It is a cliché used in any number of sports. A quick Google sweep (finally, an accurate ‘lazy journalism’ accusation) reveals that cricketer Matt Prior used it in his autobiography, golfer Justin Turner used it about golf tournaments, a poker player linked it to his profession and baseball, basketball and American football writers are adept at using the phrase (or a variation): “You can’t win it on the first day, but you can lose it.”
Hindsight is always 20:20, but it really was the first few weeks that sealed David Moyes’ fate at Old Trafford. It was those pictures of him in his new office, looking like a child sat in his dad’s office chair on Manchester United’s ‘Bring Your Kids To Work’ Day. The photo opportunity was clearly manufactured, but did Moyes no favours, the equivalent of Ed Milliband’s bacon sandwich fiasco. And that mouse mat. That bloody mouse mat. It looked like the excited gift shop purchase of a Year 5 school trip to Cadbury’s World.
“It is a daunting job,” Moyes conceded in his Manchester United unveiling, five words that epitomised his incapacity for the role bestowed upon him by Alex Ferguson. A few more nails were hammered in seconds later: “They’ve given me a lot of confidence, the Glazer family: ‘Get on with the job, there’s no panic here, do things the way you want to do them, there’s no great expectations of you’.” Ouch. Let’s hope that United’s owners at least meant well.
The compare and contrast with Jose Mourinho is stark enough that it’s hard to believe we are discussing the same club, just three years apart. “It is a daunting job” vs “It is not a dream job, it is reality”; “There’s no great expectations of you” vs “It would be easy to focus on the last three years and say ‘Let’s work and try and be back in the Champions League’ but I prefer to be more aggressive and say we want to win”; a smiling Moyes vs Jose ‘why-would-I-smile-I-want-to-get-on-with-my-job’ Mourinho; Marouane Fellaini on September 2 vs Henrikh Mkhitaryan in mid-July. That final comparison alone should have United fans giggling in anticipation.
There may have been no “great expectations” of Moyes on the Glazer’s part, but that is far from true with Mourinho. He is their Magwitch, to continue the Dickens theme, the bad guy who becomes loved over the course of the novel. Whether or not Mourinho can rebrand as the decent man with the unfair reputation is at best questionable, but that is not his remit at Old Trafford. As Daniel Harris wrote for Eurosport, the accusations that United have betrayed their own legacy by appointing a ‘classless’ man are largely redundant in any case, but become completely meaningless given the urgency for immediate surgery.
Since the formation of the Premier League, United have finished outside the top three on three occasions – the last three seasons. Worries over youth players not being given a chance are akin to criticising the deckchairs’ design as the Titanic sinks into the deep. A public pursuit of Paul Pogba promises to keep the F5 button in business through the summer; the irony of a manager accused of ignoring youth attempting to bring back a young player shunned by Alex ‘Class of ‘92’ Ferguson should not be ignored.
Like Ferguson, Mourinho is a manager who excels through dominance. Fergie’s mantra that ‘no player was bigger than this club’ was actually a twist on the reality: No player was bigger than him, as David Beckham and Jaap Stam learned. Mourinho’s arrival promises a return to that totalitarian control.
The personification of this quest for total authority is Wayne Rooney. After announcing his retirement, Ferguson made the point of throwing Rooney and his agent Paul Stretford under the bus by revealing the player’s transfer request, the final two-finger salute of a bitter feud between dictator and dissenting subject.
When David Moyes arrived, Rooney was again made persona grata, ego and bank balance flattered to the tune of a new five-and-a-half-year contract worth £300,000 a week. Even Van Gaal, that supposed ‘Iron Tulip’, made Rooney his captain, publicly labelled him the club’s No. 1 striker and handed him a midfield role when the goals and creativity dried up. All the while, Rooney knew he had more friends in the press than Van Gaal.
It didn’t take Mourinho long to dilute Rooney’s significance at Old Trafford. “Maybe he is not a striker anymore, or a nine, but with me he will never be a six playing 50 metres from the goal,” United’s new manager said during his unveiling. “He will be a nine, a 10, a nine and a half, but not a six or eight. You can tell me his pass is amazing but my pass is amazing too without pressure.”
‘Pow!’ and ‘Thwack!’ are the appropriate noises to make; the biggest rival to Mourinho’s sovereignty had been belittled. It took three years for Rooney to perfect his status as the most powerful man at Old Trafford; it took Jose Mourinho 30 minutes to destroy his reign.
The criticism that Mourinho’s style goes against the ‘United way’ has lost credence. As soon as Manchester City appointed Pep Guardiola, their rivals needed to respond with their own trump card. The allegation that Mourinho is addicted to winning at all costs will quickly transform into a compliment should the victories become an avalanche.
“For many years, Manchester United success was just routine, and their last three years are to forget,” said Mourinho has he held court at Old Trafford for the first time. Wayne Rooney will be all too aware of his prominent role in that spell in the wilderness. Manchester United’s captain may well be the first casualty of this fallen giant being hauled back to its feet by the one man who relishes the weight of expectation.