As David Moyes’ six year contract with Manchester United finally expires, there are parallels to be found with the man who succeed Matt Busby over forty years beforehand.
“If he wins, everything will be fine. But I can tell him this: the moment he starts losing, then the comparison with Alex will start.”
Those were the prescient words of Frank O’Farrell at the unveiling of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand at Old Trafford in 2011, a full two years before the then-Manchester United manager would finally retire after three decades at the helm.
Little did the Irishman know that David Moyes would be the man to replace him, and that his story would mirror the Scot’s in so many ways.
Like Moyes, O’Farrell took over from arguably the greatest manager of his era following on from an incredibly successful period. On both occasions, it was a period of delicate transition that spiralled into a calamity. Their reigns have been followed by bouts of stagnation, and even major regression.
O’Farrell took the Manchester United job in 1971 after guiding Leicester City to the second division title, as well as the 1969 FA Cup. As Moyes had done with Everton, he showed an ability to get the most out of a so-called lesser team and get relative success from them. Neither man had ever taken on such a big club before then.
Moyes was certainly out of his depth when he arrived at Old Trafford in 2013, but the shadow of Ferguson loomed large, following him everywhere on his doomed task. The name was draped across the stand opposite the dugout, peering down on him as he walked along the touchline, while cameras repeatedly panned to the bespeckled Scot when matters on the pitch went awry.
For the Irishman, he was taking over from Matt Busby, who just three years previously had guided United to the holy grail, the European Cup. Busby’s presence was a lot more intense and disrupting than Fergie’s was for Moyes. The North Lanarkshire man continued to take residence in the manager’s office until O’Farrell kicked him out, and when results went sour he would criticise the manager behind his back, often to star players such as Bobby Charlton.
It got off to a bad start for the Cork man, who was told by Busby that he would be earning £12,000 a year. Not bad, he thought, but he was hoping for more. United chairman Louis Edwards corrected him on the figure, saying it was actually £15,000 per annum. “It got us off on a bad note, me and Busby,” O’Farrell told The Telegraph in 2011. “He knew that I knew he wasn’t playing it straight. The trust was damaged from the start. From that moment, I didn’t trust him.”
Although the squad still contained big name players, a big rebuild job was needed. Bobby Charlton and Denis Law were waning, while George Best was on the verge of going off the deep end. As such, he was told he would have five years to sort it out. He was given just 18 months.
Moyes only got ten, but he was similarly granted a prospective six years to build a new team capable of winning trophies and competing at the top table. Previously star players such as Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney were on the decline, however, and reinforcements were sparse. Patience was thin on the ground.
Ferguson later denied being the one to sanction Moyes’ hiring after he was fired, although he was at least less vindictive than Busby, who evidently couldn’t loosen his grip on the club, his life’s work. Fergie was able to not let it define him in retirement, going on to write an autobiography and take up a teaching position at Harvard University. Life moves on, so he did too.
A common thread between the two failed reigns can be found in how the club dealt with the respective managers. Moyes had to find out he would be losing his job through journalists who contacted him. Incredulous, he attempted to contact executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, but couldn’t get through. He figured he would be given the time promised to him, but after a 3-0 loss to his former team Everton, they pulled the trigger on him just as they did to O’Farrell forty years previously.
In an act of classlessness, the board called the former West Ham United player in after a party, which was held in tribute to Charlton, in which they all shared drinks and laughs in equal measure. A 5-0 defeat to Crystal Palace was the final straw for them, sacking the manager just a week out from Christmas and mere hours after jovially enjoying each other’s company.
O’Farrell expected to receive a decent pay-off, but the club didn’t offer one. He had to take them to court, which went on for nine months, in which time he was forced to sign-on. They eventually settled out-of-court, but he couldn’t come out with any of the details of his time in charge to the public, until he released his autobiography, All Change at Old Trafford, in 2011.
Man United has evolved into a giant corporate and multinational behemoth, but it has lost its touch with the fanbase, who have been turned into consumers rather than supporters, which has led to the recent #GlazersOut movement online.
When I spoke to Michael Andersen, the director of the Don Patricio documentary, last year he told me that United wanted to charge the filmmaker £1000 to film inside the stadium. This, for a film about one of their former players, Patrick O’Connell, who they had long forgotten about or cared for, when every other team they had dealt with gave them free and open access.
On the day when David Moyes’ initial six-year contract finally expires, there are no indications that the club has grown or learned the lessons of the past. The culture within United appears, if not toxic, then at the very least far off what one would expect of an institution of its stature. Who will be the next Frank O’Farrell?