Seven years have passed since it happened, but David Moyes still finds himself defined in the minds of many football fans by a single moment. “Every time a journalist speaks to me, they nearly [always] ask me about Manchester United,” he said, before launching into perhaps the frankest assessment yet of his 10 months in charge at Old Trafford.
“The truth is in my mind, I got the biggest job in the world and I didn’t do well enough, so I’m only beating myself up about it. The more I get asked about it, that’s the way I feel. What I had to do was try and find a way back. It is not easy because you then have to find the right job. Where can I do something to show your worth?
“I used to say people said ‘how did it all go so wrong?’ but you don’t get offered the Manchester United job in the first place if you haven’t been doing something correct. That’s the first thing to say. But when it didn’t go well, I had to try and find a way of getting back. I didn’t think that I’d necessarily become a bad manager. Maybe I had bad timing, maybe I didn’t think deeply enough about the challenge I was taking on.
“Maybe I should have taken a bit longer to think about it when I got the job offered to me. But it didn’t feel like that at the time. Now I’m a bit wiser and a bit older, looking back, I do think that I’ve still got something prove.”
Purely by coincidence, Moyes sits down for this interview to mark winning Manager of the Year at this year’s London Football Awards on the anniversary of his departure from United. He signed a six-year contract to succeed one of the all-time greats, Sir Alex Ferguson, but with United seventh in the Premier League table four games from the end of the 2013-14 season, he was dismissed before the end of his first campaign. The stunning dismissal catapulted one of the most promising managers of his generation, following his decade of over-achievement at Everton, into a scramble to rescue his reputation.
But before David Moyes could revive West Ham, he had to reimagine himself. Spells with Real Sociedad and Sunderland followed United, but it was in his first stint with the Hammers between November 2017 and May 2018 where he began turning the corner, steering the club away from relegation only to surprisingly see his six-month deal expire without renewal. At the time, Manuel Pellegrini was favoured, but when the Chilean was sacked in December 2019 with the team just one point above the drop zone, Moyes returned with a clear message.
“I said to the players when I came in ‘Look, I’m not your friend,” he said. “‘I’ll be your friend after we finished playing. After we’ve finished playing, there’ll be nothing I’ll enjoy better than coming for a beer with you, going for a meal with you, helping you in your careers as managers or coaches. But while we’re here just now, my job is to get the best out of you.’ And at the moment, the players have responded really well.”
Moyes re-established basic principles as he took charge. The club’s internal data suggested players were not working hard enough in matches. He quickly identified those characters who “weren’t with us” and moved them on, aligned with shrewd recruitment including Czech Republic duo Vladimir Coufal and Tomas Soucek, both signed from Slavia Prague, before the January masterstroke of acquiring Jesse Lingard on loan from United.
Coufal and Soucek have come to embody this new incarnation of West Ham: talent mixed with diligence. Both Coufal and Soucek are regularly seen at the club’s training ground working even on days off. In all, Moyes’ message is getting through and he credits periods working in a different capacity, contributing to UEFA’s technical reports and advising student coaches, with helping him to evolve.
“What I have found is communication with the players is much greater than it’s ever been,” he said. “Maybe the different age groups as well and as I’m getting older, you still have to find a way to communicate with the players, who are certainly much younger now.
“But I wanted to know what was new in football. I wanted to see what was happening, I wanted to make sure that I kept myself up to date with how teams were playing, what were the new trends, how goals were getting scored. I always wanted to make sure I was at the forefront of that.
“The basics in football management don’t change in many ways. You need to win matches, but coupled with that you need good discipline, you need to recruit well. All those things come into achieving your goals as a coach or a manager.”
Moyes also cites another key period, and it’s one you wouldn’t naturally expect. He tested positive for COVID-19 in September, missing four matches in all as assistant coach Stuart Pearce stepped in for two Premier League wins against Wolves and Leicester, in addition to one EFL Cup victory over Hull before West Ham lost in the next round to Leicester.
“Sitting in my flat, when I had COVID-19 and getting the message sent to me, because my TV was on a minute delay, that we’ve scored was an unbelievable feeling before it goes in,” he said.
“That is something I’ll remember. I remember saying ‘I need to be less emotional, calmer.’ At home, you can’t do anything. I was on the phone to Pearcy the whole time but it makes you calmer, because you’ve got a distance from it.
“I was on my feet, watching the players warming up and not being able to really have any involvement. The plan was not to do anything on Zoom in the dressing room: I felt the staff I’ve got were more than adequate. For the week leading up to the game, I was watching the training through the cameras, so in my mind I was good. But when it came to the game, it was really difficult. I was pacing up and down, shouting up at the tele, getting on the phone to Pearcy for nothing half the time.
“It made me realise that to be less emotional, stand back and take it all in can make you a better manager. Because you’re trying to absorb stuff and not get caught up in it.”
West Ham remain in the hunt for a Champions League place with five games remaining and the size of that achievement should not be underestimated. Last month was the first time the Hammers have been in the top four in April since 1986. Four of their final five games are against teams currently in the bottom seven. Moyes just turned 58 on Apr. 25, and there is perhaps a sense of coming full circle now he is in charge of a team looking to gatecrash the elite just as he did at Everton, where he was named League Managers’ Association Manager of the Year three times for regularly upsetting the odds.
So is he back to something like his old level? “I’ll tell you something: I’ve always thought this, but maybe my best time is still to come,” he said.
“Why should I be old? Maybe I’ve only just come through my apprenticeship. Maybe the jobs I’ve had have just been my apprenticeships, and this is me getting to an age and experience where I can give my best. That’s the way I’m looking at it. Personally, I’m saying to myself ‘this is the time you get success, you win and get around the top of the League again.’
“I see this as a chance to work my way back. And West Ham, with that potential, I think my job is to work my way back to a level where big clubs might consider me. Not that I’m interested in leaving, I’m happy. But I wouldn’t have got that [opportunity at United] if I hadn’t done my work at Everton, being consistent and regularly challenging and pushing the top teams. If I can do that at West Ham, I’ll see it as success for West Ham and for myself.”
Editor’s Note: James Olley was on the voting panel for the 2021 London Football Awards