There’s an analytical (and often diverting) strand of historical inquiry that posits ‘what ifs?’ Counter-factualism asks questions such as ‘What if Hitler had never been born?’, ‘What if Pearl Harbour had never happened?’, ‘What would the UK look like if Thatcher hadn’t been off her tits?’ Although speculative and unprovable, it’s a way of thinking that often makes you question the impact of a certain event or figure and re-evaluate the impact of others.
With another visit of David Moyes to Goodison on the horizon and the club facing yet another crisis, it seems an opportune moment to posit a ‘what if’ of our own, essentially ‘What if David Moyes had never quit the club?’
It’s easy to write Moyes off nowadays. In the space of just a few years he has transformed from one of the highest regarded managers in the game to a figure widely seen as living on borrowed time. It’s not unreasonable to think that if his time at the London Stadium does not go well, then the days of him managing in the top flight will become a thing of the past.
His record since leaving Goodison is far from impressive, best described as one of growing failure. From a largely disappointing season at Old Trafford, he endured a pretty dismal year at Real Sociedad, followed by an abjectly wretched season at Sunderland.
In mitigation, defenders of Moyes point to the incredible expectations at United, the language barrier that existed at Sociedad and the ’basket- case’ nature of Sunderland (a club that appears to be near unmanageable).
While all true there is also a lingering sense that Moyes exacerbated the problem. Whether it was his inability to motivate the players or navigate the transfer market successfully at United, his lack of understanding of how to operate within Spanish football or his pessimism and reductive training techniques at Sunderland, his managerial journey since Everton seems to be one best characterised as a man making a tough situation even worse through his own failings.
Critics of Moyes within the Everton fold can point to this as evidence that irrespective of what has happened to the club since; he probably left us at the right time. As further proof they could point to Moyes’ growing conservatism at Everton during his latter years at the club, the ‘knife to a gunfight’ mentality he seemed to instil and his inability to grasp the opportunities to win silverware that were presented to him.
Moyes certainly had his flaws and life since Goodison has perhaps exposed them more keenly. He unquestionably plays a style of football that often ‘protects the point’, he is no longer a charismatic presence and he often seems to too eager to grasp the role of underdog.
But, to believe definitively that Everton have been better off without him and to suggest that the version of Moyes that has existed since his leaving would have been identical to the one Everton would have enjoyed/endured had he stayed would be wrong.
Moyes rebuilt the club. When he came to the Goodison, Everton were a mess. With the exception of 18 good months under Joe Royle, the Blues had spent nearly a decade in the doldrums, a period punctuated by alarming flirtations with relegation. Beset by financial problems, reputationally damaged and falling further and further off the pace each year, the club was ‘doing a Sunderland’ before Sunderland had even done it.
Moyes changed all of that. Brick by brick he built Everton back up. Although the club was not restored to what had existed before the 1990s (the financial inequality that existed within English football made such hopes utterly unrealistic), he did the best with what he had. And often that was next to nothing.
With one of the best scouting systems in the county, the club consistently unearthed cut-price gems. Thinks of the likes of Stones, Arteta, Cahill, Howard, Baines, Coleman, Jagielka, and Pienaar, then compare those to the bloated incomers we have at the club today. He didn’t always get it right but then what manager does? But when he did, he brought in players of undeniable class, arguably Everton’s best recruitment policy since Kendall’s first stint in the 1980s.
Allied to this, Everton became organised, fit and hard to beat under Moyes. We might deride his conservative organisation but how we would now kill for such an approach. Since the impact of Moyes first began to dissipate during Martinez’s second season in charge, Everton have become defensively fragile.
And when he left Goodison in 2013, all of the above was still yielding success. Although there might have been a sense that a glass ceiling was being self imposed on the club, Everton still finished sixth on a net spend that year of just over £2m. And this was a transfer window that saw the likes of Stones, Mirallas and Oviedo come to the club.
Moyes was comfortable at Goodison, a man who knew the club, who had a system behind him and who was confident in his abilities. While diminishing returns might have set in, the shambolic mess that now stares at us through our TV screens (like a gargoyle that has just become sentient) would likely not have materialized. And there’s every reason to suggest that under the guidance of his competent approach, Everton would have chugged along on a more even keel than has been the case over the past four and a bit years.
Moyes was never an inspirational manager but having endured Mr Positivity and Mr Big Shot, how many of us with hindsight would now trade them for the dour Scot?
With the passage of time and Moyes’ dismal record since leaving Goodison, it’s easy to forget what he achieved. He might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, you’d never touch him with a bargepole now and he is probably more reflective of what Everton were rather than what the fans want the club to be, but David Moyes was a great Everton manager; after Catterick and Kendall (Mark I), possibly the best since the War.
‘What if’s’ can’t be proven and the past can’t be undone. Moyes left and turned shite. Martinez and Koeman arrived and turned Everton shite. But Moyes left a legacy at the club and a reminder (something that considering a ‘what if?’ can throw up) that Everton prospered when the club appointed a manager who could imbue the squad with fighting spirit. Moyes never promised the stars but he gave Everton a rigidity that could be built upon. During his time at Goodison we were strong, a club not to be fucked with.
In his absence that quality has all but disappeared. Right now, nobody fears Everton, nobody fears coming to Goodison Park, the days of threat have ebbed away.
We will never know what life would have been like had he stayed but I’d bet good money that Everton would maintained a snarl had Mr ‘People’s Club’ remained in the hotseat.