase driven largely by the fact that he used to play for Everton, into one large and hairy package that almost begs to be written off as a flop. It could be the ruthless purge of the backroom staff, as years of title-winning experience was jettisoned in favour of years of sitting-next-to-David-Moyes experience. Rene Meulensteen's miraculous transformation of Fulham into Champions League contenders only makes things worse on this count.
Or will it be, as we suspect, the curious tic that's developing when speaking to the media? Cast your minds back to the beginning of the season, when Jurgen Klopp and his twitchy disciples were campaigning for Shinji Kagawa's release from purgatory/the substitute's bench. When asked about his treatment of this latter-day Mandela, Moyes referred on several occasions, ambiguously, to they. "They tell me he's good." "They tell me he's a fine player." "They say he can leap tall buildings in a single bound."
Then, after Saturday's loss to Newcastle, he explained to the waiting press pack that "People would have questioned what what I was doing if I took Robin van Persie off," despite the Dutchman having played the entire game with the air of a man pondering whether 'transfer request' has a hyphen. And wondering if people had noticed his new stubble. Was this a cry for help? Or was it just stubble? It seems that Moyes is being guided in his job not just by his own instincts but by a mysterious and possibly malign other. Who is not a good manager. It is handsome stubble, mind.
This is peculiar. It's possible, of course, that there is an actual they; that Manchester United have a shadowy committee who meet in smoke-filled rooms and dispense unwanted, amateurish, knee-jerk advice on team selection and game management. Motion proposed: you can't take him off, he's Robin Van Persie! All in favour? Motion carried. Like Twitter, but with biscuits.
But more likely, we feel, is that this they is simply something in Moyes's head. A verbal manifestation of the manager's own doubts at his fitness for purpose. The second-guess, externalised and projected. It's only natural, of course; who among us has not found themselves, at some point or another, faced with a task that seems beyond our capabilities and begun to wonder what everybody else, the experts, might make of our fumbling swipes towards competence? But Moyes, being a proud man in the public eye, can't simply go back to bed and place a pillow over his head. He's trapped out there, and so he's positioned this they just over his shoulder, and now has to listen to his own doubts chirping away. That won't look good. Oooh, you shouldn't be doing that. Why on earth aren't you doing this?
Nothing is certain, of course. Just as United aren't necessarily doomed to the horror of not winning everything all the time, so Moyes needn't be defeated by his own demons. Should United buy sensibly in January, rally, finish strongly, re-secure Champions League football, and march proudly forward into a gloriously Moyes-ish future, then not only will that be a fine managerial achievement, but he'll have triumphed over this imaginary internal they that definitely wasn't simply invented by two diarists bumping up against a deadline. It'll be a human interest story. There might be a musical in it. Moyes!
And if he doesn't? Well, the knighthood might still be on. Arise, Sir David of Moyes, and accept this gong as a thank you to the service you've given a grateful nation. The people have been waiting almost twenty years for the chance to have a proper laugh at United's expense.
Andi Thomas and Alexander Netherton