A few weeks ago, I heard local journalist James Hunter defend David Moyes’ performance this season, saying that by acknowledging a relegation fight two games in, Moyes has been proven right. Well congratulations, someone get the man a pay raise. He was right! He promised failure and he has delivered it in style. However, this season can not in all good conscience be called a relegation fight. This has been a gutless, abject capitulation, led by a manager who couldn’t motivate an exuberant dog to chase a stick.
Surely the more commendable thing to do would be to - yes - acknowledge the size of the task, but publicly project confidence in your players and your own abilities to have a good season and then succeed in at least delivering a reasonably organised team which doesn’t look like they met in the tunnel five minutes before kick off. However, this would require a manager who wasn’t afraid to fail, worked proactively within his means and who didn’t mind setting targets for himself, even if there is no one else to blame should he fail. Moyes simply doesn’t seem to be capable of the aforementioned intentions, and continues to look every bit the broken, self-doubting and nervous man I saw when he joined.
We have witnessed this with Moyes' comments on the calibre of signings he believes we can attract - ensuring everyone knows that each new signing is not someone he’d actually like to sign, that they have severe limitations and not to expect much from them.
I’d be kidding you on if I said the players we’re hoping to bring in this month are going to make a big difference because, first of all, we probably couldn’t get that level of player and, secondly, we probably wouldn’t have the finances to do that.
Is there a reason why £5m signing Brian Oviedo, aged twenty-seven and boasting five years of Premier League experience, can’t be expected to make a big difference to our defence? Even in the summer, Moyes made this remark about potential signings:
The quality of the players that Sunderland can get is probably not what I’ve been buying in the last six years, or what I’ve had in the Premier League – not anywhere close to it.
Even players returning from injuries - whose absence he has blamed most of our troubles on - are also now not expected to be too important in helping us win our remaining games. On Anichebe and Cattermole, Moyes said:
…we also have to be careful of expecting too much of them. Sometimes you think ‘this is the answer’, only to feel disappointed if that doesn’t happen”
Moyes penchant for predicting the worst, making pre-emptive excuses and appearing to be a victim, gives all his failures a prophetic and inevitable feel.
While it cannot be said that a different manager would have kept us up this season, it is equally pointless to say that relegation was inevitable whoever the manager was. An argument such as this leads nowhere, but what we can do is look at this season and conclude that - whatever the pressures on money, time and the turmoil behind the scenes - the performances have been unacceptable. The players look devoid of ideas, impetus, organisation and belief. This has not been a relegation fight; it has been a surrender, overseen by a manager without the spine or nerve for the challenge.
I have felt like I am watching a parody at times this season. When your manager justifies not playing your busiest and most competent midfielder because he’s not tall or British enough, you do start to wonder whether this is actually a documentary studying how much mediocrity and nonsense Sunderland fans are willing to put up with before they crack.
Even if Ndong isn’t as tall or good in the air as Denayer, we know that our ability to win the ball back further up the pitch, retain it and move forward with any intensity, is greatly diminished without Ndong in midfield. Sacrificing such attributes in a must win game, when we have no big striker up front and no pace throughout the team, just so we can maybe defend corners slightly better - and then to still lose to a goal conceded from a corner that had nothing to do with our lower than average height - would embarrass even an amateur football manager.
Since he was first linked with the job, I have asked the question, ‘Is David Moyes the man you want in a relegation fight?’ and my answer has always been ‘No’. That is why, when Allardyce’s departure became inevitable, I believed the club should ignore David Moyes and make Sean Dyche their top target. Instead, we went for a man so unsure in his own abilities that he refused the Sunderland job in October 2015, convinced we were already doomed despite only eight games of the season being played. Now that he has overseen a disgusting capitulation and decimated a squad that looked strong and united less than a year ago, the question that must now be asked is, ’Is David Moyes the man you want in charge of a major rebuilding job?’.
David Moyes is - contrary to the overwhelming majority of mainstream media opinion - not Sunderland’s last hope for stability. I have been amazed by the rhetoric that surrounds this debate, which asserts that those of us who want Moyes gone must be hostile to the principle of stability itself. I am completely supportive of the principle of stability, but not at any cost and not with any manager. Stability is only as good as the person you choose to share it with, and with Moyes we have chosen a self-interested and damaging influence, hostile to criticism and crippled by self-doubt.
Stability is not only measured by the duration of an arrangement, but also by the nature of the situation and the people who are in it with you. I crave a long term strategy at Sunderland AFC, but I do not believe David Moyes is the right man for the job. There is no contradiction whatsoever in those two statements. At this point - if stability is what you’re genuinely interested in and not just the romanticism of a successful David Moyes plan - we would be best served by cutting our losses and choosing a manager with enthusiasm and momentum, who values the opportunity to manage Sunderland AFC as a step forward in their career, who is happy working with the squad and budget at their disposal and is currently proving themselves at another club.
What I have watched this season is a fundamentally disorganised and dispassionate group of players, sent out with a game plan of damage limitation ringing in their ears - as shown by the aforementioned omission of Didier Ndong against Watford. There is no confidence, no plan and no belief, and this flows from the dour and defeatist manager who has been nothing short of a disgrace this season. Asked whether he was encouraged with the performance of his players before Manchester United scored their first goal, Moyes - after grimacing slightly - said the following:
I don’t know if I was really encouraged… We were hanging in the game… and trying to do our best.
Is it any wonder we look timid, flat and devoid of any confidence when the manager is served an easy opportunity by the interviewer to compliment his players - for what was a fairly decent spell against Manchester United - only to say something so uninspiring and unnecessarily negative? I find myself wondering what this manager must say to them in private if this is how he speaks in public when asked about something positive they’ve done during a game. To me, most of the players seem to despise playing for him and I don't blame them one bit.
There will always be something Moyes can blame for a disruption to his plan. Football is not a game of ideal situations and any rebuild at this club will certainly be done under difficult and testing circumstances. Do you think the Championship will make things easier for Moyes? A league where there is less money, a more intense fixture schedule, where it is harder to attract quality players and is essentially a league, in my opinion, that is more competitive than a Premier League relegation dogfight. From what I’ve seen from Moyes this season, such pressures will not suit him.
However, to the majority of mainstream media, no matter how many mistakes he makes, how many signings flop, capitulations occur or abject performances are given, it only serves to further demonstrate our need for Moyes’ legendary - but thus far conspicuously absent - abilities to build and rejuvenate a broken football club. The possibility that Moyes is bitter, has lost his spark, or that the game has simply left him behind, is one that curiously few people have been willing to entertain. We need only be patient. Glory is just around the corner, if we believe in the plan enough.
Where is this plan though? Beyond the cost cutting, PR campaigns and the muddled, ill applied, outdated vision of a dour has-been, can you see it even beginning to take shape? Do these players - many of whom were here last season - look more passionate about playing for Sunderland than they did before Moyes? Do we look more organised? Do we have more resilience? How will we have the means and the appeal - given the inflated prices of British players or those based in domestic leagues and the competition for their signatures - to entice British players of sufficient quality in order to develop them and before selling them on for huge profit? And why is this plan so appealing? After all, we have purchased many lazy, overpriced British players in the past, a transfer approach that contributed significantly to the financial mess we are in today.
I hear our focus is on youth, but players like Lynden Gooch - a talented, hard working and passionate young player who one would assume will be part of our plans next season - can’t make the bench amid an injury crisis. Cast your mind back to the start of the season, when Gooch was deemed good enough to start the opening four games, despite Lens and Khazri being fit and on the bench. His first-team role seemed so assured that Moyes felt comfortable letting Lens leave on loan, even with Borini out injured for three months and Khazri seemingly out of favour for reasons not entirely known. So what’s changed? Why is Gooch sitting in purgatory neither playing for the under-23’s or indeed waiting for his chance from the bench?
Similarly, while Van Aanholt was defensively infuriating, he gave us an attacking outlet and much needed pace which we have not since replaced. Instead of coaching him to harness his attributes and minimise the impact of his failings as Allardyce had done, or decide to replace Van Aanholt’s dangerous pace with another pacey player, Moyes simply sold him. We are now seeing how costly this decision has been to our attacking capabilities.
This season has been a concatenation of baffling decisions, terrible signings, unacceptable blame dodging, crippling self-doubt and an inability to motivate the squad - issues which have been far more telling on the outcome of our season than any other factor. Injuries have obviously played a role in our struggles, but we find ourselves ten points from safety with eight games left, on a run of one win in thirteen games with no goals in six. That reflects far more on the manager and his ability to utilise and manage what he has at his disposal. Nothing excuses the lethargic, noncommittal and disorganised performances we have seen week in, week out. And while we have suffered long-term injuries, it is most certainly worth noting that our star striker and most of our defensive personnel have been available all season.
The recent incident in which Moyes directed sinister and concerning comments at BBC journalist Vicki Sparks after a post match interview - including a threat to slap her - has not only shown Moyes to be hostile in response to a question that implied criticism of his work, but also to the journalist’s right to ask him such a question. The question itself was whether Ellis Short’s presence at the game increased the pressure on Moyes - a very reasonable and important question given the woeful results of late. After telling Ms. Sparks she "might get a slap even though you're a woman”, Moyes’ final comment to her was the sharp warning, “Careful next time you come in”. This should tell you everything you need to know about the hyper-sensitive and carefully manufactured cult of personality that surrounds David Moyes’ Sunderland tenure.
The amount of content the club’s PR team have pumped out in the form of scripted interviews, meaningless slogans and nostalgic videos, shows how important it is for the club to stifle predictable dissent and unrest. By convincing the fan base that our plight is unavoidable and necessary, the current hierarchy present themselves as victims of this situation. Therefore, every decision taken cannot really be their fault, as they are all dictated by the circumstances of past mistakes. This amounts to the abolition of accountability and personal responsibility, which is hardly the way to operate any business, let alone a football club. But Moyes and Bain are currently reaping the benefits, with an atmosphere of apathy and inevitability mitigating any chance of a justified backlash against their failures this season.
This season has been a long concerted effort from various corners of the footballing world to absolve David Moyes of responsibility for baffling decisions and statements, which are conveniently never fair reflections of the ideal man he supposedly is for this job. For every error there is always a pressure, an excuse, a technicality or someone else to blame, as though managers of other clubs don’t confront and overcome similar issues, instead of succumbing to them.
There has been an effort by the club to make David Moyes synonymous with stability, to the extent where many fans believe that to call for his sacking would be to abandon the principle of long-term stability itself. Therefore, in spite of all Moyes’ failings - his terrible on-pitch mistakes, his inability to handle pressure, his woeful signings, sinister hostility to innocuous and justified questions and his contempt for the principle of personal responsibility - we apparently just have to continue believing in the existence of the perfect David Moyes, until he eventually shows up.
Sounds like a cult to me.