Well, I’m sorry to say again: it’s Moysey. In many ways the West Ham to which David Moyes returns this week is largely similar to the one he left 19 months ago: riven by discord, scarred by multiple defeats, lacking not just an identity but the most basic idea of what that identity might be. If Moyes was the answer, and then Manuel Pellegrini, and then Moyes again after him, then what on earth was the question?
Moyes has signed an 18-month contract. It is the gloomiest of all contract lengths: a Sherwood‑at‑Tottenham contract, an Allardyce‑at‑Everton contract: a transparently unsatisfying compromise between sporting artifice and financial pragmatism. It is a contract that says we’d all like this to work out but, come on, let’s be real. And to Moyes’s credit he perfectly captured this insoluble paradox in the first interview of his second spell.
Speaking to the club’s official website, Moyes expressed his intention to get West Ham playing bold, risk-taking football. “The players will need to be brave enough to take the ball and play,” he said, before realising a caveat was necessary. “But also, we’re going to have to defend better,” he added, at which point a little bell appeared to go off in his head. “But we’re also,” he ended with a triumphant flourish, “going to have to attack better.” Have three consecutive sentences ever illuminated a man so distinctly? And at this point one was reminded of a passage in Rio Ferdinand’s book when Moyes, as Manchester United manager, simultaneously instructs him to bring the ball out of defence while looking to play early diagonal passes. Once, after he and Nemanja Vidic were summoned to a video session and offered wildly contradictory advice on how closely to mark a striker, Ferdinand turned to his defensive partner and blankly admitted: “I don’t know what the fuck he just asked us to do.”
Perhaps this, too, is what the former Everton midfielder Leon Osman was talking about when he described Moyes as the sort of character who “could give with one hand and take away with the other”, whose every praise would be laced with criticism, and vice versa. And overall the impression one gets of Moyes is of a man who couldn’t convince you to leave a sinking ship, at least not without warning to make sure you have all your belongings first, whilst remembering that speed is of the essence, albeit always allied with due care, notwithstanding the fact that gosh, it is getting wet in here.
There is, naturally, an element of caricature here. Many who have worked with Moyes describe it as an agreeably bracing experience. Work rate and professionalism levels will almost certainly see an immediate bump. Marko Arnautovic and Manuel Lanzini, for instance, benefited hugely from his input first time round, and at a club where nutty mavericks have always had the run of the place – from Di Canio to the Dildo Brothers – the ability to restore some sanity to the henhouse is an underrated skill. Don’t be surprised if, say, Felipe Anderson’s goal drought – 22 games and counting – is broken very soon.
But the wider issue has little to do with Moyes’s inherent qualities as a coach. In a way it all comes back to those nine traumatic months at Old Trafford and the subsequent career coma that he has spent the past six years trying to shake off. As he wandered from San Sebastián to Sunderland, from West Ham to West Ham, it is clear now what was missing. It was not the ability to run a session or spot a player but something more elemental: self-purpose, self-worth, the haughty certitude that opens transfer war chests and persuades potential signings to take a punt.
The game has changed immeasurably in the two decades since Moyes first started; even in the six since he got the United job on a technicality from a legend who recommended him. Accumulating thousands of miles on scouting trips feels mildly quaint in an era of transfer committees and vast player databases. Fans want a clear and stunning vision, not a walking oxymoron muttering about win percentages. Elite players demand stimulating, ball-focused training, not three-hour set‑piece sessions delivered by Alan Irvine.
But then, perhaps this was the problem with West Ham all along. Perhaps the trouble with all storied mid-sized clubs – Everton, Newcastle, Hamburg – is that unbridgeable gulf between expectation and reality, where the interests of the fanbase – take some risks, play with romance, make us dream again – are at direct odds with the business plan, which demands mid‑table Premier League football in perpetuity.
Perhaps, in this context, Moyes’s appointment makes a little more sense. Your club is 17th in the Premier League and has just hollowed out virtually its entire backroom operation. Betting the house on the trophy‑laden Chilean lifted you from 1.2 to 1.3 points per game and left you with Roberto in goal. Your next manager, whoever it is, will inevitably suffer a similar fate. Why give this situation an unnecessary gloss?
And so in shuffles Moyes, the perfect emblem of these bleak and perplexing times: a man who neither improves teams nor greatly degrades them but will simply be there, right until he isn’t. He won’t take you in the wrong direction, because he doesn’t take you in any direction. His philosophy is encapsulated in those three eternal tenets: take the ball and play. But defend better. But also, attack better. It may just work. Then again, it might not. But also, it might. We’ll find out, I suppose, in 18 months’ time.