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From 'the biggest fool in Manchester' to manager-of-the-season contender

Seven years on from the United debacle, David Moyes is helping West Ham reach new heights.

David Moyes has guided West Ham to fourth in the Premier League.
David Moyes has guided West Ham to fourth in the Premier League.
Image: Neil Hall

FOOTBALL CAN BE a cruel game. Perseverance and thick skin are essential to long-term survival, and David Moyes’ story, more than most, underlines this message.

When he started out in coaching, Moyes quickly established himself as one of the brightest young coaches in England.

Between 1998 and 2002, he transformed Preston, the team he represented over 100 times as a player, from a relegation-threatened Division Two side to the brink of the Premier League, losing to Bolton 3-0 in the 2001 play-off final.

This was an individual who had seemigly been preparing his whole life to be a manager — he did his coaching badges at an unusually early stage in his playing career and regularly took notes on the coaches he worked under.

Success at Deepdale attracted Everton and Moyes proved a major success at Goodison Park — despite working in the notoriously turbulent world of football management, he spent 11 years with the Toffees.

As with Preston, he took over a side that were in a relegation battle and drastically improved their fortunes.

Highlights included Champions League qualification (at least for the competition’s qualifying stages) and a fourth-place top-flight finish — their highest since 1988.

This great run ultimately led to him succeeding Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

Replacing a club legend of his fellow Scot’s stature was always a difficult ask and Moyes struggled, as he inherited an ageing side full of big egos, while he wasn’t helped by the club’s unremarkable recruitment during that era.

Therefore, in the space of a couple of months, Moyes went from being one of the most highly thought of managers in European football to a perenial laughing stock. One fan famously branded him ‘the biggest fool in Manchester’. The habitual and intense abuse regularly aimed at him during this period felt more than a little unsavoury, particularly when you consider Moyes generally comes across as one of the most decent people in the game.

The Scottish coach was sacked less than 12 months into a six-year contract, though this painful saga, with no shortage of car-crash moments, felt at least twice as long.

It was the briefest managerial stint at the club in 82 years, with Moyes likened to other failed managers in the club’s history, such as Frank O’Farrell, Wilf McGuinness and Dave Sexton, all of whom lasted longer than him in the hotseat.

This spectacular downfall might have put less resilient characters off management for good, yet Moyes was back coaching before the end of 2014, taking charge at La Liga club Real Sociedad.

The Spanish stint proved similarly short-lived, as he was sacked just shy of a year to the day of his appointment. He had managed to guide a team that were hovering near the relegation zone in 15th to a 12th-place finish in his first campaign, earning a shock 1-0 win over Barcelona along the way. Yet a disappointing start to the following season prompted his abrupt exit.

Sunderland was another short stint. In his one season in charge, Moyes suffered the first and so far only relegation of his career, leading to his resignation.

His stock continued to plummet, and it appeared his career as a Premier League manager could be over.

It was only amid desperate circumstances in November 2017, as they sat in the relegation zone, that West Ham were willing to take a gamble on the beleagured boss.

Highlights included a win over reigning champions Chelsea, as Moyes guided the Hammers to safety with two games to spare. Yet despite successfully completing the task at hand, the club opted not to renew a six-month deal.

In December 2019, however, with the team just a point above the relegation zone, West Ham again called on Moyes’ services.

While the coronavirus crisis has led to some freakish results and generally caused many experts’ predictions to look foolish, for West Ham to be performing as well as they are is a major surprise even in a season of shocks.

Having twice now taken over what looked like a sinking ship, Moyes in a relatively short space of time has managed to turn West Ham into something resembling his Everton teams at their strongest.

They may not be the most spectacular side in the league to watch, but they are a well-organised outfit full of strong and committed players, while the absence of their notoriously hard-to-please home support for much of the past 12 months has arguably been more of a help than a hindrance.

Michail Antonio epitomises their better qualities. The 30-year-old is not someone that immediately springs to mind when you think of strikers playing for sides in the top four, yet he is a workhorse with impressive physical attributes and clearly valued by Moyes, having made 17 appearances this season, scoring six goals.

The 57-year-old coach suggested earlier today he believes Antonio is good enough to play for England, and recent form indicates it would be foolish to write him off in this regard.

Declan Rice, meanwhile, has been another integral player in the Hammers’ midfield. One of the standout performers this season, it’s no surprise to hear talk today linking him with a big-money move to Man United, while Chelsea — the club who released him as a youngster — have also regularly been linked with a move.

Alongside him, Tomáš Souček has been a revelation, only joining the club permanently last summer from Slavia Prague for a relative bargain of €21 million. Despite being primarily regarded as a defensive midfielder, he already has nine goals from 33 apperances in all competitions. 

Jesse Lingard too is looking like an astute loan signing, with three goals from four appearances since joining from Man United.

With just 29 goals conceded, their defence also has been solid for the most part, with Craig Dawson, Issa Diop, Aaron Creswell and Lukasz Fabianski all making important contributions to their recent run.

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Yet as good as they have been, there is no doubt the Hammers are currently overachieving.

Sides below them, such as Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham all have a better squad of players at their disposal.

With Thomas Tuchel’s men in particular looking rejuvenated of late, a top-four finish is still a very big ask but not out of the question in this strangest of seasons. And achieving a Champions League place would surely put Moyes alongside Pep Guardiola as the outstanding candidate for manager of the season.

Yet whatever happens between now and the end of the campaign, it can be considered a successful season for West Ham.

They finished last year in 16th, on 39 points, five above the relegation zone. Currently, with 13 games to play, they have accrued 45 points.

It has been a remarkable turnaround, both for the team and the widely derided manager who has made fools of his critics.

Saturday

Man City v West Ham (12.30)
West Brom v Brighton (15.00)
Leeds v Aston Villa (17.30)
Newcastle v Wolves (20.00)

Sunday

Crystal Palace v Fulham (12.00)
Leicester v Arsenal (12.00)
Tottenham v Burnley (14.00)
Chelsea v Man United (16.30)
Sheffield United v Liverpool (19.15)

Monday

Everton v Southampton (20.00)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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