Gradually, a consensus seems to be forming about West Ham’s appointment of David Moyes. While his defenders point to Everton and his detractors to everything which has happened since, a reflective middle ground has developed: yes, he did a fine job at Goodison Park, but the subsequent experiences have clearly damaged him.
Moyes isn’t hopeless, but then neither is he what he once was. His last three jobs have all come with different barriers to success – the Ferguson shadow at Manchester United, the cultural differences at Real Sociedad, and Sunderland being Sunderland – and so the requirement now is for stability. For a club where the variables aren’t too prohibitive, where there are no factors beyond Moyes’ control which could affect the perception of his job performance, and – obviously – where he can start to rebuild his reputation.
His marriage with West Ham has been forced by circumstance. The club felt that Slaven Bilic was no longer to be entrusted with their Premier League survival and Moyes, still reeling from back-to-back-to-back failures, was just looking for a job, any job.
Beyond the short-term convenience, though, it’s tempting to believe that Moyes has traded one disadvantageous situation for another. Bilic may have had to bear the consequences of the poor form over the past eighteen months, but West Ham’s situation still reflects the dysfunction which existed above him. He wasn’t an innocent bystander and certainly contributed to his own downfall, but you don’t have to look hard to find mitigation.
Chief among those asterisks is that West Ham do not really belong to the professional era. Superficially they do, with their 60,000-seater stadium and lavish transfer spending, but their processes belong to a slightly different age. Even at a basic level, the volume of noise coming out of the club makes them highly unusual, particularly at a time when the most successful sides specialise in saying nothing. By contrast, every member of this club’s board – and their relatives, too – seems to have an opinion on everything. More often than not, there’s no party line either.
Neither David Gold or David Sullivan is quite Sam Longson, but they both exhibit similar traits: there's an obvious appetite for visibility. In fact, rather than simply being successful businessmen who own a football club, there's an equal determination to be seen as "football competent"
It recalls a different period in football history, the sort typically described in books about Brian Clough and Don Revie. Boardmembers didn’t approach the game with a cold and dispassionate business focus, but with one eye on local celebrity. Neither David Gold or David Sullivan is quite Sam Longson, but they both exhibit similar traits: there’s an obvious appetite for visibility. In fact, rather than simply being successful businessmen who own a football club, there’s an equal determination to be seen as “football competent” – for it to be widely understood that they don’t just have enough money to own plenty of shares, but that they also know their way around the game’s minutiae.
Note the Renato Sanches incident, for example, and the speed with which Sullivan made it known that he would have supported a loan move. Ironically, Bilic seems to have actually been proven right in declining the opportunity to sign the Portuguese, with him struggling badly at Swansea City, but at the time – with supporters reacting with dismay – the co-chairman was very keen to show that he was aware of Sanches’s worth.
The result is a confused message, of course, but also crossover – people doing jobs in football clubs which they’re not really qualified to do. The ultra professionalism of the modern game demands that a clear line exists between business and sport and, troublingly, that’s one which doesn’t exist at West Ham. Worse, that kind of institutional naivety is a hallmark of underperforming organisations. It was during the late Randy Lerner years at Aston Villa, was certainly instrumental in Queens Park Rangers’ sharp decline, and has been a constant at Newcastle United.
Being a director of football, for instance, may sound like the kind of role which anyone with a cosmetic knowledge of the sport can perform, but in reality that’s not the case. The industry has changed; it’s not longer a “have a go at this, try that, how hard can it be” world anymore and it’s full of occupations which call for more than just a sharp haircut, a tailored suit and an abundance of misplaced self-confidence.
Moyes’ time at Everton was characterised by long-term planning. Because of the financial restrictions in place, he and his backroom staff had to be meticulous in their transfer strategising. In Michael Calvin’s book, Living On The Volcano, there’s an interesting chapter in which the author is shown the inside of Everton’s war-room and sees firsthand the level of planning which governed Moyes’s transfer policy. The Scot may have become a punchline now, but his recruitment was often excellent over those years: he made established Premier League players out of Marouane Fellaini, Leighton Baines, Tim Cahill, Seamus Coleman, Phil Jagielka and Jolean Lescott, and in almost every case at very little cost.
What’s troubling about this latest development, then, is how different that Everton and this West Ham are. The latter understood their limitations well and adapted their operation procedures around those disadvantages, while the former seem convinced of their ability to make a quantum leap in status. The contrast in philosophies is stark.
Moyes has initially only signed a six-month contract and so clearly eyes are not on the long-term at the moment. However, there seems to be an ideological chasm between the conditions which suit him best and the ones which he has just walked into. Because of the gaps in the current squad (which Moyes referred to as “talented but unbalanced” at his introductory press-conference), the assumption is that West Ham will lean in part on the January transfer-window to aid their recovery. It’s appropriate to wonder, then, whether he himself will be deputised to lead the club through that month or, more likely, if the activity will just be the usual hodgepodge of pooled recommendations, boardroom hunches and attractive deals with favoured agents.
The main objective here is survival, so it can be assumed that Moyes has been recruited first and foremost for his perceived ability to construct a defence and harden collective resolve. The concern, though, lies in the absence of any obvious chemistry. For this relationship to work, even over just six months, a compromise will have to be found between how the club has traditionally behaved and how their newest manager has most often chosen to work. But how likely is that? Moyes is famously stubborn and West Ham are notoriously reluctant to learn lessons from past failure.
The result seems almost certain to be an awkward union which will be hard to rationalise in June.