Failure at Sunderland will leave Moyes needing to rebuild his reputation from scratch

Football can be a cruel game and an individual’s fortune’s can turn in a very short space of time. A player can instantaneously suffer a serious injury from which their career will never recover, as in the case of Colombian striker Radamel Falcao. His huge wages detract little from the pain he must feel on a professional level. The career path of a manager rarely turns as swiftly, but a long-earned reputation can be tarnished by a poor choice of club.

Indeed, such a lapse in judgement can end a coaching career before it has even started, as Gary Neville has discovered after his brief and disastrous tenure at Valencia. Usually, however, damage is inflicted more slowly and it must be hard for any experienced manager to accept that they may have to start almost from scratch again fifteen or twenty years after their touchline career began.

Alan Curbishley worked wonders during fifteen years at Charlton Athletic, twice winning promotion and turning a relatively small club into a stable Premier League side, but wanderlust led him to end his adventure in 2006. A few months on he was appointed as manager of West Ham, but lasted only 20 months in the job, later winning a constructive dismissal case against his former employers. From there he turned a number of jobs down thinking that he could do better, but his sights were set too high, a fact he acknowledged in an Interview with Samuel Stevens in The Independent a month ago.

“It took me a year to sort out my problem at West Ham, and then after that, I was perhaps a little too picky. I was told by other senior managers ‘don’t be out too long’ but I was waiting for a job that I thought was the job for me. I was getting [offers from] clubs that were in trouble in the Premier League but I was waiting for the club that I thought was going to be right for me. One did come along and I thought I had it; I met the club three times. I never got it. Someone came in at the end and got the job. I basically lost my enthusiasm for it.”

The phone stopped ringing and Curbishley, unwilling to start again in the lower divisions, has not worked as a manager since.

His story should be a cautionary tale for all coaches of the perils of thinking they are better and more desirable than their record suggests. It is a tough lesson and one which managers who hold themselves in high regard often fail to heed. For a more contemporary example we need look no further than David Moyes. The Scot diligently built his reputation through fifteen years of hard work at Preston North End and then Everton, whom he lifted from relegation candidates to regular members of the top six. Towards the end of his decade at Goodison Park he felt that the club had reached its glass ceiling and considered himself to be over-achieving. The fanbase was split over whether this was the case. Remarkably, only this week Moyes opined that he could have won the title had he had a top class striker. It is a claim that is at odds with his rhetoric in his final years on Merseyside, a transparent nonsense intended to fluff up his past achievements.

Moyes felt he could do better, although not many agreed. Remarkably Manchester United did, although his ‘deer in the headlights’ impression during his maiden press conference and for most of the next ten months suggest that even he was surprised to be anywhere near Old Trafford. As results went south the fans grew tired of his defeatism and small-time mentality, as an expert in mediocrity tried to impose it on his new club, stating that he had a six year contract, that this was a long-term job and expectations were too high. After a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City he stated that United should ‘aspire to be like’ their City rivals. Defeat at Goodison Park in April brought a curtain down on his time at the club, much to the surprise of no one but Moyes. He felt that he had been misled and believed that he was given a six year job rebuilding which should have taken precedence over short-term results. Such an opinion shows how badly he read expectations at the club, but it was a misapprehension which fuelled a feeling of injustice and a belief that he was now a top level manager and should be aiming for top level jobs.

Handsomely paid off for his failure at United, Moyes waited for the big clubs to call. Tumbleweed. He was sounded out for a number of jobs with perennial Premier League strugglers but felt he was now out of their league. When the calls that he desired did not come, he eventually agreed in November 2014 to take over at La Liga side Real Sociedad, against whom his United side had played twice in the Champions League. From the outside it appeared to be a strange match. Here was a manager with no Spanish who had built a reputation on gritty, direct football, taking over at a struggling club in a league where technical quality is king. Early results were reasonable, the highlight being a 1-0 win over Barcelona, but a poor start to his second season saw Moyes ejected from the Anoeta hot-seat almost a year to the day after his arrival.

With his reputation further damaged, Moyes undertook a round of media interviews aimed at deflecting responsibility for another sacking. The Scot claimed that he felt ‘disappointed’ with and ‘let down’ by Sociedad President Jokin Aperribay and argued that the club’s philosophy of promotion from the academy ‘makes it a struggle for any coach’. He suggested that expectations were ‘impossible’ to meet and absolved himself of any responsibility for his sacking, much as he had previously done at Manchester United. A lack of self-awareness is a theme that has run through Moyes’ latter years in management. Had he done his due diligence he would have known about policies and expectations in San Sebastián. Perhaps he did and took the job anyway. Either way, if he took an ‘impossible’ job what does it say about him? A failure to learn the language to a reasonable level was disappointing and must surely further reflect on his suitability for jobs abroad in the future.

Out of work again Moyes may have imagined that Premier League clubs would be knocking his door down. The fact that he eventually landed at Sunderland, perennial relegation candidates and parsimonious in the extreme, with an inadequate squad and few saleable assets, suggests that that flood of interest did not materialise. His next step was always going to be key to his career and Sunderland would perhaps be the last club at which a down-and-out coach should attempt to rebuild his reputation, but the Scot appears to have had little choice. At the beginning of the season Moyes spoke of breaking the cycle of annual relegation battles, proposing that he was the man to do that. He made ten signings in the summer transfer window, but is already making noises about not having been backed as promised. Short on numbers and with those he brought in looking short on Premier League quality, perhaps with the exception of Adnan Januzaj, Sunderland have started the season ill-equipped for the task at hand. Performances and results have thus far been wretched and after a rotten defeat at home to Middlesborough Moyes immediately began managing expectations, reneging on his previous claim that the cycle of failure could be broken and suggesting that a relegation battle was the best the club could hope for. A 3-0 home defeat to Everton leaves Sunderland in 19th position and looking enviously upwards once again.

Moyes may turn things around at the Stadium of Light and if he does so his reputation will be significantly enhanced by the achievement, but he is now on very thin ice. He has seen his star fall, a failure at the top level and also abroad. Gritty relegation battles and slow club-building are the only credits that he still has in his wallet and failure at Sunderland will possibly make club owners think twice about approaching him again for such a task. On Wearside Sam Allardyce enhanced his reputation by rescuing the team from a similarly perilous position, an achievement which contributed to his appointment as England manager this summer. For Moyes, on the other hand, this has now become an exercise in damage limitation. Should he fail to keep his club in the Premier League this season he is likely to find himself in the dole queue once again, but this time top flight clubs may no longer be interested.

After his failure down the road at Newcastle Steve McLaren now finds himself out of work and anything but in demand, a remarkable fall from grace that has seen him have six spells at five clubs since being sacked from the England job in 2007. To his credit, McLaren did succeed in a spell in Holland at FC Twente, but a return proved disastrous, as did a short, fateful period at Wolfsburg. Much like Moyes, McLaren’s spell in a prestigious job brought opportunity abroad. Returning to England with his tail between his legs, Shteve found interest only from Championship clubs. His brief spell at Newcastle was an unlikely reprieve, but the opportunity was not taken and McLaren now finds himself, like Alan Curbishley, unemployed, yesterday’s man. There is a sense that if David Moyes fails at Sunderland he will meet the same fate. The Scot will blame everyone but himself and once more claim that the job he chose was impossible, but club chairmen will be wary of being the next to take the blame. If the Black Cats do not now rally Moyes could find himself at an unappealing crossroads: to drop down a division or two and start again at 53/54 years of age or wait for a job that he feels his talents merit.

As Curbishley can attest, that can be a very long wait indeed.

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