A question of identity

Let’s get a few things straight. I’ve never been “Moyes out”.

I was resigned to his looming departure when things were at a particularly low ebb in late 2022/early 2023 but, as things turned out, I think it would be fair to say that the board got it right not pulling the trigger then!

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But the debate around Moyes never seems to abate for long and, as much as I respect the job he’s done and will forever be grateful to him for delivering the first major silverware of my 40+ years, nor am I a staunch supporter. I sit uncomfortably on the fence because I sympathise with both sides of the argument.

Of course we’ve been caught in the results vs. aesthetics conundrum before, with Big Sam a decade ago. Look at Blackpool and Birmingham, who got relegated along with us in 2011, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d argue against a little bit of “route one” and “parking the bus” being worthwhile in getting us back into the Premier League and re-established.

But now that we’re amongst the most lucrative and best supported clubs in Europe, the fans – especially those who pay a small fortune to watch it every week – demand better football. Something more like the vaunted “West Ham Way”.

The definition of the “West Ham Way” eluded Allardyce and Moyes is similarly dismissive of such labels. And I understand how being wedded to an idea can be distinctly unhelpful.

Club identities are not fixed. If they were then Arsenal fans at the dawn of the Premier League would have declared, “Be gone Monsieur Wenger – we preferred Tony Adams as a pisshead and your swashbuckling football doesn’t match our signature ‘1-0 to the Ar-se-nal’ chant. George Graham got us better than you ever will!”

As it was, it took them many years and a newly established sense of entitlement before they turned on the best manager in the club’s history.

The analogy is fraudulent when you consider that Wenger delivered both trophies and easy-on-the-eye football. However, the success of “Le Professeur” is also partly to blame for modern-day fans wanting kooky foreign appointments rather than dour Scotsmen!

Back in May 2021 I opined that, “David Moyes has never been the most glamorous of managers but if the resilience and grit displayed this season is due to a team playing in its manager’s image then I for one am quite happy to have a grizzled Scot at the helm!”

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It’s there in black and white in Fortune’s Always Hiding: From Stratford to Seville (price reduced on Amazon last time I checked!), along with a series of other hot takes, some of which I wholeheartedly stand by and others I’d gladly renounce. The thing is, black and white thinking often looks foolish in hindsight, and the black and white thinking that tends to accompany both sides of the Moyes debate is stubbornly myopic.

A key caveat to what I wrote in 2021 is that I thoroughly enjoyed watching us during lockdown: the low block, defensive strategy was combined with rapier-like counter thrusts; it was effective football that made a refreshing change from hapless with a bit of flair.

Another consideration is that nobody was allowed in the London Stadium for a good chunk of that season so it didn’t matter that it was a mausoleum. I still contend that a good atmosphere can be generated (Sevilla provided ample proof) but the current brand of football is evidently not conducive to it.

Sacking Moyes would be a roll of the dice, and the last gamble didn’t go so well – even with a “winner” like Pellegrini, you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get.

Paradoxically, the problem with Moyes is that a few years on we know exactly what we’re getting, and so does everybody else – the tactics had been rumbled by the end of 2021 and the evolution to a more progressive style of play has been painfully sluggish, even with wizards like Paquetá and Kudus leading the way.

Inadequately harnessing the talent at his disposal is a popular Moyes criticism, although it could also be legitimately argued that he’s getting more from Paquetá than Lyon ever did.

The underlying problem is that the fanbase is divided and is unlikely to ever be united under Moyes’s leadership, as unfair as that might be. As odious as Arteta is, skipping along the touchline in OTT celebrations, I’m envious that he has finally brought the Emirates Stadium to life.

Ditto Klopp – his Scouse swansong can get in the bin as far as I’m concerned but doesn’t it form a stark contrast to the feelings of West Ham fans as our manager enters what could be the last leg of his tenure?!

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The ”West Ham Way” is not just about attractive, passing football. It is also about loyalty and steadfast commitment. And that’s why I’m uneasy at the idea of dislodging a dignified servant in order to appease a vociferously pessimistic set of supporters.

But at the same time I want to feel a buzz about the London Stadium, and that’s never going to happen as long as it hosts “Moyesball”. That alone is why I’d reluctantly advocate finding a replacement.

“Who exactly?” used to be known as a $64,000 question thanks to the US gameshow but is now more of a £64m question thanks to Premier League excess and the antithetical fear of failure.

Gary O’Neil is developing at Molineux what Arteta and Klopp have with the Emirates and Anfield respectively but I think he’d find it tougher to build that connection with a pretty unforgiving fanbase who could quickly turn “He used to play for the badge” into “Yeah, but he was shit!”

Eddie Howe has greater pedigree, and a loyal assistant with West Ham connections to boot, but would everyone be satisfied with Newcastle’s cast-offs?

I want the best man for the job but I’m no closer to knowing who that is than I did in 2015 when I wrote a piece titled ‘Job Description: Carefully Handle 50,000+ Dreams on a Weekly Basis’ pondering whether Bilić was “the one”. He wasn’t. But neither, I have finally come to admit, is Moyes.

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